It seems that this has become a common note of complaint, that “Christmas” begins earlier and earlier. Further, it has also become a bit of a meme among us more “catholic” Christians who observe Advent that we feel the need to rub the faces of Americans in their incorrect holiday observance while touting our smug superiority on the matter.
Underneath all of this, I think, is something quite important: a growing unease with which capitalism continues to devour and appropriate our holy-days for the purposes of maximizing profit margins. There is an understood crassness—even among our less religiously-inclined peers—hiding behind the idea of letting Christmas devour Thanksgiving, us moving from the billions of dollars of Halloween** right into the billions of dollars of the winter holiday shopping season***, a never-ending cycle of spending. As a result, our society feels constantly unmoored, utterly dissatisfied with the current season; we’re always being told to plan (and buy) ahead of time.
So what are we to do?
My attitude, in recent years, has been to note the distinction between the capitalistic and ecclesiastical worlds and to refer to our current shopping season as “Xmas” while the twelve days spent rejoicing in our Lord’s nativity are, of course, “Christmas.”
Xmas is the season of red or green Starbucks cups, the greening of the shopping mall in November, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, office holiday parties, and Fox News’ ever present “War on Christmas.” It’s hymnody is that of Wham! and Maria Carey and one particularly awful song from Paul McCartney and Wings.
Xmas is an invention of capitalist America. It co-opts the imagery and traditions of one of our most holy celebrations in the Church for its own purposes, rendering Saint Nicholas of Myra as a jolly elf from up North replete with elven acolytes, and the gift of God that is our Incarnate Lord (not to mention the gifts of the ancient Iranian Magi) as the inspiration for wrapped boxes under trees and enveloped cards in polyester stockings hanging from shelves or mantle-places.
And we can lament this, or we can accept that it has happened and rejoice in the fact that even in the midst of this act of cultural appropriation we still find the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes and in His manger (even if the Santa of Xmas is kneeling there in tribute). We still hear about the three ships, or the Christian King Winceslas, or the heralding of angels playing from the overhead speakers (even if the light is fluorescent and not the shekhina glory of God manifested as a star).
The Rev. Dr. Katherine Sonderegger writes that because God has made all things and calls them into His service, God (in her words) “commandeers” all things and makes them His own****. Even though our capitalistic impulses have, like a parody of God, “commandeered” the feast of the Incarnation for its own aims, we can still rejoice that, regardless, Jesus’ birth is still proclaimed (even if it is buried under wrapping paper and Amazon boxes). Because, no matter what, God is still sovereign and God still takes command of what we make in order for His name be known.
Even though Christmas has become Xmas, God still makes Xmas an opportunity for Christmas to be known and celebrated. And the fact that Xmas happens over top of Advent is, perhaps, appropriate. Because Advent is a time of looking and listening, waiting to see what the Lord is doing in the mundane aspects of our common life.
So when we go to the mall and see the white lights and hear the words of Band Aid 1984 ask “do they know it’s Christmas time?” we can say yes. It might be Xmas, but Christmas is still shining through.
* I use this term not to be politically correct but to reflect the fact that not only does our mall have Hanukkah decorations, it’s difficult for me to call the decorations “Christmas” decorations, for reasons I hope will become clear in the rest of this writing.
** Halloween is, perhaps, the second largest retail holiday of the year in the United States. All of the costumes, candy, and decorations really add up!
*** Which then sees us spending billions on Valentine’s candy, then Easter candy…
**** Sondergegger, Katherine, Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2015. p. 103