Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

The children kept asking a logical question in Sunday school, one linked to those "Whose birthday is it?" appeals voiced by "Put Christ back in Christmas" activists.

Leaders of Ecclesia Church in Houston were trying to find ways to encourage members to observe the four solemn weeks of Advent (Latin for "toward the coming"), which precede the Christmas season, which begins on Dec. 25 and then lasts for 12 days.

"The children pushed this thing to another level," said the Rev. Chris Seay, pastor of this nondenominational flock in the trendy Montrose neighborhood near downtown. The church, which draws around 3,000 each weekend, was created by a coalition of Baptists, Presbyterians and others.

The question the children asked, he said, was this: " 'If Christmas is Jesus' birthday, then he should get the best gifts. Right?' … Once you ask that, it has to affect what we do as a church and what we do as families. If you start thinking that way, it changes just about everything we do at Christmas."

That shift led to efforts -- part of a national "Advent Conspiracy" campaign -- to raise money to provide safe water for suffering people around the world. The basic equation: If Americans spent $450 billion a year on Christmas, then why can't believers funnel some of this gift-giving into efforts to save others?

Ecclesia, an urban flock that includes poor and rich, is trying to raise about $1 million. That would be 30 percent of its annual budget, noted Seay, a total that will require major changes for many church members. The bottom line: "Advent Conspiracy" pastors are asking people to find ways to use the four weeks of Advent to prepare for Christmas as a holy day, rather than queuing up for America's blitz of holiday shopping, partying and decorating -- starting around Halloween.

This also means paying attention to ancient traditions that have shaped the church calendar, if not the shopping mall calendar.

Hollywood, Christmas movies and America's secular Advent

The blitz begins while Jack-O-Lanterns are fresh and Thanksgiving turkeys are still frozen, a manic parade of hip elves, sexy angels, reluctant Santas, wisecracking families, toy-obsessed children and even those Euro-trash terrorists who crash holiday office parties.

Entertainment industry pros still call them "Christmas movies."

While the logic may be circular, a "Christmas movie is a movie that everyone expects to be shown on television during the Christmas season two or three years after it was released and then at Christmas for years and years after that," said entertainment scribe Hank Stuever, author of "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present."

"It's easy to explain why people think 'Love Actually' is a Christmas movie, or 'Home Alone' is a Christmas movie, or 'Elf' is a Christmas movie. What's hard to explain is why 'Die Hard' as a Christmas movie."

All it takes for a movie to earn this label is few holiday touches. 

Telling the Nativity story, with help of two foster boys

Night after night, Jesse and Kelly Cone led their children through some of the most familiar verses in all of Christianity. The goal was to use the quiet pre-Christmas season of Advent -- or Nativity Lent in their Eastern Orthodox parish in Santa Maria, Calif. -- to help their young sons grasp the meaning of Feast of the Nativity, which begins Dec. 25th and continues for 12 days. This isn't easy in a culture in which the powers that be roll out the Christmas bandwagon with the Halloween candy, well before the Thanksgiving turkey.

Each night at their simple Lenten meals the Cones opened a bag containing a verse or two of scripture, and four pieces of candy. The story started slowly, with all the familiar details about Roman politics, taxes, a census and a man named Joseph, making a precarious journey with his pregnant wife, Mary.

Then came this crucial detail, the moment when Mary "brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."

All of this was familiar territory for the two Cone sons, but not for the two foster children living with the family.

"These boys were new to the Nativity story, but they certainly knew all about being homeless and alone," explained Kelly Cone, reached by telephone.

In a post online, that has since gone viral, she described the turning point: "Then we reached the part of the story where Mary and Joseph were forced to stay in a stable outside, cold and alone. No one had any room for them. They did the best they could, even though it was lower than low.

"I looked up at our 10-year-old foster boy, and his head was bowed, his face drawn and serious. Unlike his 5-year-old happy-go-lucky brother beside him, he remembers. He remembers the cold nights sleeping on the street or in someone's car because his mother had nowhere safe for him to stay. Instead of protecting him and reaching out for help, she eventually abandoned him at a mobile home park."

The 10-year-old boy -- who cannot be named due to privacy issues -- had tears in his eyes. Kelly Cone asked him how he thought Mary and Joseph must have felt.

"Sad. Cold," he replied.

From that moment on, the Cones knew this would not be an ordinary Advent and Christmas. There were children at their table who were hearing the Nativity story for the first time and, day after day, this reality began to gnaw at the Cones "like a bad toothache," she said.

