War on Holidays

Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas unless someone said something inflammatory. Rather than waiting for Uncle Hubert to bring up the tax plans or Cousin Elmer to launch into his annual tirade of racism, I decided to jump the gun and be the first to offend you this season.

Many Christians, American evangelicals in particular, take time every year to decry the so-called “war on Christmas.” As proof of this war, they cite two perennial battles: “X-mas” replacing “Christmas” and the ubiquitous “Happy Holidays” replacing “Merry Christmas.” I’d like to address each in turn, moving from hard fact into my own thoughts, as it were.

First, the hard facts: “X-mas.” Many well-meaning Christians see the term as nothing more than the blatant removal of the name “Christ” from his own Mass, so to speak. An X, it’s said, could stand for anything at all — or even for nothing at all. The problem, however, is that the character in question isn’t a Latin X, but a Greek chi, which just happens to have the same shape. The chi is the first letter in “Christos,” Χριστος, the word glossed as “Christ” in the pages of the New Testament. The single letter X was often used as an abbreviation for “Christ” in early Greek church literature, much the same way you might sign your own name with just a single initial. Indeed “IX”, meaning “Ιησους Χριστος” (“Iesous Christos,” “Jesus Christ”), or even “XC” (the first and last letters of “Christos” in capitals) are prevalent shorthand in the original biblical manuscripts. “X-mas” isn’t taking Christ out of anything; it’s just saving ink and paper in a very, very old way. A biblical way, even, that was later adopted in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance by English speakers. This battle in the war on Christmas only arose because Christians don’t know their own history — and that’s the fault of the Church, not the secular culture. Don’t hate; educate.

If the “X-mas” battle is waged out of ignorance (and I do mean ignorance, not stupidity, so don’t conflate the two), then the “happy holidays” battle is born of arrogance. A look at any calendar will reveal a significant list of holidays, religious and otherwise, during the month of December. Obviously not everyone celebrates the same one. “But we have the right one,” Christians say, “the original.” Well, yes and no. As far as it relates to purely Christian faith (and one disconnected from its Jewish origins), yes, Christmas is our one and only December holiday. But it certainly isn’t the original winter celebration for all peoples. Pagan yule festivals, celebrations of the winter solstice, and even the Jewish Hanukkah all pre-date Christmas by several hundred years. In fact, the first recorded celebrations of Christmas in December date to around 336 — over 300 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, despite those two events being celebrated since they first occurred. Moreover, Jesus was most likely born in spring or early summer. And you have to take into account the fact the gifts of the magi weren’t presented until Epiphany, or Old Christmas, observed on January 6 (which is why all my beloved nativity sets are wrong). Of course, after Christmas was first celebrated, other holidays were created. Kwanzaa, originating in 1966, is perhaps the newest of these and one of the only ones ethnic and not religious in origin. In any event, Christmas doesn’t win by virtue of age.

Thus we see there are many holidays, old and new, being observed in the final month of the year. We could spend a lifetime deciding what each individual celebrates and whether to wish them “happy Hanukkah,” “joyous Kwanzaa,” “merry Christmas” . . . you get the idea. Instead the all-encompassing “happy holidays” now suffices. Unless, of course, you believe in this particular battle in the “war on Christmas.”

Again, with this knowledge in mind, to assume this battle exists is arrogant. It presupposes we alone have the only holiday which ought to be observed and demands everyone else recognize our religion in the public sphere, whether they adhere to it or not. (“Merry Christmas” is an intrinsically religious, explicitly Christian statement, is it not?) Yet we as Christians would be horribly offended, outraged, even, if Jews required us to wish them a blessed Hanukkah or if our culture suddenly issued a “Joyous Kwanzaa!” mandate. We would be so offended, in fact, we would welcome “Happy holidays!” because we would realize our holiday was included in the expression instead of being omitted by default. Instead of viewing the phrase as inclusive of others as well as ourselves, however, we pridefully demand our day — and only our day — become the center of the December universe. Hubris at its finest. (And a far cry from the humility of a God born in a feed trough.)

