27 November 2009

The Proper Observance of the Nativity Fast, or 'the Power of Wise Custom'

I am a sentimental fool of a sucker for Christmas, much like Esteban for The West Wing. The least little thing—a song, a bit of greenery, etc.—can set me off, longing to recapture the magic that I’ve felt on previous holidays. But, as readers may well surmise, I have become ever-increasingly annoyed with the ways in which Christmas is observed today in the United States, and more or less, I believe, in any part of the world that has fallen under US influence (I have touched on these problems here and here). Being in the Orthodox Church, and especially following the Old Calendar, helps me and my family to resist somewhat the ridiculous farce that Christmas has become in so much of our society, but of course there is still much to be negotiated. The Church does not hand us a complete list of Christmas rules telling us how to handle all of the little activities and ‘traditions’ that surround the holiday in the West and confront Orthodox Christians there. I’m not the first to address this problem—I highly recommend three short articles at the Orthodox Christian Information Center: ‘American Christmas & Orthodox Nativity’ by Archbishop Seraphim of Chicago (ROCOR) of blessed memory, ‘What Do You Do About Western Christmas?’ by Matushka Ann Lardas, and ‘Dealing with a Secularized Christmas’ from The Veil, a publication of the Protection of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Monastery. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about this, and in addition to what these articles suggest I’d also like to suggest something more positive and extensive.

Last year, on the Feast of St Nicholas according to the Church’s calendar, I recommended a book by Joe Wheeler & Jim Rosenthal called St Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005). At the time, I simply observed that ‘it contains serious suggestions for how to make the holidays meaningful again by taking full advantage of the traditions Christians around the world have observed for centuries’. This year, I’d like to spell out a couple of those suggestions. I myself will be trying to follow them to the best of my abilities, and I urge Logismoi readers to do so as well.

First of all, following the lead of corporate retailers attempting to brainwash people into buying their junk by putting them in the ‘Christmas spirit’, I daresay the majority of Americans have begun decorating their homes for the holiday, including most prominently the erection and decoration of a tree, just after and sometimes even before Thanksgiving. This is not an old Christmas tradition, but a very modern one. In his masterful study, The Rise & Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700 (Oxford: Oxford U, 1996), Ronald Hutton notes that ‘the first sign of the opening of the season of ceremony would have been the decorating of buildings with holly and ivy on or just before Christmas Eve’ (p. 5). It has been observed that festal decoration undermines the penitential spirit of what is usually called Advent in the West, and the Nativity Fast in the East. Thus, Wheeler & Rosenthal quote a book on the twelve days of Christmas by Elsa Chaney: ‘Families living close to the spirit of the liturgical season do not, on any account, set up the tree and other decorations ahead of time. They do not want to spoil the last lovely days of Advent longing and expectation by starting Christmas too early’ (qtd. in Wheeler & Rosenthal, p. 268). For these reasons—from tradition as well as to preserve the proper spirit of the season—I intend to wait until as close to the Nativity (Old Calendar) as I can manage before doing any decorating, with, I’ll add, one or two exceptions, on which more below. Fortunately, this often means that I can get a real Christmas tree either free or for a very low price!

Second, Wheeler & Rosenthal go even further than delayed decoration. In Chapter Ten, ‘A New Way to Celebrate Christmas’, they make the following admirable recommendation:

‘Beginning mid-November, pull the plugs . . . every evening: TV, videos, DVDs, radio, computer, telephone, even overhead lights.’

Each evening, instead of the dominance of our lives by electronic gadgetry, the family will gather together as a unit, beginning with a candle-lit dinner. If the telephone rings, the answering machine will pick up the messages. They can be answered later. We will not hurry but rather talk about whatever comes to mind. Share what happened during the day. After the dishes are cleaned—we’ll all help—we’ll take the lanterns and candelabra into the front room (or family room), and the fireplace will be the focal center of our lives until January 7 [20 January on the civil calendar for those who follow the Old Calendar]. First will be story hour. Afterward, there may be family music, followed by table games. Later on, some may prefer to read until bedtime.

