Something odd happened this year. Maybe it’s been this way for a while and I just didn’t notice it, but around here stores went from Halloween directly to Christmas. Thanksgiving was a momentary blink in the sales aisle displays of Safeway. Christmas music has been playing over loudspeakers since November 1, and I wonder if anyone ever stops to listen to the words of old favorites. I wonder if they inspire anyone to wander into a church just to see what’s going on. It could be less than enlightening.
Some congregations are so intent on preserving the solemn tone of Advent that they not only eschew any hint of Christmas joy to come, but wallow in the awfulest Advent hymns ever written on the grounds, I guess, that a little aural discipline is good for the soul. Something like self flagellation with whole notes in a minor key. Others seem to have no idea at all of a season of quiet, reflective preparation for the coming of the Christ child. They just leap into Christmas along with the stores and it’s all over by noon on the 25th of December. No preparation, no explanation, but probably a nasty sermon or two about how we get it but Macy’s doesn’t.
In one church a newcomer discovers that something is about to happen, and whatever it is does not look like a good thing. In another she finds that it has already happened but has no idea what or whether it has any real importance.
In the meantime, the true meaning of Christmas is explored in depth through a hundred television specials with such a plethora of characters that none can be taken seriously: Kris Kringle, Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, the Grinch, Baby Jesus meek and mild, the true story of Mary and Joseph (many of them), drummer boys, herds of widowed parents finding new love, Jack Frost, Rudolph of course, and a couple of dozen others bring all down to the lowest common denominator, which is very low indeed.
Maybe I’m just getting grumpy in my old age. I’m not one to go about trying to get the Christ back into Christmas. It began as a festive pagan holiday long before we invented Christmas, and has successfully remained so for thousands of years, spreading throughout the world, regardless of religion, without the aid of a single missionary.
I am interested in the strangers, newcomers or long lost returning “members” who, for whatever reason, decide to step into a church just to see what’s going on. It seems to me that this is the one season in the year when a loving, gentle hand might be most needed to guide them, not only to the manger, but to the greater presence of God that is symbolized by it. How? By special efforts to use simple liturgies, accessible language, adult classes on the history of Christmas and the development of our faith, familiar music of excellent quality, informative sermons and a willingness to live peacefully with the rowdy secular holiday going on outside.