The question that Ashley the Editor has put to the roundtable goes like this:
With all of the Christmas commercialization, how do you (the church) balance the true message and importance of Christmas with the enjoyment of all the commercial part that sweeps most of us up?”
That’s a really important question, because, at this time of year, the influence of our commercial culture is simply all-encompassing; movies, music, sports, technology, fashion, journalism, television, social media and marketing now proclaim the same, unified message: The more money we spend, the happier we will be.
Of course, the celebrities and the networks and the sports teams and the pundits also suggest that our Christmas will be more meaningful if we bring along a few canned goods or if we answer in the affirmative when the cashier asks if we want to donate to charity as we pay for our tickets. But, again, the overall goal is to get us to believe that we can purchase happiness for ourselves or for someone else.
But, when you step back from all the Christmas commercialization, it quickly becomes obvious that the idea that there is any sort of necessary correlation between money and happiness is not only ridiculous, it is also very, very cruel. And that’s why I need to take issue with one of the verbs that Ashley used in her roundtable question: Because, in the Church, we don’t try to balance what we believe about Christmas with what is going on in our commercial culture. In Holy Orthodoxy, we reject what our culture is doing and we provide an alternative.
This alternative is every bit as comprehensive as what is going on in our commercial culture, so, in this brief column, I won’t have time to describe it in great detail. However, I can touch on five of the most basic features. Here they are in order of importance:
1. We Fast. In Holy Orthodoxy, we basically go vegan from Nov. 15 through Dec. 25 (and, yes, most American Orthodox Christians take a brief break from that discipline at Thanksgiving). There are many important reasons for the fast, but, at the most basic level, when you go without meat, dairy products, most kinds of fish, oil, wine and hard liquor for a full 40 days before Christmas, then you realize you’re doing something different from what the rest of the culture is doing.
2. We Sing Different Music. Part of this has to do with the way our services have developed down through history, but we don’t use hymns like “Silent Night” and “O’ Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” in our worship. We use hymns such as “Make Ready, O Bethlehem” which are completely unfamiliar to most North Americans, but there’s actually a huge benefit to that, because, when we’re singing that haunting and beautiful song in a worship service, we’re not flashing back on covers by Elvis or Twisted Sister or Mariah Carey.
3. We Honor the Real St. Nicholas. The guy in the red suit has become the symbol of everything that’s wrong with our commercial culture. However, there really was a St. Nicholas; he was an Orthodox bishop who lived and worked in a city called Myra in the early fourth century. Even during his lifetime, he was known for working miracles and protecting children. So, today, he is the Patron Saint of Children, and, on December 6th, we always have services in his honor. As part of that celebration, we also collect new toys and donate them to local charitable services—and, yes, St. Nicholas brings toys to Orthodox children on Christmas Day; he’s just not the center point of the entire season.
4. We Have Services on Christmas Day. A great many Christian communities simply do not have services on Christmas Day; they just shut down completely. But if your congregation closes on Christmas, like the department stores and the restaurants and the supermarkets, what you are communicating to the larger world is that your Christian community is, finally, a commercial enterprise, just like all those department stores and restaurants and
supermarkets. But, in Holy Orthodoxy, December 25th is a major feast day, so we always have services on that day.
5. We Keep the Party Going. Our commercial culture moves on quickly after Christmas has ended. There’s the week to return unwanted presents, and then there’s New Year’s, and then there is football, football, football. But in the Church, our Christmas celebration lasts 12 days, all the way to January 6th, when we celebrate another important feast, Theophany. And since we spent the 40 days before Christmas in fasting mode, we also spend a full 40 days after Christmas in celebration mode—in fact, we keep the festivities going all the way through February 2nd, when we celebrate what is called the Feast of the Presentation. So by the time our culture is gearing up for Super Bowl 51, we Orthodox Christians will be winding down our Christmas celebration.
Again, that’s just a very brief summary of the alternative, which Holy Orthodoxy provides to the standard commercial Christmas. But if you have grown weary of our commercial culture, if you can no longer stomach the ridiculous lie, which equates money with happiness, then it’s time for you to look into what Orthodox Christianity has to offer—not only at Christmas time, but all throughout the year.
And I will be happy to help you with that effort.
Father Aidan Wilcoxson is the pastor of St John Orthodox parish in Cedar Park (www.theforerunner.org); he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.