21 December 2009

More Material on Christmas Customs

I’ve come upon a few new things worth reading on the subject of preparing for and celebrating Christmas—still two and a half weeks away for most Orthodox but coming up in just a few days for most of the Anglophone world. Well, at least two of the things I found are new, the other is only new to me. To take them in chronological order of their subject matter, I will begin with a nice little piece by Fr Oliver Herbel entitled ‘Fasting for the Nativity of Christ in America’ (here). By all means, read the whole thing, but here are some of the lines that stood out most for me:

In the midst of the ever changing, perhaps ever secularizing, trajectory of Christmas in America, the Nativity Fast stands as an opportunity to solidify our calling as Orthodox in America. I’m not saying the discipline of fasting before Christmas has not changed during the course of Church history. It has. What I am saying is that keeping the fast anchors our Orthodox praxis in contemporary America.

Fasting reminds us poignantly that we are not of this world. . . . No longer are there really twelve days of Christmas, which would start on Christmas day. Instead, we have about thirty days of food, shopping, and advertisements. . . . My point is that during a time in which we should be preparing for the Nativity of Christ, we are all too often being lazy, gluttonous, or simply disregarding the ‘true meaning’ of the season—that the Crucified and Risen One has entered into the fallen history of our world.

So, what should we do and how can the Nativity Fast anchor us during this time? First, we must find the meaning of Christmas not in touchy feely television specials or the commercialized trimmings but in the Gospel itself—the birth of our Savior, Emmanuel. This will enable us to fast from the misdirected forces around us and within us. . . . [W]e must fast from what distracts us and keep only the things that can help lead us to Christ and the celebration of his Nativity. Avoid the things that distract from the Gospel and perpetuate commericialization.

More than that, when we fast, let us keep the culinary fast as well, but go one step farther: keeping ourselves to cheap foods. Eating food that was cheap and common was at the heart of the fasting of the Desert Fathers. Yet, today, we can spend a fair amount of money on shrimp and organic produce. Let us discipline our bodies, for that same discipline will carry over into other spheres of our lives. Let us repent for the sins we have committed. Let us remind ourselves that all is from God, and not ourselves. Let us spend less on ourselves, to have more for others. Let us be thankful.

My second piece is a very short essay by C.S. Lewis that I hadn’t read until today (we discussed it at the C.S. Lewis & Inklings Society meeting tonight): ‘What Christmas Means to Me’, from God in the Dock. In this essay, Lewis sharply distinguishes between three aspects of Christmas, to the point of calling them different things going by the same name: 1) the ‘religious festival’, important for Christians, but which ‘can be of no interest to anyone else’, 2) the ‘popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality’, and 3) ‘the commercial racket’ (a distinction that seems to me to gel nicely with some observations by Owen White here). Concerning this last thing sometimes called ‘Christmas’, Lewis points out:

The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds.

1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. . . . Long before December 25th everyone is worn out—physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. . . .

2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. . . .

3. Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself—gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

4. The nuisance. For after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.

We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don’t know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I’d sooner give them money for nothing and write it off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance. [1]

Finally, the tireless John Sanidopoulos at Mystagogy has posted an article from a certain archdiocesan publication by one Fr Daniel Daly entitled ‘In Defense of the Christmas Tree’ (here—also have a look at John’s links to two other relevant articles here). Fr Daly makes a plausible claim that I don’t remember having previously come across: that the Christmas tree originated in mediæval morality plays.

One mystery play was presented on Christmas Eve, the day which also commemorated the feast of Adam and Eve in the Western Church. The ‘Paradise Play’ told the well-known story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise. [2] The central ‘prop’ in the play was the Paradise Tree, or Tree of Knowledge. During the play this tree was brought in laden with apples.

The Paradise Tree became very popular with the German people. They soon began the practice of setting up a fir tree in their homes. Originally, the trees were decorated with bread wafers commemorating the Eucharist. Later, these were replaced with various kinds of sweets. Our Christmas tree is derived, not from the pagan yule tree, but from the paradise tree adorned with apples on December 24 in honor of Adam and Eve. The Christmas tree is completely biblical in origin.

