Bright bonfires to mark end of the 12 days of Christmas season

Bright bonfires to mark end of the 12 days of Christmas season

The same thing happens to Father Kendall Harmon every year during the 12 days after the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

It happens with newcomers at his home parish, Christ-St. Paul's in Yonges Island, S.C., near Charleston. It often happens when, as Canon Theologian, he visits other parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.

"I greet people and say 'Merry Christmas!' all the way through the 12 days" of the season, he said, laughing. "They look at me like I'm a Martian or I'm someone who is lost. … So many people just don't know there's more Christmas after Christmas Day."

To shine a light on this problem, some churches have embraced an tradition -- primarily among Anglicans and other Protestants -- that provides a spectacular answer to an old question: When do you take down that Christmas tree? The answer: The faithful take their Christmas trees to church and build a bonfire as part of the "Epiphany Service of Lights" on January 6th.

As always, in a rite framed by liturgy, there is a special prayer: "Almighty God our Heavenly Father, whose only Son came down at Christmas to be the light of the world, grant as we burn these trees this Epiphany night, that we, inspired by your Holy Spirit, would follow his example and bear witness to His light throughout the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit, live and reign in glory everlasting. Amen."

The struggle to observe the 12 days of Christmas is similar to other trials for those who strive to follow the teachings of their faith during the crush of daily life, said Harmon.

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 www.usccb.org/advent 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."

The 30-something days of Xmas

There was a time when Christians did not celebrate a season that could be called the 30-something days of Christmas.

In the year of our Lord 1939, the National Retail Dry Goods Association asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving to the next-to-last Thursday in November. This was strategic, since President Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed the last Thursday of the month as the official holiday. This meant that Thanksgiving was occasionally delayed until a fifth Thursday -- a cruel blow to merchants.

Confusion reigned until Congress reached a compromise and, since 1942, Thanksgiving has been observed on the fourth Thursday in November.

And thus was born America's most powerful and all-consuming season. This later evolved into the shopping festival called "The Holidays," which in the past generation has started creeping into stores days or weeks before Turkey Day.

"None of this, of course, has anything to do with the Christmas traditions that Christians have been observing through the ages," said Teresa Berger, professor of liturgical studies at Yale Divinity School.

To be candid, she said, it does "help to remember that celebrations of Christmas and other holy seasons have always been affected by what happens in the marketplace and the surrounding culture. ... But that isn't what we are seeing, today. The question now is whether or not the shopping mall will define what is Christmas for most Christians."

Here's the bottom line. For centuries, Christmas was a 12-day season that began on Dec. 25th and ended on Jan. 6th with the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany. Thus, the season of Christmas followed Christmas Day, with most people preparing for the holy day in a festive blitz during the final days or even hours, with many stores staying open until midnight on Christmas Eve.

Today, everything has been flipped around, with the Christmas or Holiday season preceding Dec. 25.

For most Americans, this season begins with an explosion of shopping on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, followed by a flurry of office parties and school events packed into early December. The goal is to hold as many of these events as possible long before the onset of the complicated travel schedules that shape the lives of many individuals and families.

Meanwhile, television networks, radio stations and newspapers have created their own versions of the "12 days of Christmas," inserting them before -- often long before -- Dec. 25 as a secular framework for advertising campaigns, civic charity projects, holiday music marathons, parades, house-decorating competitions and waves of mushy movies, old and new.

Needless to say, this is not the Christmas that Berger knew as she grew up in Germany in the post-World War II era. As a Catholic, the days between Christmas and Epiphany were marked by a series of events -- such as the feasts of St. Stephen and St. John the Evangelist -- that were accompanied by their own rites and customs. Lutherans and other Christians had their own traditions for marking this time.

"When people talk about a season called the 'Twelve Days of Christmas,' they are primarily talking about something that was much more common in England," said Berger. "There are many reasons for that, not the least of which was the popularity of the song by that name."

While these traditions took various forms, the key was that the religious elements of the season remained intact. Christians celebrated Christmas during Christmas.

Berger said that it still makes her a bit uncomfortable when she sees families putting up and decorating their Christmas trees before they are even finished using the candles and green wreathes associated with the penitential season of Advent, which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. There are many more people, of course, who do not observe Advent, which is called Nativity Lent in Orthodox churches.

"Today, people believe they can have whatever they want, when they want it, and Christmas becomes whatever the culture says that it is," she said. "We can, however, revolt against this. We can choose, for example, not to send out 1,000 mindless Christmas cards. We can sit down and write our own cards and even breathe a prayer for the people we love while we do that.

"No one can force us to live according to the laws of the new Christmas. We can make our own choices."

What is a 'carol' anyway?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Second of two columns on traditional carols.

The story begins with the Empress Helena, who commanded that the relics of the Wise Men of the East be brought to Byzantium.

These three skulls were eventually taken to Milan and, in 1162, to Cologne. According to folk tradition, the relics made their journey from Bethlehem to Cologne in three ships. As minstrels kept singing the songs, the destination changed and so did the identity of the travelers.

The result was a carol: "I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day on Christmas day. I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day in the morning." It asked, "And what was in those ships all three?" The answer was the Holy Family, or "Our Savior Christ and his lady." The carol asked, "And where they sailed those ships all three?" The obvious answer: "All they sailed in to Bethlehem."

The logic may escape singers today. But it worked for centuries of carolers in the pageants, processions and parties during Christmas and the 12-day season that followed.

"The true Christmas carol is anonymous, both the text and the tune. A true carol is something like 'I Saw Three Ships' or 'The First Noel.' Many of them are very, very old," said scholar Hugh T. McElrath, author of "The History of Our Christian Faith In Hymns."

