Christmas is almost, but not quite upon us. We are actually still in the middle of Advent, years ago a time of fasting and abstinence, as it still is to some Christians. Every year it surprises me just how early Christmas comes. The shops are full of Christmas tack shortly before Hallowe’en and office Christmas parties are held as often as not in November. To the commercial mind the Christmas period begins in mid-October and ends on 24th December.
The commercial mind is right about one thing: that Christmas is a period, not just a day or a weekend. To the Christian, however, the Christmas period begins on the evening of 24th December and ends on 6th January. The evening of 5th January is also called Twelfth Night in English, the twelfth night of Christmas. In a traditional Christian community, the four weeks of Advent were followed by twelve days of Yuletide celebration. It used to be thus. Why is it no longer? Nor does the same thing happen during Lent: Lent is for preparation and Easter for celebration.
Churches have reacted to this problem in various ways. The Catholic Church in Britain has demoted the importance of the Epiphany (6th January): it is nowadays celebrated on the nearest Sunday to that date, rather than always on the 6th itself. So it has abandoned the traditional ideal of the twelve days of Christmas. The Finnish Lutheran Church celebrates the Epiphany on the correct date, and Christmas carols are sung then, too, but very little happens between 27th December and 5th January, the period traditionally for celebration.
Should the Church try to resurrect the idea of Advent preparation followed by Christmas celebration, or simply accept things as they are? Christians have never lived in a bubble. They have lived as minorities in pagan countries, or countries where another religion or ideology is predominant. They have lived in mainly Christian countries where compromises have been made with politics, market forces or secular thinking. They have learned to adapt. To what extent Christians should adapt to the world around them is a question every generation has to face. Perhaps some parish somewhere in Finland should experiment with filling the twelve days of Christmas with carol evenings, mulled wine evenings, lunches for the homeless, concerts, and other jollifications, rather than holding such events in mid-December. It would be interesting to see if the idea caught on.
Whatever happens, don’t forget to celebrate in some way for the whole twelve days! I certainly intend to.
Pastor Chris Montgomery