The questions kept coming. Yes, the baby in the manger is the same Jesus they heard about at church. Yes, Christians really believes that the Son of God was born in a manger, without a home to call his own. Yes, shepherds in that part of the world had to sleep out in the cold while protecting their sheep from, among other threats, lions. Yes, coming face to face with an army of angels probably freaked the shepherds out.

While his wife processed her thoughts online, Jesse Cone shared these Advent dinner vignettes with students at the Christian high school where he teaches.

"Every kid knows the story, and every kid there has read a lot of theology. ... I told the story at our Christmas chapel -- not as eloquently as my wife did -- and people were crying," he said. As it turns out, "not only can you get a better view of the Nativity story by spending time with homeless boys than at the mall, you can see it better than you can from a theology department."

In California, he noted, people sing all kinds of Christmas carols that make references to snow and this becomes normal, even when snow is something that they rarely if every experience. The snow exists in their minds and they are comfortable with that. Sadly, the same thing tends to happen with the Nativity story itself.

All of these details, added Jesse Cone, are "artifacts we appreciate from a distance. That's what Christ meant for these boys before actually hearing the story, and that's how it can become for many of us as well."

But not this Christmas: This year the story came home for real.

Occupy Advent 2012 (Let's ask Siri)

The first question was simple: "Siri, when is Christmas?" After the two-tone "BEED-EEP" chime, the voice of the Apple iPhone responded: "Christmas is on Tuesday, December 25, 2012. I hope I have the day off."

Then matters got complicated: "When is Advent?"

Siri searched her memory and said: "I didn't find any events about 'Ed Fant.' "

Trying again: "When is the Advent season?"

Siri cheerfully responded: "I am not aware of any events about 'advent season.' "

After several more "BEED-EEP" chimes the Apple cloud ultimately drew a blank when asked, "When does the Christmas season end?" Alas, Siri didn't understand the term "Christmas season."

That's understandable, since it's clear that millions of Americans are either confused about these questions or they disagree with answers rooted in centuries of Christian life, noted Jimmy Akin, senior apologist at Catholic Answers (

The problem isn't just that the secular marketplace celebrates a different season -- "The Holidays" -- which runs from the shopping day previously known as Thanksgiving through Dec. 25th, which precedes several days in which gifts are returned, leftovers consumed, trees discarded and decorations jammed into garages.

The problem, said Akin, is that many Christian institutions have surrendered and no longer observe the four quiet weeks of Advent (Latin for "toward the coming") and then the 12-day Christmas season, which begins with the Dec. 25 feast and continues through Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. The Advent and Christmas seasons have for centuries been celebrated in many different Christian traditions.

"There is just so much noise out there in the culture this time of year, so many signals clashing with the church's traditions," said Akin. "The key to all this is that our culture treats Christmas Day as the climax of a giant holiday season, not as the day that -- after the preparations of Advent -- kicks off the 12 days of Christmas."

The bottom line: Most Americans, believers and nonbelievers alike, "frontload" Christmas celebrations into the weeks before Christmas, trample Advent and then ignore the traditional season of Christmas. The question for church leaders is how to serve as winsome advocates for Christian traditions without adopting an "Advent Grinch" attitude -- the term used at the Occupy Advent website -- that turns off people seeking alternatives to the modern Christmas crush.

Some church leaders are convinced that it's time to throw in the towel, noted Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, in an online commentary about what he called "The Annual Advent Argument."

A traditionalist, he said, may proclaim, "Yeah, remember 50 years ago when we were kids? The tree would not go up until Christmas Eve; carols would never be heard till real close to Christmas; there were some added days of fast and abstinence during Advent; even Christmas Eve was a day of penance! Wasn't that better? We so looked forward to Christmas because we waited!"

Then somebody else will respond, "But there's nothing we can do about it! Society begins the Christmas season on Thanksgiving, and ends it on December 25. ... The Church is out of it and will just have to change."

Meanwhile, Catholic instructions for bishops continue to urge clergy -- on the crucial issue of decorations in Advent -- to proceed "in a moderate manner, as is consonant with the character of the season, without anticipating the full joy of Christmas." The same general rule applies to Christmas music.

"The question everyone asks," noted Akin, "is, 'Why don't we do Christmas songs in church during Advent?' The answer is pretty simple: 'Because it isn't Christmas yet.' ... And it's one thing to put up a tree, but it's something else to completely decorate it weeks before Christmas. It's one thing to put up your Christmas creche. It's something else to go ahead and put the baby Jesus in the manger."

The goal is for churches to take symbolic actions that help people reclaim the full Christmas season. The most important move most churches could make, he said, would be to put their Christmas parties, festivals, caroling events and other celebrations during the traditional 12 days of Christmas.

