For those who follow Christian traditions, Christmas begins when the darkness of Christmas Eve yields to bright midnight candles and the Mass of the Angels or the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Christmas season then lasts 12 days, ending with Epiphany on Jan. 6.
But things aren't that simple in modern America, the land of the free and the home of the malls. For millions of us, today's Christmas begins when "Feliz Navidad" beer ads start interrupting National Football League broadcasts and Holiday movies surge into cable-TV schedules previously crowded with Halloween zombie marathons.
Or perhaps the season begins with those Christmas church bazaars around Thanksgiving. Then again, many begin saluting friends with "Merry Christmas!" about the time public institutions start holding Holiday parties and seasonal concerts -- in the early days of December.
In other words, it's getting harder and harder for Christians who try to practice their faith to answer what was once a simple question: When is Christmas?
"Unfortunately, most Americans -- especially evangelical Protestants -- have so distanced themselves from any awareness of the Christian calendar that their decisions about that kind of question have been handed over to the culture," said the Rev. Russell D. Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Many evangelicals fear the "cold formalism" that they associate with churches that follow the liturgical calendar and the end result, he said, is "no sense of what happens when in the Christian year, at all." Thus, instead of celebrating ancient feasts such as Epiphany, Pentecost and the Transfiguration, far too many American church calendars are limited to Christmas and Easter, along with cultural festivities such as Mother's Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl.
In Baptist life, the faithful once knew that Christmas was near when their church choirs pulled out all the stops, hired some outside musicians and performed a semi-classical "Christmas cantata" or a few selections from G.F. Handel's "Messiah." As recently as the 1960s, these cantatas were usually staged the Sunday before Christmas. These days, the Christmas concerts are creeping forward in December church bulletins, closer and closer to Thanksgiving. Ditto for all of those special children's programs and official church Christmas parties.
"I've been watching to see when pastors schedule their Christmas sermon series and when music directors start inserting Christmas songs into their services," said Moore. "The question these days is whether Christmas will even last until Christmas. ...
"All of this is being driven by travel, family events and what's happening all around us. Right now, our churches are running about two weeks behind the culture."
If that's the case, then church leaders who truly want to get in sync need to pay closer attention to our culture's highest Christmas authority -- the National Retail Federation. It's press release projecting holiday sales numbers is "the official starter's gun" that unleashes the madness, said Washington Post reporter Hank Stuever, author of "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." This year, that statement was released on Oct. 6 and the official verdict was "average," or about $465.6 billion in sales.
"Once those numbers come out, that's when you know -- there's no stopping it. Here comes Christmas, whether you're ready or not," he said.
Stuever said that from his outsider perspective, as a lapsed Catholic, it's obvious that many clergy are "still paying a lot of lot of lip service" to Jesus being the "reason for the season and all that. I understand what they're saying, but surely they can see all of the materialism that's on display out in their parking lots and in their pews. ... Once Christmas gets rolling, everyone just goes bonkers and it's hard to claim otherwise."
This year, he added, it will be especially interesting to see how many leaders in "all of those big-box churches" cancel their Sunday morning services instead of daring to clash with family Christmas tree rites in American homes.
Moore stressed that he will be in his Highview Baptist pulpit on Christmas morning and, here's the key, his children know why.
"To even think that we have come to the point where we do not worship on the Lord's Day because it is Christmas is, to me, absolutely absurd. Where's the logic in that? What are people thinking?"