More and more, as December begins, I find I am living in a time of Advent and less and less in a time of Christmas. As I ponder why that is, I don’t begin with the idea that this change in what matters to me is a good thing or a bad thing. It is what it is.
In thinking about it, though, I have stumbled over a few things I seem to have glided past before. Some celebrations, for instance, are seasonal. For many thousands of years, we and our ancestors have celebrated the longest day of the year and the shortest day of the year. These are not based on how long the day seems, by the way. If that were the case, I would nominate Black Friday, still the day after Thanksgiving but now preceded by an overlapping array of run-ups and countdowns.
You celebrate seasonal events every season they occur. You celebrate the return of life in the spring and the colorful beginnings of an eventually bleak dormancy in the fall. “Spring” itself recurs and we celebrate it each time.
Other celebrations are historical. They happened at some particular time. You were born, for instance, at a particular time and although we say we will celebrate your “birthday,” we, in fact, celebrate the anniversary of your birth. Anniversaries do not recur. When you have celebrated the 70th anniversary of the day of your birth, you are done with that. Next year, you will celebrate a different anniversary of that day.
Christmas is, properly speaking, seasonal. Christian missionaries came across societies celebrating the shortest day of the year and dumped a celebration of their own on top of it. Let’s call the people celebrating the solstice (literally “sun stand”) “pagans,” meaning no disrespect. Pagans were villagers, people from the country, and the term was used to distinguish them from Christians, who were more prominent in the cities. Since the Christians had cultural hegemony (and military and economic and political dominance) they simply placed Christmas on top of an already existing celebration.
I’m sure the missionaries thought that was the smart thing to do, but in doing it, they changed the celebration from historical to seasonal. Jesus is not, in fact, born every winter. The church celebrates his birth every winter. How we do that and why we should do it will have to wait for another time.
“Pagan” and “Christian”—again without prejudice to either term—have undergone an astonishing reversal. If we persisted in looking at the distinction in demographic terms, we would say that the Christians are more prominent in the rural areas and the Pagans in the cities. The more important distinction, however, has to do with cultural hegemony. The missionaries were able to dump Christmas right on top of…oh…the “Feast of Sun-return,” because they had the power to do it. That’s what cultural hegemony means. Now the Pagans have cultural hegemony and they are acting in their own interest just as the missionaries did. They are dumping Xmas right on top of Advent.
The power exercised by the Pagans, especially the control of advertising dollars, defines what the celebration is about. It is about spending and getting together and eating too much and drinking w-a-a-y too much. It is about getting presents for yourself, too, because “it’s the season.” For many years, a resisting part of me would mumble, “What season is it?” That battle is over—long over, probably—and the Pagans have won that one. For that reason, I am now content to give up the name Christmas, to which I have clung as much for cultural reasons as for religious ones, and accept Xmas as a legitimate designation.
I don’t want to be all grinchy about losing this one. There are lots of parts of Xmas I enjoy. I enjoy the excuse for giving presents, for instance. Getting presents was the big thing for me when I was a boy, but it has been a very long time since getting them gave me the same pleasure of giving them. There is a lot of music that would otherwise be “sacred,” which is brought out during Xmas. You can hear “O Little Town of Bethlehem” over PA systems almost anywhere. There is a lot of Xmas music, like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” or “Frosty the Snowman” or “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which could be a lot of fun if they didn’t start playing it before Thanksgiving.
But most of Xmas, I don’t enjoy. It’s like a very well done, but dark and discouraging, movie. Everyone says it is an artistic triumph and I agree. But I don’t want to have to go see it for myself. I don’t want to participate in it. At the shopping mall nearest us, the shopping already looks frantic and you know it is going to get worse. The lists of things to buy—not things you want to buy, but people you NEED to check off your list—drive your days, and deeper into the Xmas season, your nights as well.
Advent isn’t like that for me. Christians have two really good Advent stories. Most Christians like to puree them and feast on a version of the two that obliterates their differences and their strengths. I don’t. I like to keep them separate and enjoy each one. To help me do that, I have assigned the Matthew story to the odd-numbered years (we are doing Matthew this year) and the Luke story to the even-numbered years. My own church is a pureeing church, so I rely on family members and tolerant friends to help me celebrate the integrity of each of the stories.
I like Advent for a lot of different reasons. I’m really proud of some of those reasons. Here’s one I’m not so proud of. It gives me a quiet place to sit to watch Xmas. Once you realize that the Xmas-celebrants are celebrating a different holiday, you can just sit and watch them. You can enjoy their pleasure, when you find it, and mourn their exhaustion and self-sacrifice when you see it. It feels more like watching a parade and much less like being in the Bataan death march.
I heard, once, of a little child who had been run over by the family’s Christmas frenzy for several weeks before Christmas day. His father heard the child murmur, as he said his prayers at bedtime on Christmas eve: “…and forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.” Way to go, kid.
Heathen probably derived from “people who dwell in the heath,” i.e. out in the country. From a demographic standpoint, then “Christian” translates to “urban” and both “heathen” and “pagan” to “rural.”
 Culturally as well as physically, rolling friction is less than starting friction. It is easier, in other words, to adapt the meaning of an already existing celebration than to start a new one.
 I freely confess that I began thinking of the distinction when I was a teenager and first read C. S. Lewis’s snarky little parody, “Xmas and Christmas: a Lost Chapter from Heroditus.” Lewis was still protesting the expropriation of Christmas so he placed its strange customs in an imaginary country. It wasn’t all the imaginary: Niaturb is Britain, spelled backward.