"It would be pretty radical to pull some of those frontloaded celebrations out of Advent and back into the Christmas season itself. If we did that it might get some people's attention," said Akin. "The point we need to make is this: Christmas belongs in Christmas."

Celebrate Christmas -- gasp! -- in Christmas?

Father Dino Bottino didn't expect to spark a firestorm several years ago when he delivered his sermon about the true meaning of Christmas. Still, it didn't take long for outraged parents to leak one crucial statement -- that Father Christmas, also known as Santa Claus, isn't real -- to the Italian press. Headline writers around the world immediately felt a great disturbance in the Holiday Force, as if millions of tiny nonsectarian voices had cried out in terror.

Clearly, this priest had committed blasphemy.

Now, the Catholic shepherd of Salt Lake City has bravely ventured into similar territory. Bishop John C. Wester has asked those in his flock to observe the Advent season during the four weeks before Christmas and then -- readers may need to sit down -- to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25th and during the season that follows.

"Few would disagree that we live in a busy and rushed society. ... You may have noticed that in our hurried society many stores have already decorated for Christmas, radio stations are sneaking in a Christmas song here and there and even some of our own parishes have begun preparing for Christmas parties for early December," noted Wester, in a pastoral letter (.pdf) released on Nov. 24.

"What is the rush? ... Advent is a season of preparation, although it has come to be neglected in many places. Too often, the season of Advent is overshadowed by the 'holiday season' as we move too quickly into celebrating Christmas. By the time that the actual solemnity of Christmas arrives, many of us are burned out."

To be perfectly blunt about it, he added, the secular season called "The Holidays" has been hyped to the point that, in the end, "Christmas has become anticlimactic."

The bishop's letter has generated a surprising amount of buzz in a short time, said Deacon Greg Kandra, a veteran journalist who directs the online news programming ( for the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. In effect, Wester has issued a call for countercultural revolt against the principalities and powers that shape the American calendar, he said.

For starters, the bishop is trying "to remind people -- through the pulpit and through education -- that just because they are hearing Christmas music doesn't mean that it's really Christmas," said Kandra, a 26-year CBS News veteran who has won two Emmys and two Peabody Awards.

"As everyone knows, most of this is rooted in commercialism. But just because we have Black Friday and people are stampeding through the malls doesn't mean that is what Christmas is really about."

After throwing down his gauntlet, Wester offered practical examples of what he would like to see in the parishes and schools of his diocese.

Rather than leap straight to Christmas trees early in December, the bishop urged Catholic families to embrace Advent prayer wreathes -- with candles marking the Sundays leading up to Christmas. Families could have "Jesse Trees" that are decorated in Advent purple and symbols of the ancestors of Jesus, before adding Christmas decorations at the proper time.

Rather than hold premature Christmas parties, the bishop suggested that Catholic schools plan "Gaudete" parties -- Latin for "rejoice" -- that are linked to the third Sunday in Advent. Facilities could be decorated with simple wreaths and greenery, with the full Christmas decorations in place as students return after New Year's Day. Full Christmas decor should remain in place in churches, schools and homes through the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord on the 9th of January.

By all means, said Wester, Catholics should hold parties throughout this entire Christmas season, which begins -- following centuries of tradition -- with Christmas Day.

The goal is for Advent to be a period of "waiting in joyful hope," a time of preparation, reflection and prayer. At least, that's what the church's calendar says.

"It is so easy to ... decorate our churches and houses for Christmas, to spend more time shopping than in prayer and to host Christmas parties before the season has arrived," said Wester. "I know it is an enormous challenge to remain faithful to the Advent season when we are surrounded by a society which, while claiming to be Christian, does not take the time to reflect and prepare as the church calls us to do."

However, he added, "As Catholics, we must celebrate Advent differently."

Whatever happened to Advent?

The Rev. Timothy Paul Jones kept hearing one thing when -- four weeks before Christmas -- he brought a wreath and some purple and pink candles into his Southern Baptist church near Tulsa, Okla. And all the people said: "Advent? Don't Catholics do that?"

This prickly response wasn't all that unusual, in light of the history of Christmas in America, said Jones, who now teaches leadership and church ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

"In the dominant American, Protestant traditions of this country, we've never had a Christian calendar that told us anything about Advent and the 12 days of Christmas," explained Jones, author of "Church History Made Easy."

"We went from the Puritans, and they hardly celebrated Christmas at all, to this privatized, individualized approach to the season that you see all around us. ... If you mention the church calendar many people think you've gone Papist or something. They really don't care what Christians did through the centuries."

The history of Christmas has always been complicated, he noted, with religious rites colliding with traditions defined by family, community and commerce. However, the basic structure of the Advent and Christmas seasons has -- until recently, historically speaking -- remained the same.

