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.

When is Christmas, anyway?

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?"

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."

Let Hanukkah be Hanukkah

The candelabra should have eight candles in a straight line with a separate holder -- usually high and in the middle -- for the "servant" candle that is used to light the others.

The purpose of Hanukkah menorahs is to publicize the miracle at the heart of the "Festival of Lights," when tradition says a one-day supply of pure oil burned for eight days after Jewish rebels liberated the temple from their Greek oppressors. Thus, most families place their menorahs in front windows facing a street.

So far, so good.

The lighting of the first candle should be at sundown on the first night of the eight-day season, which begins on Friday (Dec. 15) this year. Hanukkah candles should burn at least 30 minutes and it's forbidden to use their light for any purpose other than viewing or meditating.

Blessings are recited before the first candle is lit, starting with: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah." Each night, another candle is added -- with eight burning at the end of the season.

That's it. That's what Jews are supposed to do during Hanukkah. They're supposed to light the candles and give thanks to God.

It's all about lights shining in darkness.

"This is a simple holiday with a simple message and it isn't supposed to be all that complicated," said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the largest umbrella group for Orthodox Jews in North America.

"You come home from work, you light the candles, you say the blessings and then you sit down with your kids and play games with dreidels. ... It's pretty small stuff compared with all of the emotions of Passover."

Some Jewish families will sing Hanukkah songs and fry some potato pancakes called "latkes," homemade donuts or other festive foods using hot oil -- a key symbol in the season. Many parents give their children small gifts each night, such as coins or chocolates wrapped in gold foil to resemble coins.

This is where, for many, the Hanukkah bandwagon starts to get out of control. As the Jewish Outreach Institute Hanukkah website bluntly states: "Hanukkah is the most widely celebrated American Jewish holiday, possibly because it is a fun, child-centered occasion."

Everyone knows why Hanukkah keeps getting bigger and bigger, said Weinreb, who also has worked as a psychologist specializing in family issues.

"How can a Jewish kid growing up in America or anywhere else in the Western world not get swept up, to one degree or another, in the whole business of Christmas? The music is everywhere and the decorations are everywhere. Many of your school friends are having parties and they're all excited about the gifts they're going to get," he said.

"From a Jewish perspective, all of this is a rabbi's worst nightmare. You want to find a way to say, 'That's not us.' But, in the end, many people lose control."

Before you know it, someone else's Christmas tree turns into a holiday tree and, finally, into something called a Hanukkah bush.

The end result is ironic, to say the least. Hanukkah is supposed to be a humble holiday about the need for Jews to resist compromising their beliefs in order to assimilate into a dominant culture. However, for many families it has become the biggest event on the Jewish calendar -- because it is so close to the all-powerful cultural earthquake that some people still call "Christmas."

Those old-fashioned notions about giving children a few modest Hanukkah gifts have evolved into expectations of a nightly procession of toys, clothing and electronic goodies. And, in many of America's 2.5 million households with one Jewish parent and one Christian parent, the rites of the shopping mall have been blended to create the pop-culture reality called "Chrismukkah."

All of this is easy to understand and hard to resist.

"One gift a night for eight nights is just commercialism, pure and simple. That has more to do with Toys 'R' Us than it does with Judaism," said Weinreb. "Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas and we all know that. Hanukkah is what it is. We just need to do what we are supposed to do and let the holiday take care of itself."

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."

Oy Joy! Merry Chrismukkah

At first it seemed normal to Michelle Gompertz to be sitting in an Indian restaurant listing to Kenny G recordings of pop Christmas carols.

Then she grew disoriented. This Indian restaurant was in New Deli. She was surrounded by Hindu culture, but nobody thought twice about listening to the same holiday saxophone Muzak that would be playing in American shopping malls.

"I knew that Christmas was everywhere. But it really hit me," said Gompertz, the daughter of a United Church of Christ pastor in Indiana. "I remember thinking, 'Where are we? What season is this, anyway?' "

She remembered that scene after she married a Jewish New Yorker and started planning holiday festivities in the San Francisco Bay area. It seemed like all of their close friends shared a common bond -- one spouse was Christian and the other Jewish.

What kind of decorations should they use? What songs were they supposed to sing and what songs were they supposed to avoid? When you live in one of America's 2.5 million Jewish-Christian households, what season is this?

"Everybody knows that what you're supposed to say is 'Happy Holidays' and leave it at that," said Ron Gompertz. "But when you're in an interfaith family it's more than that. It's kind of Hanukkah and it's kind of Christmas.

"When I was a kid we tried calling it 'Hanumas.' On 'Seinfeld' they came up with 'Festivas,' but that wasn't right either."

Then Ron and Michelle Gompertz watched the 2003 episode of the hip teen soap "The O.C." in which anti-hero Seth Cohen explained the holiday ground rules in his interfaith family. This was a season about having it all -- all the parties, all the gifts, all the music. And the name of this season was "Chrismukkah."

"All you had to do was say that two or three times -- Chrismukkah -- and it just sounded right," said Ron Gompertz, who now lives in Montana with his wife and daughter.

The Gompertz clan made some cards for family and friends and claimed the rights to the domain. This year, they hired a designer and jumped into the marketplace with "Oy Joy" and "Merry Mazeltov" cards and gifts, with images ranging from an Orthodox Jewish Santa to a reindeer with antlers that hold menorah candles.

What precisely is "Chrismukkah"? Their press materials call it a secular, "hybrid holiday" that begins with the eight-day Hanukkah season and extends through Christmas. This year, the Jewish "Festival of Lights" begins at sundown on Dec. 7.

The Chrismukkah franchise is not alone. A company called MixedBlessing has marketed interfaith cards for 15 years and Hallmark Cards Inc. now has four holiday offerings blending Jewish and Christian themes. A typical American Greetings Corp. "Merry Hanukkah" card shows a Jewish Santa inspiring his sleigh team with the cry: "On Isaac! On Izzy! On Eli! On Abe! On Levi! On Morty! On Shlomo! On Gabe!"

The problem with the "Oy to the World" punch lines is that, for many Jewish and Christian leaders, interfaith marriage isn't funny. During the past generation or so, nearly half of American Jews have married outside the faith. About a third of the children of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews.

A new statement from the U.S. Catholic-Jewish Consultation Committee bluntly urges these parents to raise their children in one faith or the other. Attempting to raise children "simultaneously as both 'Jewish' and 'Catholic' ... can only lead to violation of the integrity of both religious traditions, at best, and, at worst, to syncretism," it said.

The problem for mixed-marriage families such as his, said Rod Gompertz, is that "The Holidays" have already been sliced, diced and secularized in the public square. Embracing "Chrismukkah" merely goes one step further and "recognizes the state of mind that we are already living in," he said.

For millions of ordinary Americans, this is a season about Frosty the Snowman, shopping bags, Bing Crosby, twinkle lights and the whole mass-media experience. Thus, "Chrismukkah" isn't religious. It isn't the real Christmas or the real Hanukkah, he said.

"How are we supposed to balance what are actually fundamentally incompatible holidays? Our solution is to focus on the fun parts that we can enjoy without getting into all that theology."