Oh joy, a Christmas vision

There are only 365 shopping days, give or take a few, until next Christmas.

And all the people said, "Oh joy."

"Honestly, there's an argument to be made for Christians pretty much conceding Dec. 25th -- just handing it over to the secular world -- because we're just not getting anywhere," said Dan Andriacco, communications director for the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati. "I'm not saying that we give up on Christmas. I'm saying that we need to stop thinking of Christmas as what happens on Dec. 25th."

In a recent St. Anthony Messenger article, Andriacco joined a growing chorus of Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox Christians and others urging churches to skip "The Holidays" and start following centuries of Christian traditions. At the very least, this would mean honoring the four-week penitential season of Advent (Nativity Lent) preceding Dec. 25 and then celebrating the 12-day Christmas festival that continues until the Jan. 6th Feast of the Epiphany.

What would this mean? Here are some tips, from Andriacco and others.

* Here's a tough one: Invite St. Nicholas into the Advent season, rather than Santa Claus. As a rule, Americans ignore the Dec. 6th feast of St. Nicholas of Myra, the 4th-century patron saint of endangered children and the poor.

"The real guy is a better example than Old Goodiebags," writes Beliefnet.com columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green. "He's a man of courage and compassion, and the kind of person you'd like your children to know."

A renewed St. Nicholas emphasis would offer wonderful opportunities to share stories and gifts with children, but also to emphasize another tradition -- gifts for the needy. My suggestion? Churches could, on the Sundays between St. Nicholas Day and Christmas, collect diapers and blankets for new mothers who need help.

* It's crucial, said Andriacco, to celebrate Christmas during Christmas, instead of during Advent. This may mean avoiding shopping malls or taping favorite Christmas movies and specials to watch later, to avoid the tidal wave of ads. It will mean going against the flow.

"If we are really going to get into the spiritual disciplines of a season of waiting, a season of rest, then we will simple have to slow down and party less," he said.

* The season offers deadly traps, even for the idealistic. Some have tried to replace expensive gifts with handcrafts and keepsakes. Writer Julie McCarty noted that this, ironically, may require busy people to pour more time into preparations. The last thing many people need right now is even higher expectations. The goal is to save time for faith and family, not to create more work in the name of simplicity.

"Experience has taught me that I am simply not going to stitch a quilt, stencil homemade Christmas cards, or assemble a memory book for each niece and nephew," she confessed. "My closets stand as witnesses to my unfinished projects from Christmases past. If Martha Stewart enjoys making her own wrapping paper, let her do it."

* The days before Christmas are a traditional time to go to confession, for those in sacramental churches. This is highly appropriate today, since "The Holidays" produce more than their share of burdens. Christmas also should be a time for reconciliation with family members, rather than drowning out their voices with waves of football games and movies.

* The December calendar in most homes and parishes is a train wreck, with concerts, parties and services competing with the private schedules of singers, volunteers and clergy. Then many people have to travel. By mid-month, folks are wiped out.

Here's a radical idea: Put some of next year's concerts and parties in the actual 12-day season after Dec. 25. Take your choir caroling on the 10th day of Christmas and you'll be the only show in town. You might get arrested for being subversive, but it would be worth the effort.

"If we take the church calendar seriously, then that will automatically steer us away from many of the trappings of the secular season," said Andriacco. "So we're not saying that people should skip Christmas. Just the opposite! We're saying, 'Let's celebrate all of it. We want the real Christmas.' "