Lest anyone find me anti-Christian or, worse, anti-Christmas, let me temper any perceived vitriol in my previous words. I do personally believe Christmas to be the “correct” winter holiday, and I wish everyone would celebrate it. I prefer to be wished a “Merry Christmas!” as that is the holiday I will observe. And yes, I understand the impulse to “correct” people as a way of evangelism — but it’s a terrible method. You don’t want to tell someone to enjoy their “pagan” holiday; very well. But you will never make them love Jesus by snidely sneering, “Merry Christmas” to everyone wishing you “happy holidays.” It’s not truth spoken in love; it’s pedantry spoken in defense.

This year I issue you a challenge. The next time someone bids you “happy holidays” and you find you can’t let it go, strike up a genuine conversation with them. A polite one. Ask them what they’re celebrating and wish them well in it. Let them know about Christmas and what it truly represents if they open the door to it, but don’t try to shove a creche down their throats. Regardless please understand Christmas is one of the holidays included in the phrase. It’s not an attack; it’s a good-nature well-wishing designed to bless people whose other holidays are as dear and precious to them as Christmas is to you.

You can even go a step further: learn about those other days. That way you’ll know what you’re talking about when you engage in dialogue. Learn about Christmas, too. Understand “X-mas,” Christian history, and the variety of Christmas customs surrounding our holy day.

To my readers of all stripes: happy holidays. (And to my Christian readers: a blessed Advent — after all, it’s not Christmas yet.)

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The Blessing of Advent

The greens are hung, the first carols sung, and we are now officially in Advent. Some people take this more seriously than others. I personally won’t police the songs we’ll sing in worship over the next few weeks to keep out things properly reserved for Christmas, for example, but I do know of pastors who will do everything in their power to keep a sharp demarcation between Advent and Christmas — and that means no “Joy to the World” until the Lord is come.

On the one hand, a legalistic adherence to the church calendar helps no one. I can’t think of a single instance in which responding to “Merry Christmas!” with “No, it’s only Advent, you can’t say that yet” would be both spiritually beneficial and a decent, kind thing to do. (In fact, I can’t imagine saying that off the cuff without being a jerk.) For starters, not everyone observes the liturgical calendar. Not all sanctuaries just changed their color schemes from green to blue or purple; not everyone lit a candle in the name of hope this past Sunday. In fact, probably most Protestants failed to mark the Christian new year in any observable fashion whatsoever, despite it being a universal Christian thing across all denominational boundaries. And so to obliterate cheer, good will, and general niceties just for the sake of a slavish adherence to traditional liturgical appropriateness is a bad move all the way around.

On the other hand, we could use a lot more Advent in our current day and age. Ours is the era of instant gratification, after all. We don’t like waiting for anything; it seems to physically hurt us to not get what we want the second we want it. And that’s kind of crazy. I wish I knew what destroyed any semblance of patience we may have once had, but something tells me it’s a joint effort of many different things: parents who don’t tell their children no and instead give in to every demand; Netflix giving us things in complete bundles instead of on the “one episode a week” installment plan; television shows and movies that change scenes/angles every 3-6 seconds and keep us from having an attention span; and probably a whole bunch of other things. In the end, it’s still attributable to fallen human nature. Where patience is a fruit of the Spirit, a lack of it is best described as a sin problem.

Advent runs totally counter to that “I want it now!” impulse. It makes us slow down and wait. Yes, Christmas is coming. Yes, Christ will come again. But he wasn’t born this instant; his nativity won’t happen for a few more weeks yet. So no, you can’t open your presents right now. You can’t start decorating the tree before Halloween. You must wait. And wait. And wait. And . . .

. . . rejoice for twelve days straight. Because Christmas really is twelve days, you know. (Come on, people. There’s a song and everything!) Now you gain the object of your eager expectation. Sing all the carols you like, bake a figgy pudding, figure out wassailing. It’s Christmas!

But as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait. Christmas can only come after Advent, just as surely as the virgin birth followed the Annunciation. As we move into Advent, slow down. Wait a bit. Savor the moment. Delay your Christmastide gratification. And bask in the hope of the Advent promise: the King is coming.

F.A.Q. #4: What’s the Liturgical Year?

