Why I Feel Sorry for Christians at Christmas

So here it is, two days before Christmas, birthday of Christ the Savior, etc., and I am feeling sorry for the Christian clergy, at least some of them.

Along with Easter, this is their big religious holiday. The Incarnation of God—in their theology. And they have to beg people to put down the presents and turn off the flat-screen television and come to church.

“You don’t even have to get dressed up for the Savior of Humankind,” they cry. “You can come in your jammies!

Forget the “War on Christmas,” that is a big concession right there. White flag, don’t shoot! We know the prezzies are more important, but can’t you just tie your bathrobe and come to church for a little while?

True, some of the Anglicans and Catholics and those Orthodox who observe December 25 try a little harder. And a good Midnight Mass on December 24th appeals to the “imagistic” rather than the “doctrinal” mode of religiosity. You remember it with your body, with all your senses—the darkness, the candles, the music, the physical presence of other worshipers.

(But the talky-talk Protestants and the “we don’t really commit to anything” Unitarians can’t go there.)

Or this:

We have a 4:00 p.m. Pajama Mass on Christmas Eve. It’s a service dedicated to and directed by children from the congregation and from the community. We have a very cool combination of the very elderly, who don’t like to be out late, and the very young.

Because church is mainly for the very young and the very old?

The other thought haunting some Christians is the whole “Pagan customs at Christmas” issue. A reporter for a Christian news site interviewed me just the other day about that.

What I did not tell him was this: Your whole ritual calendar is a mess. If we contemporary Pagans know anything, it’s calendars.

Consider that if Jesus was born when shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night, he was born during lambing season—in the spring. His execution and resurrection also occur in the spring, during and after the Jewish festival of Passover (Pesach)—and its history includes the Jews in Egypt daubing lambs’ blood on their doors. There is this whole sheep thing going on.

So to avoid the spring-spring clash, the birthday is moved to the winter solstice—and I don’t care if the Christians copied Pagans or the other way around, really.

Mapping Jesus’ life on the annual cycle makes for an odd calendrical cycle. He is anticipated during Advent (late November-December), born at Christmas, shown forth at Epiphany (Jan. 6 in the West), killed on Good Friday, and resurrected on Easter Sunday. Then he hangs around for forty days, only to vanish on Ascension. After that, his disciples experience mystical illumination on Pentecost—celebrated a few days later.

And that is it—nothing for the next six months except various saints’ days, etc.—if you are in a liturgical church. For the talky-talk Protestants, there is not even that—in fact, not much after Easter.

Even in my Christian boyhood this arrangement struck me as poor planning. Why cram all the good stuff into less than half of the year?

8 Comments

  1. Dave H says:

    Interesting thought about shepherds only watching their flocks by night during lambing season. Speaking as a shepherd in a high predation area (and I don’t know enough about the Middle East 2000 years ago to speculate on their predation rates, though I can only assume it had to be high), shepherds watch their flocks by night 365, if they want to have a flock at all. Even in areas with lower levels of predators they’d be keeping their eyes open 24/7 whenever lambs were on the ground – which would stretch the watch period well into summer and early autumn depending on the breed of the flock.
    So I think trying to use the “shepherds watching by night” bit to ascertain a date is a bit iffy at best…
    Be well,
    Dave H.

    • Chas Clifton says:

      Good thoughts. We need a study of predation in first-century Judaea. I am assuming that since there was probably no fencing, the sheep would have been brought into folds at night. But during lambing–more dispersed and requiring more attention?

  2. Peculiar says:

    I must say, it was pretty nice the year we were on the old calendar in Alaska to get all the seasonal hype out of the way and still have a couple more weeks to approach Christmas more contemplatively. (That’s pretty much the only thing I like about the old calendar, though.)

    As for having all the good stuff in half the year, I’m inclined to think it’s a feature, not a bug. Even for us decadent moderns, the busy liturgical season really adds up if one tries seriously to participate, and all those Russian peasants and whatnot must have really needed some time off fasting, church services and feasting to get out and do some work. Plus, the Orthodox do have a two-week fast with Transfiguration and Ladymas in August, and a couple pretty significant days in September too. AND there’s the Apostles Fast (which is too much for me) from a week after Pentecost until June 29: pretty short some years, almost another Lent in others. I rather suspect this last may have been added to address the exact downtime you’re speaking of (plus maybe to prevent folks from getting too jiggy and Pagan at Midsummer). If so, I’d say it was a step too far. Thank God that at least July and October are liturgical time off!

    • Chas Clifton says:

      I figured that you might have something to say, Peculiar.

      My feelings towards that liturgical calendar are no doubt shaped by the years (ages 9-14 or so) that I spent as an altar boy in Broad-to-High Church Episcopal parishes.

      After Pentecost, the colorful vestments went back into the chest of drawers, and for months (special feasts, requiem Masses, etc. excepted), I was there in the sanctuary staring at the same grass-green chasuble that the priests wore all through summer and early autumn, the liturgical season of Trinity. I don’t even like that color — in clothing, as opposed to vegetation.

      I would not blame my disaffection from Christianity on the color of vestments, but aesthetics are important.

  3. [...] having to do with light and the sun have a pre-Christian origin.” Over at his personal blog, Chas further meditates on the Christmas holiday, saying he feels sorry for the Christian clergy who have to battle the real threat to folks [...]

  4. Samantha says:

    We went to my daughter’s high-broad Episcopal church last night (12/24)for midnight Mass, and the priest opened the service by saying he was delighted that the late-night sale the local Nike store was running had not interfered with the congregation’s arrival. And this morning we have to pope ranting about glitz at Christmas time. It’s endemic to our consumer society, which doesn’t make it right, but does make it easier for us Pagans to avoid the commercial distraction from a holyday’s meaning. When stores begin to sell Solstice paraphenalia, Lammas and Beltane wreaths and actually address the true meaning of Samhain in commercial respects, I’ll begin worry about us too…

    • Chas Clifton says:

      Poor man, he is just trying to show how hip and relevant he is with his reference to the Air Jordans.

      Actually, I wonder if it is wreaths that will be advertised at Beltane in the Pagan-majority future. ;)

  5. anne johnson says:

    The Methodists fill October and early November with stewardship sermons. Like one long PBS fundraiser.