"Hymns tend to be more formal and church-centered and from a particular composer in a particular place and time. Carols just spring up among the people and it's common to find many different versions handed down from generation to generation."

The question now is whether centuries of carols can survive modern trends, from the secularization of public holiday music to the contemporary church's hunger for music that constantly changes to mirror pop sales charts.

Christmas carols can be traced to St. Francis of Assisi and his Nativity dramas in 1223. Carols were sung as "intermezzi" between scenes of the "mystery plays" for centuries. The carols became so popular that theater players and members of the audience began processing into the streets, singing and dancing.

After all, noted Erik Routley in his classic book "The English Carol," early definitions of "carol," "carole" or "karolle" define this music as a round dance. "Even if we say that to all general purposes today a carol is a cheerful seasonal song ... we shall never understand its extraordinary history if we forget that it began not as a pious religious gesture but as a dance," he wrote.

When it came time for Christmas festivals, few drew a stark line between sacred and secular. Thus, the home of the true Christmas carol was not in the safety of a church sanctuary, surrounded by marble and pure candlelight. Carols were sung on sidewalks and in the marketplace, in homes and in taverns.

"The dance could be trivial, but the church would spiritualize it," noted Routley. "Feasting could be orgiastic, but the church would balance it with fasting. Joy could be selfish and frantic, but the church would make it sane."

This happened in many cultures, from the festive Christmas carols of Latin America to the rousing Russian "kolyadki," which were shared by carolers who gladly accepted food, drink and coins as they moved from house to house. North American folk music has already yielded classic carols such as "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and "Away in a Manger."

And what about today?

As long as people gather to celebrate Christmas together, they will produce new carols and pass along classics to future generations, said Kenneth W. Osbeck, author of "101 Hymn Stories" and many similar books. There have been hard times for carolers in the past, such as the Puritan era when such public revelry was banned.

If the Christmas season is celebrated with joy, then the carols will survive.

"I can't think of a single carol that has a note of sadness and tragedy to it," said Osbeck. "Maybe there are a few, I don't know. But what unites these simple songs -- from culture to culture and in all settings and times -- is that simple sense of joy in celebrating Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ.

"If people want to share that joy with others, then that's what the carols are for."

A Caroling We (Don't) Go

Sometime just before Christmas, maestro Patrick Kavanaugh will gather a few friends to take part in a quietly subversive public rite.

Slipping from house to house under cover of darkness, it is their intention to sing pieces of explicit, doctrinal religious music to family, neighbors and even strangers. They do this every year, even if it is snowing.

Historians refer to this rare activity as "Christmas caroling."

"People really do love it," said Kavanaugh, conductor for the Christian Performing Artists Fellowship in Haymarket, Va. "Wherever you go, people hear the singing and they meet you at the door and they're just glowing. I guess it's like a form of Americana for some people, like a glimpse of the past."

Kavanaugh paused for a second and laughed. It was a sad laugh.

"People love it, but I have to admit that I don't know many others who are still out there doing this. ... What are you supposed to do with a carol like 'Away in a Manger' if people think you're celebrating something called the Winter Festival?"

Christmas carols have not vanished.

People still sing them at family reunions, in church services and at safe, private parties. Churches may also send cars full of carolers to nursing homes or jails as a form of community service.

What is fading is the tradition of singers caroling in neighborhoods or shopping districts as part of their Christmas festivities. Of course, it's hard to imagine carolers mingling with shoppers and singing "Lo, How A Rose 'Er Blooming" outside Abercrombie & Fitch. Also, the odds are good that the local shopping mall will have adopted a code limiting religious activities on the premises.

Caroling in the black hole of the parking lot is not a lovely option. It's hard to sing to passing cars.

The result is what Southern Baptist scholar Hugh T. McElrath called "Frosty the Snowman" syndrome, a culture in which people sing secular songs at public celebrations and hymns and carols in worship services.

"What we've lost is the whole sense of a complete Christmas season, one that really gets started on Christmas Eve and then lasts for those 12 days and includes all kinds of parties and festivities and, yes, going out caroling," said McElrath, author of "The History of Our Christian Faith In Hymns."

"You lose the season and you lose the context for the carols themselves."

The traditional 12-day Christmas season begins -- not ends -- on Dec. 25th. Not that long ago, the faithful held parties throughout this season in different homes, with participants singing carols as they walked to the next round of festivities. This would build in intensity through the 12th night, "Three Kings Day" or the Epiphany celebration.

Traditions would vary from church to church and culture to culture, with the carols themselves emerging as true folk songs. Thus, carolers in different places would sing many different songs, with unique carols from Latin America, Africa, Russia and around the globe.

Most carols sung in North America can be traced to England and elsewhere in Europe. Still, it would seem logical that as America grows more diverse, the modern church's repertoire of Christmas carols would keep growing. If the Latin Grammy Awards are here, can true Spanish Christmas carols be far behind? Apparently not.

Instead, a blanket of sanitized holiday music -- spread through media, commerce and a highly mobile population -- covers the land. Christmas in Miami sounds the same as Minneapolis and Seattle tends to sound like Savannah. Steel-drum bands play "White Christmas" in the Bahamas.

This trend affects churches as well as shopping malls.

What is at stake are centuries of lovely Christmas music, said McElrath. Carols are supposed to be the songs of the people, binding one generation to the next. Is the very act of going Christmas caroling out of date?

"I guess that it's hard to go Christmas caroling when it's hard to even talk about Christmas in public," he said. "You end up with people sitting in church singing a few Christmas carols one or two days out of the year. That's lovely, but it's not what Christmas carols are about."

NEXT WEEK: What is a Christmas "carol" anyway?