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."

Skipping the 12 days of Christmas

It was around 200 A.D., according to St. Clement of Alexandria, that theologians in Egypt settled on May 20 as the birthday of Jesus, while others argued for dates in April and March.

This wasn't a major issue, since early Christians emphasized the Epiphany on Jan. 6, marking Christ's baptism. Then sometime before 354, Rome began celebrating the Feast of the Nativity on Dec. 25. Eastern churches kept using different dates, but the Roman custom became the norm by the end of the 4th century.

"It was all quite confusing," explained classics scholar Joe Walsh of Loyola College in Baltimore, who explores this maze during his "History of Christmas" class. "Early Christians didn't really lock in on this kind of thing, since they believed their world was going to end soon anyway."

It took time for the nativity feast to become the 12-day Christmas season. Today, Christmas has become something else altogether.

Easter traditions developed first, with Holy Week events on specific days of the week and a firm link to the Jewish Passover. A nativity date was harder to pin down and, over time, conflicting traditions created tensions. The Second Council of Tours clarified matters in 567, establishing Dec. 25 as the nativity date and Jan. 6 as Epiphany.

The council took another diplomatic step and proclaimed the 12 days between the feasts the holy season of Christmas -- the biggest party in Christendom.

This act linked believers in East and West and offered a symbolic alternative to competing pagan festivals in the marketplace. Drawing a parallel with Easter, it also made sense for a reflective season of prayer and fasting to precede Christmas. This became Advent in the West and Nativity Lent in the East.

That was then. This is now.

Walsh said his students assume that Christmas equals "The Holidays," the marketing season between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25, which is followed by a festival of returned gifts and football games. Most do not know that there is more to the 12 days of Christmas than a song about a partridge, a pear tree and other bizarre gifts.

Times change. A few generations ago, department stores stayed open until midnight on Christmas Eve, a tradition seen in many old Christmas movies.

"Why did they do that? Because people were out doing the shopping that we start doing in October," said Walsh. "The days before could get pretty intense, but that's the way things were. Christmas was still Christmas. That really didn't change until Christmas got sucked into the whole industrialized-commercialized complex that is modern life."

This happened for many reasons. The Puritan revolution in England played a major role, with its rejection of anything Catholic. Many liturgical and cultural traditions were weakened and never fully recovered, even if they were later celebrated by writers such as Charles Dickens. This had a major impact in the American colonies, where Christmas celebrations were frowned upon or in some cases banned.

At the same time, explosive growth of English cities during the industrial revolution uprooted millions of ordinary people, breaking centuries of ties binding families to churches, land, farms, shops and kin, said Walsh. Quaint traditions that united villages were hard to move to slums in London, Birmingham and Manchester. And what about New York City and the American frontier?

Modern suburbs do not have a church in a public square at the center of town. Most don't have a public square at all and the true community center is the shopping mall. While many people complain that lawyers and activists have "taken Christ out of Christmas," the truth is more complex than that. The reality is that almost everyone is skipping the 12-day Christmas season, including church people.

There is no time. There is no place. There is no season.

That could change, said Walsh.

"Whatever resistance there is going to be to what is happening to Christmas will be totally centered on people in churches, churches on both the left and the right," he said. "People in the middle are going to just go with the cultural flow. But out on the wings -- where people are really worried about the economics of all of this or the loss of all the beautiful worship traditions -- that's where Christmas might survive."