There are many raging arguments in Christian circles. How is one justified? Which books belong in the Bible? Who constitutes legitimate religious authority? But perhaps the most heated debate is: how long should you leave your Christmas tree up?
OK, I am exaggerating slightly. But this is a matter of some discussion amongst Christians. The first question is when one should put up the tree. Right after Thanksgiving? After the beginning of Advent (this year, December 3)? Some people think you shouldn’t put up the tree until Christmas Eve, an opinion articulated in the nearly canonical film A Christmas Story.
What is at issue is the fact that Advent is considered a penitential season—meaning, a time to repent. In some more liturgical traditions, the color of Advent is purple, which is the penitential color. This is not entirely consistent with the holly jolly Christmas season we are used to.
In addition, in the Christian tradition the Christmas season does not end on December 25th, but begins. The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (the holiday version of “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on The Wall”) marks a long-held belief that says the celebration of Christ’s incarnation should last twelve-days, until Epiphany. Some people even give gifts all twelve-days, outdoing Adam Sandler and “The Hanukkah Song.” You should leave up your Christmas tree until Epiphany, say these diehards.
But some people are more serious. For some Christmas goes until the Baptism of Christ, which (again, depending on your tradition) is celebrated the Sunday after Epiphany. Then there are the true Christmas warriors, those who declare Christmas last until the Presentation in the Temple, celebrated February 2 (no known connection to groundhogs). If you are a Presentation advocate, you’d better have a very hardy tree.
While all of this can seem like “angels dancing on the head of a pin” kind of scrupulosity, there is a serious point behind it all. If Christmas is about presents, family, parties, and decorations, then it really doesn’t matter much when it all happens. But if it is about the incarnation of God (not quite the same thing as Jesus’s birthday), then how we celebrate becomes much more important. The point of God becoming man is precisely that he would take on our nature and suffer and die for our sins. While Christmas is celebratory, sometimes to the point of frivolousness, the end of the story is anything but frivolous.
That’s why Advent is penitential. We remember our sins and ask for forgiveness. This is hardly compatible with constant partying. We have the tendency to use up our celebratory reserves by December 25th. The second that day passes we forget what the point was.
If you are a Christian, then you recognize that the birth of Jesus Christ is the most remarkable birth in human history. It is essential to our very salvation. That deserves a party. And a long one at that. It’s a shame that our consumer culture puts almost all of the celebration before the actual celebratory event. It is a sign that we value the material side of Christmas more than the birth of Christ himself.
Lest this become another lecture on “putting the Christ back in Christmas” and bemoaning the downgrading of “Merry Christmas” to the anodyne “Happy Holidays,” let’s stipulate that Christmas is fun, presents are exciting, especially for kids, and copious food and drink are always welcome. Who doesn’t like watching Christmas movies, listening to Christmas songs, putting up the family decorations?
This is especially true of those of us in northern climes. We all know that winter starts on December 21. But where I live, in South Dakota, winter really comes around the middle of November. It doesn’t go away until the end of March—and that’s in a good year. The celebration of Christmas is one of the ways to ease the pain of what is usually a long, cold winter. If it’s going to be cold and snowy, we might as well make a party out of it.
Maybe we can come to some kind of middle position. The caution over premature celebration of Christmas is that we rob the day of its meaning. You might say we are stealing Christmas’s thunder. So put up the tree when you want, but maybe take time decorating it. Put up a few decorations at a time, saving fully decking the halls until right before Christmas. We can also practice some kind of penitential act. In addition to all the food and drink, maybe we can find something to give up. Or, instead of giving something up we add something, like a daily devotional. Finally, just as we might gradually put up decorations, maybe we can be a little slower taking them down with a definite end date of Epiphany, Baptism, or Presentation.
All this adds up to even more Christmas. Who can be against that? It is indeed the most wonderful time of the year.