St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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The Time Around Christmas: Day or Season?

In the Christian observance of the year, Advent begins on the Sunday closest to St Andrew’s Day, 30 November. Many of us, believe it or not, grew up with this information tucked into our little heads. Advent is celebrated in a unified manner in Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Lutheran churches. For Orthodox Christians, Advent is accompanied with prayer, charity, and fasting.

In any case, Advent – the word means “approach” – is like a landing strip that enables us to get up to speed at Christmas, the Festival of the Nativity.

In the home of my childhood and throughout much of my adulthood, with some exceptions due to technical difficulties, we anticipated Christmas by observing Advent, and we never put up a tree until December 24th – as in the modern classic movie A Christmas Story. Then we commemorated the twelve days of Christmas, about which people still sing a song they no longer understand, about partridges and lords a-leaping and stuff like that. We began with a festive dinner for the whole family and would then visit different relatives’ houses over the following twelve days until the Epiphany

We are blessed with Southwestern traditions that extend the season. Las Posadas is a beautiful pilgrimage from house to house on the nine evenings before Christmas, when people seek a place for the Christ child to be born. Three Kings Day on January 6th, also called Epiphany, is a celebration that extends Christmas to the visit of the Magi as recorded in the gospel according to St Matthew.

A dramatic change and reversal of this pattern occurred over many years. Stores now begin playing “holiday” music the first week in November so that, by the time Xmas comes, you never want to hear that music again. It used to be that the stores at least waited until so-called Black Friday, but no more.

Then Christmas trees get thrown out on or about the 26th of December. Trash trucks expect them right away. Kind of makes it hard to dispose of them if you keep them up until, say, February 2nd, Candlemas, which was and is our normal custom. I have to cut mine up into little pieces to dispose of it later as yard waste. That’s a small price to pay for the joy of extending the season properly.

I used to wonder why the aftermath of holidays was such a letdown, but I think it is clear. If the days from Thanksgiving until Christmas Day are only marked by shopping, frantic decorating and getting the Christmas letter out on the Internet or in the mail, there is immediate letdown on December 26th.

There is wisdom in delaying a time of feasting through a time of fasting. The food tastes better, fresher, sweeter, when you have refrained from gorging yourself for a season. Then, too, you really want to expand the festival as much as you can. In Orthodoxy, for example, the first week after Christmas is entirely fast-free.

You don’t have to accept my word that there is wisdom in delayed gratification. Stanford University’s Neuropsychological Research Laboratories showed that people develop better goals and motivations through self-discipline or disciplines that enhance the end-goal or final reward by forestalling gratification. You can find this on the web if you look for the “Stanford marshmallow study.”

People may say that science has proven one aspect of Christian thinking to be correct; namely, the rhythm between fasting and feasting. In fact, it’s the other way around. American culture turned to instant gratification and may lead to a culture of failure. Ancient wisdom knew the value of discipline and withholding, and that success – whatever it might mean – is grounded in seeking long term goals…like a Christmas feast.

published 02 December 2011