On the first day of Advent (two days ago, 30 November this year), I posted a simple “Happy new (liturgical) year!” on my social media profile. My seminary and ministry friends wished me the same, but other people commented or messaged me to ask, “What’s that mean?” It’s a question I hear a lot, particularly from people who attend or were raised in “non-liturgical” churches (everyone follows some sort of liturgy, though, whether they admit it or not). So today we’ll tackle the Christian calendar, seeking to answer the question “What’s the liturgical year?” or, as it may be more commonly asked, “Why do the colors in my church’s sanctuary change every so often?”

The word “liturgy” comes from two separate Greek words for “people” and “work” and literally means “the work of the people.” As we use it in church parlance, liturgy refers to the program/order of worship used in a corporate church worship service (sing a song, pass the peace, sing again, read the Scripture, hear a sermon, recite a creed, celebrate the Eucharist [or however your church does it]). The more formal or ritualized the service is, the more it has to be prayerfully programmed out, and so we say it’s more “liturgical.” The Roman Catholic Mass is a highly liturgical service, for example, with the parishioners playing a large role in the worship itself (this is also known as “high church”). Southern Baptist churches, on the other hand, while following their own liturgy of sorts, tend to be more free-flowing and sermon-oriented than the Mass and feature less congregational participation, and so we call it less liturgical (or “low church,” if you prefer).

In a broader sense, however, the Christian Church follows the Christian calendar, a.k.a. the liturgical year. Like any other calendar year, the church calendar features distinct seasons of worship. The first is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming Messiah (both in terms of Christmas and his second coming). Next comes Christmas — all twelve days of it, hence the song (which you are now humming). Christmas ends with Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the magi (for the West) and the baptism of Christ (in the East); either way, Epiphany is a day to celebrate the manifestation of Jesus to the larger world. After Epiphany is a brief period of Ordinary Time (which is exactly as it sounds; nothing major goes on) leading up to Lent. Lent is the forty-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and it is observed through fasting and self-denial, preparation for the crucifixion of Jesus. Next comes Easter itself, a fifty-day observance of the resurrection of Our Lord, ending at Pentecost (literally “fifty”). From Pentecost until Advent, we return to Ordinary Time. Throughout each season, other observances occur, such as feast days of saints, Candlemas, Trinity Sunday, Holy/Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, etc.

Each distinct season is represented by its own color. Churches will change the decorations in the sanctuary, known as paraments, to the color corresponding with each season, and in churches where clergy don vestments, the color of the vestments (such as the stole, chasuble, or dalmatic) will change as well (more on vestments later). Advent is either blue or purple; Christmas and Easter are white; Lent is purple; and Ordinary Time is green. Pentecost, and feast days where observed, are red. The colors can change for other reasons as well (such as for weddings and funerals). So when the colors in the sanctuary have changed, you know you’ve entered a new liturgical season — and if you can recognize the color, you’ll know which one it is! (The liturgical year: color-coded for your convenience!)

The church year helps us cover our bases in worship, if you will. After forty days of Lent full of fasting and totally void of any “hallelujahs,” it’s much easier to both sympathize with the passion of the Christ and be more eager to truly mean it when you shout “Alleluia!” While most people in our contemporary society tend to skip Advent altogether and start singing Christmas carols, the season teaches us about expectation and hope as well as reminding us that Our Lord will return one day. Pentecost, somewhat tritely known as the birthday of the Church, nevertheless recalls to memory our origins as a worshiping community and the awesome blessings of the Holy Spirit.

The liturgical year allows us great joy, great lament, and times of ordinary Christian service. It reminds us of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how the Trinity interacts with us in our worship and in our daily lives. The Christian calendar provides an easy way to orient those daily lives to the Christian message, giving us easy paths to let our faith be seen in how we live each day.

Some churches still say following the liturgical year is “too Catholic,” and so they retain their forms of low church worship. To be fair, the calendar certainly wasn’t in existence in apostolic times, although they celebrated Easter and other observances. But to me, the church year is a great way to be in fellowship with the larger global church, and its value when followed in corporate worship and discipleship shouldn’t be underestimated.

And so, two days later, I’ll say it again: happy new year!