Admittedly, such a regimen is incredibly difficult for most Americans to maintain in this day and age, and even as I advocate it, I realize that I myself am unlikely to keep it without any compromise whatever. But as an ideal to strive toward, I say it is very much worth considering. Matushka Lardas writes (here):

All around us are Christmas parties, at work, at school, in the neighborhood. While in the West, people used to observe Advent as a holy season like Lent, the most recent trend is to celebrate as much as possible before hand, with December 25th serving as the cut-off date, after which the tree is stripped and discarded, and the lights are unstrung. Our Lord's birth, when we celebrate it, goes almost as unnoticed as it did the first time.

It should be added that Wheeler & Rosenthal advocate beginning the season in mid-November because on the basis of Dutch traditions they consider this as the start of ‘St Nicholastide’. But as I noted in my post on St Martin of Tours, there is a very old tradition in the West of beginning a Nativity Fast just after Martinmas. Whatever the reason, this approach dovetails nicely with the beginning of the Orthodox Nativity Fast observed in the East. As Matushka Lardas points out, the entire period should be one of penitence, not frivolity. I feel holding off on the decorations is part of this, but so, as much as possible, are the other festive aspects of Christmas. For example, while I, as a faithful son of the Russian Church Abroad, do not abstain from beer during the Fast, I have found it more in keeping with its spirit to abstain until the Feast from all of the wonderful seasonal brews that one sees at this time of the year, many of them festively spiced and flavoured and thus more suitable for celebration than mere quotidian drinking.

Third, there are two bits of decoration that I will permit fairly early. Like many Orthodox Christians in the West, I intend to have an Advent wreath. Some, because the Nativity Fast begins in mid-November, use six candles for the six Sundays between the first day of the Fast and the day of the Feast. Personally, I plan to keep it simple and use four candles, waiting to begin lighting them until the fourth Sunday before the Feast, with the difference that I will begin on the fourth Sunday before the Feast on the Old Calendar—13 December on the civil calendar this year. The Advent wreath is certainly not an old Orthodox custom, or even an old Western Orthodox custom. Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourette, OSB, writes that it began in the early 16th c., perhaps even among Protestants (A Monastic Year: Reflections from a Monastery [Dallas: Taylor, 1996], p. 16). But it is such a strong way to make the anticipation of the Feast a solemn and tangible thing, that I can’t help but think it a good idea.

The other sort of decoration I shall encourage is anything that properly belongs to St Nicholas. This includes anything that has his image on it (while I avoid garish ‘Santa Claus’ images, it seems to me that traditional ‘Father Christmas’-type images are not wholly inappropriate), but also the traditional stockings hanging from the mantel. As Wheeler & Rosenthal suggest:

Since our stocking-hanging ritual comes directly from the life and ministry of St Nicholas [see this account], consider moving it to St Nicholas Eve. Get everyone into the act by having each member of the family contribute secretly to these stockings (preferably with handmade gifts). Another reason for such a change is that in America so many gifts are given at Christmas that whatever additional ones are placed in stockings are almost anticlimactic. (p. 251)

Fourth, once the Feast comes and the full panoply of decorations goes up (rather extensive in my house), there is not just one day of celebrating and gift-giving, but, in accordance with Tradition, twelve. Once again, Wheeler & Rosenthal offer some appropriate thoughts from Chaney:

Although the commercial world is taking down its trees and tinsel on December 26 to make way for the January white sales, the Church is only beginning a full twelve days of high feasting which will reach their climax and zenith on January 6. Then, in the regal splendor of Epiphany [or Theophany], we see another facet of the Incarnation, a facet which completes the Christmas mystery: the tiny Baby born on Christmas night is in reality the King of the whole world. (qtd. in Wheeler & Rosenthal, p. 264)

In the meantime, we also have St Stephen’s Day (27 December in the East) and the Feast of the Holy Innocents (‘Childermass’—29 December in the East), both of which have their own venerable traditions in the West, till finally the twelve days of Christmas culminate in ‘Twelfth Night’ (the night of 6/19 January, after the celebration of the Theophany). But even then, we are not truly obliged to remove our holiday decorations until ‘Candlemas Eve’—the eve of the Feast of the Meeting of Our Lord in the Temple—as witnessed by Robert Herrick’s 17th-c. poem, ‘Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve’ (which can be read here).