The first Christmas tree dates from 1605 in Strasbourg. By the 1700s the custom of the Christmas tree was widespread among the German people. It was brought to America by early German immigrants, and it became popular in England through the
influence of Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria.

The use of evergreens at Christmas may date from St Boniface of the eighth century, who dedicated the fir tree to the Holy Child in order to replace the sacred oak tree of Odin; but the Christmas tree as we know it today does not appear to be so ancient a custom. It appears first in the Christian Mystery play commemorating the biblical story of Adam and Eve.

How legitimate is it to use a fir tree in the celebration of Christmas? From the very earliest days of the Church, Christians brought many things of God’s material creation into their life of faith and worship, e.g., water, bread, wine, oil, candles and incense. All these things are part of God’s creation. They are part of the world that Christ came to save. Man cannot reject the material creation without rejecting his own humanity. In Genesis man was given dominion over the material world.

Christmas celebrates the great mystery of the Incarnation. In that mystery God the Word became man. In order to redeem us, God became one of us. He became part of His own creation. The Incarnation affirms the importance of both man and the whole of creation. ‘For God so loved the world…’

A faith which would seek to divorce itself from all elements of the material world in search for an absolutely spiritual religion overlooks this most central mystery of Christmas, the mystery of God becoming man, the Incarnation. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ Enjoy your Christmas tree.

[1] The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis: The Pilgrim’s Regress, Christian Reflections, God in the Dock (NY: Inspirational, 1996), pp. 507-8.

[2] One example of this play type can be found in Chief Pre-Shakespearean Drama: A Selection of Plays Illustrating the History of the English Drama from Its Origin down to Shakespeare, ed. Joseph Quincy Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924), pp. 88-93, entitled ‘The Creation of Eve, with the Expelling of Adam & Eve out of Paradise (Acted by the Grocers of Norwich)’.


Trevor-Peter said...

Regarding Lewis's distinction between #2 and #3, I wonder if it isn't mostly wishful thinking that we could ever really separate the two. A few years back, before I discovered Orthodoxy, but after I'd started pondering a lot about my habits up to that point, I came across a book--I think it was The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum--that put forth a rather different historical analysis. Perhaps oddly, the book got me more in the mood for Christmas #2, but also raised some internal conflicts over #3. I wasn't blogging at the time, but I was a bit later, when I discussed briefly his take on the role of commercialism in the development of the holiday.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for pointing out your post--I enjoyed it! Sounds like an interesting book. By the way, why do I know the name Stephen Nissenbaum?

As for the distinction between #2 and #3, perhaps Lewis is only saying that they are theoretically separable and not that it would be an uncomplicated matter to have the one without the other. Of course, I for one believe that one can have #1 and #2 without #3, and I think this is Lewis's opinion as well. But perhaps those who do not keep #1 can't get read of #3!

frontierorthodoxy said...

This was a very kind reference you made to my post. Thank you. I am not a C.S. Lewis expert by any means, so I appreciate that you highlight his work so. Thank you!

aaronandbrighid said...

You're quite welcome, Father. Again, welcome to blogdom!

SubDn. Lucas said...


Regarding the Christmas tree tradition, have you ever heard anything like this?

http://www.stdgocunion.org/christmastraditions.html [under 'The Christmas Tree']

I emailed the author quite a while back, but never received a response--I'd be interested to find any further evidence.

aaronandbrighid said...

SubDn. Lucas> I had not heard of that before. Though I must admit I prefer the idea of the 'Root of Jesse' to the Tree of the forbidden fruit, I find it a little harder to believe that such a custom could not only migrate westward from Byzantium in the form of the Christmas tree, but that it could be all but lost in the East. It seems a bit of a stretch!

SubDn. Lucas said...


Agreed, that's a bit much. I wonder whether there might've been unrelated parallel customs?

The writer is himself a native Contantinopolitan, which is why it gave me pause. Ah well--I'm perfectly happy with the tree, irrespective of its eastern/western provenance. I think here is a legitimate example of the oft-overused 'baptising the good things in the culture'.