The Thirty-Six Days of Christmas
If we are ever to discover Christmas as the Early Christian Church knew it, we will need to make some major changes in how we celebrate Christmas. Instead of our current twenty-four feverish hours of excessive eating and gift bombardment, we should slow our pace and take time to remember our Lord, to pattern our behavior on Him. For Jesus is the greatest prototype of selfless giving and service for others that the world has ever known.
Most merchants won't be happy with us for making such a change, for today Christmas has degenerated into merely another seasonal sale. We become preoccupied with things and get tired out by the countdown to Christmas.
We will begin the year, as did the Early Church, with the season of the Advent. Around the first of December, we will turn off the television set and leave it off for thirty-six days. In the place of television, we will set up as the focal center of our lives a manger scene, or crÞche. We will post an Advent calendar and plan family activities that reflect on the spiritual dimensions of the season. Instead of watching beer commercials that shamelessly trade on Christ's birth, we will take the family to attend sacred concerts, oratorios, and pageants. All the jolly commercial Santa Clauses will be traded in for the self-giving spirit of St. Nicholas, and we will visit and serve those less fortunate than ourselves. Each evening during the twenty-four days of Advent, we will gather around the fireside, share Christmas stories, sing and perform Christian music, and fellowship with our extended family.
It will be a time to cut the power to the glaring lights and substitute the serenity of fireside, candles, and kerosene lamps. We will craft gifts rather than merely buying them in a shopping mall.
When Christmas Eve arrives, and the bells of midnight are followed by Christmas morning, there will yet remain the twelve days of Christmas, culminating with the Day of the Magi (also known as the Epiphany) on January 6.
As was true with the Early Church, the emphasis during the Advent will be on Christ's birth in the flesh, in Bethlehem, the miracle of incarnation. But also important are the concluding twelve days. To early Christians, these represented the days that led up to Christ's second birth, His baptism in the Jordan River. It was then that the Holy Spirit descended upon Him as a dove and, with the Father, testified publicly that the divine circle of three was united for the awesome task ahead.
In much of the Christian world today, on each of these twelve days, gifts are given. Often children are given one gift a day, and in turn may themselves give gifts--much like the Jewish Hanukkah celebration. On January 6, more than one gift is given.
For us and our families, these days can be joyous times. Note this serendipity: New Year's Day divides the twelve days in half. On this day, the family can take time to give thanks, take stock of the past year and the many blessings it has brought, make New Year's resolutions, and look forward to the year to come.
On the seventh day of January, we will tenderly pack up the nativity figures and make plans for the next season.
If we are to be successful in reclaiming Christmas from our materialistic culture, we shall have to fill the time once wasted on mindless entertainment with something more profitable, something more in tune with the divine. We will need to develop new traditions.
Excerpted from Christmas in My Heart, A Second Treasury by Joe Wheeler. Copyright © 1997 by Compiled and edited by Joe L. Wheeler. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Religion, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.