I have but lightly touched upon a few of the suggestions found in Wheeler’s & Rosenthal’s delightful book. In particular I have said nothing of the great stress they lay upon acts of charity, especially secret ones!, to be performed at different times of the season. But even the more external and, some might say, superficial things I've suggested here can contribute in an enormous way to the proper celebration of the entire season, one that takes full advantage of what C.S. Lewis calls ‘the power of wise custom’ (A Preface to Paradise Lost [NY: Oxford U, 1965], p. 22).


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your suggestions. We'll look for opportunities to incorporate some of them into our December routine.
One troubling question, however: surely this does not preclude listening to the Carpenters' Christmas album, pretty much at will?

Aaron Taylor said...

Glad to hear it, Dad. As for the Carpenters, no one denies that they are a necessary part of Christmas. I suppose they will have to be played during the day, or in the car if you need to run an errand or go out to eat in the evening.

Esteban Vázquez said...

An excellent and quite thought-provoking post for which I thank you, my friend--even if you chose to expose my inexcusable weaknesses in it. ;-)

Esteban Vázquez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron Taylor said...

Esteban> I thought you made no secret of your inexcusable weaknesses, or at least that this one was more on the order of Leo's alcoholism than of his Valium addiction (to which your devotion to Hanson surely corresponds)!

But I in turn thank you for your kind words. My own thoughts had been provoked by the thought-provoking thoughts of Messrs. Wheeler & Rosenthal, & I only hoped to pass on some of their thoughts!

Andrea Elizabeth said...

Since becoming Orthodox, I have a new appreciation for the carol, "Good King Winceslas", which is based on the Saint and is set during the Feast of Stephen. I just found that it is on Dec. 26th or 27th. While not being directly related to Christmas, the subject of almsgiving is very much brought out. I don't recall you writing a post about him, but maybe you'll consider it this year. I'm also curious about the reference to St. Agnes' fountain.

A few years ago at the annual Orthodox Winter Youth Retreat in South Texas, my children dressed up as the different characters in the carol and sang and acted out their parts. It made me pay much closer attention to the words.

Aaron Taylor said...

Andrea Elizabeth> I love that carol too! I posted on the 'Feast of Stephen' here and on St Wenceslas per se here. Enjoy!

Andrea Elizabeth said...

I did very much! I must have breezed by it when you originally posted it. With today's cold weather, I'm glad to read it now and thus to follow, however late, in your still printed footsteps.

sarahfin said...

Thank you for posting this. As a relatively recent convert to Orthodoxy, I have been thinking about how our family will celebrate the Nativity fast and Christmas, but felt like I was trying to re-invent the wheel! One thing I've done for several years as part of Advent is listen to the first part of Handel's Messiah, with all the prophecies about Jesus. It helps to cultivate that sense of anticipation and longing central to Advent.

Aaron Taylor said...

Handel's Messiah is a fine idea, Sarahfin. I may just have to give it a listen myself! Fr Damascene at Platina told me that Handel was Fr Seraphim's favourite composer (though he believed that Bach was the greatest).

abuian said...

A friend of mine told me yesterday about a message from Bp. BASIL (AOA) that indicated St. Barbara's Day as the traditional start of the Christmas celebratory season "in the Middle East and in other regions with large Orthodox Christian populations." Speaking specifically of Syria and Lebanon, he says they set up their Nativity cave, Christmas tree, and other decorations; plant wheat kernels to sprout as Christmas greenery; begin singing Christmas carols; and begin the round of holiday visits. (Sweets are, of course, limited to the Lenten sort.)

He also asked a Lebanese woman in our church about these customs, and she confirmed. They begin the process slowly. Put up a tree on St. Nicholas Day with lights only until Christmas Eve. She said they plant lentils, but the same idea--so they'll sprout in time for Christmas.

Naturally I have absolutely nothing to add for my own part, but thought it was interesting enough to pass along.