In a short essay for laypeople, Jones noted that "Advent ... comes to us from a Latin term that means 'toward the coming.' The purpose of this season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting. As early as the 4th century A.D., Christians fasted during this season. ... By the late Middle Ages, Advent preceded Christmas by 40 days in the Eastern Orthodox Church and by four weeks in western congregations." Advent was then followed by the 12-day Christmas season.

For centuries, these seasons were shaped by traditions in extended families and small communities, patterns of rural and village life that endured from generation to generation, century after century, until the upheavals of the industrial revolution. During the 18th and 19th centuries, millions of people in Europe and then America pulled up their roots and moved into major cities.

Christmas evolved into a "gigantic party that ended up in the streets" to celebrate that legions of urban laborers were given a day off from work, noted Jones. It was a day for revelry, drinking, carousing and feasting, a holiday best observed in taverns and public houses instead of churches.

This was not a lovely Christmas tableau complete with candle-lit processions, prayers and carols. Something needed to be done.

Thus, Christmas began to change again. The goal was to create a kinder, gentler season, one centered in individual family homes. What emerged, with a big assist from advertising and other forms of mass media, was a "radically new and almost completely secular Christmas myth," explained Jones. This was Christmas as pictured in the famous poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," popular songs, advertisements and scores of Thomas Nast cartoons.

Santa Claus replaced St. Nicholas and Advent vanished altogether, which was fine with most Americans because they never knew the season existed in the first place.

"What you had then was a holiday that was very appealing and positive, from an American, Protestant perspective," said Jones. "It was very individualistic and centered on events in the family home, with all of that decorating, cooking, gift-giving and people traveling to be home for Christmas.

"This left you one step away from the full-blown commercialization of Christmas that took over in the 20th Century."

Jones stressed that he isn't naive enough to think that churches can turn this around by printing some Advent brochures to help families add another wrinkle to an already complex season. Still, it wouldn't hurt for pastors and parents to stop and think about ways to let Advent be Advent and then to let Christmas be Christmas.

"Americans don't like to wait," he said. "We want what we want and we want it now. ... That's the way that we do Christmas. We mix and we match, taking a little bit of this and a whole lot of that. We rush around trying to create the Christmas we think is going to work for us.

"But Advent asks us to slow down and wait -- to wait for Christmas. Most people don't think that approach will work very well at all."

Gently fighting for Christmas

Merry Christmas. No, honest, as in "the 12 days of" you know what between Dec. 25 and Jan. 5.

If you doubt the accuracy of this statement, you can head over to the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. There you will find an interactive calendar that bravely documents the fact that, according to centuries of Christian tradition, the quiet season called Advent has just ended and the 12-day Christmas season has just begun.

So cease stripping the decorations off your tree and postpone its premature trip to the curb. There is still time to prepare for a Twelfth Night party and then the grand finale on Jan. 6, when the feast of the Epiphany marks the arrival in Bethlehem of the magi.

"You would be amazed how hard it was to find information on the World Wide Web about all of this," lamented Joe Larson, the USCCB's director of digital media. "We wanted to link to sites that would help tell Catholics what we believe about these seasons and why we do what we do -- or what we are supposed to do -- during Advent and Christmas. ...

"What we ended up with is definitely not a finished product, but we'll expand it in the future. We got the ball rolling this year."

The materials gathered at do not, at first glance, appear to be all that rebellious.

The website contains pull-down menus providing scriptures, prayers, meditations and biographies of the saints whose feasts are celebrated during these seasons. Note that the feast of St. Nicholas of Myra -- yes, that St. Nicholas -- was back on Dec. 6. Another page suggests family movies for the seasons, some obvious (think "The Nativity Story") and some not so obvious (think "Ernest Saves Christmas").

The Christmas season has always been complicated. Many early Christians celebrated the birthday of Jesus on May 20, while others used dates in April and March. Most early believers, however, emphasized the Jan. 6 feast of the Epiphany.

Then, sometime before 354, Christians in Rome began celebrating the Feast of the Nativity on Dec. 25, which created tension with the Eastern churches that were using different dates. Then, in 567, the Second Council of Tours established Dec. 25 as the nativity date, Jan. 6 as Epiphany and the 12 days in between as the Christmas season -- the liturgical calendar's biggest party.

The problem, of course, is that Advent now clashes with the 30-something or 40-something days of the secular season -- called "The Holidays" -- that begins with the shopping mall rituals of Thanksgiving weekend. For most Americans, Christmas Day is the end of "The Holidays," even though it is the beginning of the real Christmas season.

