Is It Christmas Yet?

Jacob Eckeberger
December 21st, 2017

My mouth dropped open as Natalie, many years ago, related her Christmas family tradition to me:

“When I was growing up, we didn’t get a Christmas tree until December 24. We celebrated Advent the four Sundays prior to Christmas Eve. Christmas was observed by opening three gifts on the 25th to celebrate the 3 gifts the Magi brought to Jesus. We didn’t sing any Christmas hymns until after Christmas Day. Then we celebrated Epiphany, the celebration of the arrival of the kings on January 6, twelve days after Christmas.”

I thought she was nuts.

How sad for her and her family that they didn’t get to celebrate Christmas like the rest of us. Everyone knows the Christmas season begins the day after Thanksgiving; you put your tree up that weekend. You pile presents under the tree as soon as possible. You sing Christmas songs all month long!

Why would Natalie’s family torture her so? Why would they deprive her of the true meaning of Christmas?

Natalie informed me, lovingly of course, I was the one celebrating Christmas incorrectly. Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas Day, was the season of anticipation and preparations. We were to use it to get ready for the Coming of Christ. The “12 days of Christmas” is not just a song, it’s actually the number of days between Christmas Day and Epiphany. I didn’t even know what Epiphany was!

Since then, I’ve learned Natalie was right. We Christians often get it wrong. We celebrate Christmas like the world does; the holiday season begins somewhere around Halloween and races, full speed to December 25th. Once the presents are open and the eggnog carton drained, the tree comes down and we play with our gifts until work and school begin again.

However, as “correct” as some liturgy and traditions are, it’s truly all a creation of well-meaning theologians who came along after Jesus. So, although Christmas doesn’t begin, liturgically, until December 25, is it worth fighting the retail traditions of everything leading up to Christmas Day? Isn’t it easier to sing the popular carols the weeks before Christmas rather than force our congregation to suffer through the various arrangements of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” for the entirety of the Advent Season?

Epiphany, the celebration of the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (as written in Matthew 2:1-12), is often completely overlooked by faith communities. The Three Kings just show up with the shepherds at the stable on Christmas Eve. Of course, the Bible doesn’t mention three kings, only three gifts. Epiphany, officially January 6, is mostly just another day.

I don’t claim to be an expert on liturgy, although I know some folks who insist they are. These friends of mine argue, often passionately, the “correct” way to celebrate particular days, what colors to wear and what symbols to display. The more I learn about it, the more meaning it has for me.

I remember the first time I ever experienced the Stripping of the Altar on Good Friday. The symbolism moved me to tears. I never knew there was anything between Palm Sunday and Easter! Experiencing the passion and sadness that comes with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday makes Easter morning that much more triumphant.

If any of this is news to you, you’re not alone. In a recent poll, the polling Institute at St. Leo University in central Florida found only 1.9 percent of those surveyed believe Christmas begins on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Most believed it ends on New Year’s Day and only 17.9 percent mentioned the 12 Days of Christmas or the Feast of Epiphany.

Although I don’t consider myself a “liturgy snob,” I realize not only the importance of liturgy for the life of the church, but also the significance it can have in my personal spiritual development. I also realize when I walk out my door, I enter a world where some people don’t even consider Christmas a religious holiday (3.9% according to the poll).

The debate we have at our church is the extent to which we need to educate our congregation on liturgy before we engage in the practices of it. The congregation often seems to resent having other people’s church traditions thrust on them, especially when they are different from the way they’ve always done things before. Liturgy snobs, along with other more reasonable church leaders, have to ask if the liturgy battle is actually worth fighting. Sometimes standing on principle can be unnecessarily costly.

It’s probably OK if a congregation knows the truth yet celebrates a different “truth.” We know the wise men didn’t arrive until about 2 years after the birth of Jesus, but it’s still OK with everyone if they show up in the Children’s Pageant along with the shepherds and the Little Drummer Boy. It’s also most likely not heresy to sing about shepherds, angels, and the nativity before the 24th, then celebrate it again at the Christmas Eve Service.

If, however, you want to fight the battle for Advent and Christmas Correctness, here are a few thoughts:

  1. Consider the traditions of your congregation. Identify those that are immovable and those that could be changed
  2. Introduce a structured liturgy or changes to your liturgy in a variety of ways. Consider a fall workshop or study on different liturgies. Let the congregation know what changes might be coming before they occur
  3. Start slowly! Change is difficult for many people. Liturgies have been around a long time, so there’s no rush to make major changes. Introduce one or two changes, then move slowly forward from there.

The debate may rage on. The most important part for me is that we celebrate the birth of our Risen Lord. I don’t think it really bothers God how we do it.

scottSCOTT GILLENWATERS has been in youth ministry since 1986, and currently serves as Director of Student Ministries at First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He’s married to his best friend, Kathy, and has two college age sons. He sings, plays piano, runs, reads political history and loves to dabble in local politics. Follow Scott on Twitter @SGILLENWATERS.

Jacob Eckeberger

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