While many Christians still observe Advent -- especially Anglicans, Lutherans and other mainline Protestants -- some older Roman Catholics may remember when the guidelines for the season were stricter. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the season is still observed by many as "Nativity Lent."

"In a pre-Vatican II context, Advent looked a lot like Lent," noted Father Rick Hilgartner, associate director of the USCCB's Secretariat of Divine Worship. "It was the season you used to prepare for Christmas, the way Lent helps you prepare for Easter."

Today, it's even hard for priests to follow the rhythms of the church's prayers, hymns and rites, he said. Hilgartner said he tries to stay away from Christmas tree lots and shopping malls until at least halfway through Advent. He accepts invitations to some Christmas parties, even though they are held in Advent.

Now that it's finally Christmas, he feels a pang of frustration when he turns on a radio or television and finds that -- after being bombarded with "holiday" stuff for weeks -- the true season is missing in action.

"It would be different, of course, if we all lived in a monastic community and the liturgical calendar totally dominated our lives," said Hilgartner. "Then we could get away with celebrating the true seasons and we wouldn't even whisper the word 'Christmas' until the start of the Christmas Mass. But the church doesn't exist in a vacuum and we can't live in a cultural bubble. ...

"But it's good to try to be reasonable. It's good to slow down and it's good to celebrate Christmas, at least a little, during Christmas. It's good to try."

That Church Calendar Christmas Crunch

In the beginning, there were humble Nativity pageants for the kids and Christmas choir extravaganzas for the grown-ups.

As the decades passed, some big Protestant churches began hiring orchestras and buying advertisements, creating a music-ministries arms race that pitted the Baptists against the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians against the Methodists. Some prosperous churches even began moving these performances on stage or outdoors, adding elaborate sets, costumes and lights.

But the leaders of these churches agreed on one thing -- big Christmas events were supposed to be held on the Sunday before Christmas. Most of the faithful stayed home to fill their roles in the big shows in their churches and then hit the road.

"Going to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was something the Catholics did and all the people in those other churches that followed the church calendar," said John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin College.

"For most Protestants, Christmas was about being with your family. Churches weren't open on Christmas, but nobody thought much about it -- unless Christmas fell on a Sunday. Then things could get complicated."

This is precisely what happened this year, of course, when some of America's largest evangelical churches made headlines by canceling their Sunday services on Christmas Day, urging the faithful to stay home with their families. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and many other news organizations said this was an ironic decision in a year when conservatives were attacking any merchants and government leaders who refused to "put Christ back in Christmas."

It seemed, said Witvliet, that "part of the problem was that headline that everyone was using -- 'Churches Close On Christmas.' That just seemed so counter-intuitive to people who have never really given much thought to the problems that churches have year after year trying to negotiate their Christmas schedules so that things work out for their families. ...

"But this is old news. This problem has been getting worse for decades."

Like it or not, the old Christmas traditions built on extended families and small, neighborhood churches have been shredded by decades of interstate highways, divorces, Thanksgiving shopping blitzes, mass media, secular parties and cheap airplane tickets.

Modern clergy find it hard to get the numbers to add up.

How is a church music minister going to handle a difficult Christmas cantata when only one or two tenors or sopranos remain in town? What are elementary-grade Sunday school leaders supposed to do when most of their Nativity pageant angels, shepherds and wise men have been air-lifted to distant zip codes to visit various grandparents or ski resorts?

Drastic times produce pragmatic pastors and priests. Thus, it has been a decade or two since most churches -- Protestant and Catholic churches alike -- began moving many of their Christmas festivities into mid-December and even earlier in an attempt to find gaps in the log-jammed calendars of their wandering members.

Those Christmas concerts that used to be scheduled for Sundays around Dec. 22 or 23 began drifting earlier and earlier in the month. At many churches, organizations and, especially, Christian schools the Christmas season is all but over by Dec. 15 or 16 or earlier. All that's left is frantic shopping and the rites of travel, food, family, fellowship and television.

"At some point, the whole month of December turns into Christmas and people just do what they have to do to jam everything in there," said Witvliet.

The only surprising part of this year's megachurch Christmas controversy, he added, was that some influential Protestant churches decided to close their doors on a Sunday. After all, it is perfectly normal for Protestant churches not to gather for worship on the Feast of the Nativity, even though it is one of the most important holy days in Christian tradition.

And what about observing the traditional Christmas season itself, which begins on Dec. 25th and continues through Epiphany on Jan. 6th?

"Even talking about the traditional 12 days is like asking people to run uphill against everything that's going on around them," said Witvliet. "Most of what happens in the church today is, sadly, being driven by the calendar of the shopping mall. That's how people order their lives."