Advent Euphemisms and the Assault on Language
The commercialization of Christmas is hardly news. Proclaiming a so-called “War on Christmas” is not enough for some, who ante up their virtue-signaling and cultural critique into announcing a “War on Advent.” In 2012, theologian Diana Butler Bass argued, specifically against Fox News, that the shopping frenzy before Christmas degraded Christ’s Nativity more than a cultural shift away from well-wishing “Merry Christmas” toward a more general “Happy Holidays.” Father Bill Olnhausen, a retired Orthodox pastor, recently opined that Christians have already lost Advent to secularization, and have likewise have also lost Epiphany to football. It is largely Christians who mourn the loss or minimization of Advent, since the broader American culture barely knows or notices that the season exists.
Christmas, December 25 in America, remains a federal holiday, a day that is both a civil and a religious holiday. As America becomes more diverse, common traditions in the marketplace and town square become harder to find, and some people of faith mourn the ascendance of the secular holiday over the religious one. A few years ago I lamented that the only Advent calendar I could purchase was a chocolate open-the-window affair dubiously named Countdown To Christmas, but I hardly took offense at the omission of the key term “Advent” since the self-indulgence of daily candy was inconsistent with the reflective anticipation I sought.
This year, however, I was dismayed to find a “Candle Ring Wreath” marketed with the fresh greens at a local store. I’m hardly a grammar vandal who goes around correcting street signs—although I have been known to criticize a poorly worded newspaper headline—but the awkwardness of the phrase drew my attention and, admittedly, my ire. “Vigorous writing is concise,” Strunk & White famously advise in The Elements of Style. I was upset not by the omission of a religious season that relatively few in my cosmopolitan community may honor, but by the egregious use of the English language.
When I was a Children’s Librarian, I would visit daycare centers and share a plush book-shaped toy with soft, turnable pages, a smiling face, and scrawny limbs. “We all have names,” I explained to the fidgeting children, “and a book has a name which is called a title, and it has parents we call the author and illustrator.” Words have “parents” too. Word origins contain history in a nutshell.
Imagine a world in which society renamed the peregrine falcon to “wandering falcon” to avoid the historical origins of the term peregrine, from the Latin peregrinus, meaning a wanderer or pilgrim—a Christian pilgrim, a traveler to the Holy Land. Hospitals might instead be called Healing-Places to avoid acknowledging the Christian virtue of hospitality-in-action that led to the founding of hospitals (e.g. St. Basil’s hospital founded ~370) and the Knights Hospitaller, who provided aid to medieval travelers in the Mediterranean region. Schools might stop teaching Algebra—from the Arabic, al-jabr—and offer instead Advanced Arithmetic with Variables.
The apparently benign expungement of Christian terminology illustrated by the Candle Ring Wreath reveals an alarming tendency in contemporary American society; it amounts to re-writing history. Far too civilized to burn books, our culture instead excises language itself. In her young adult novel, The Giver, Lois Lowry writes of a dystopian world where language and the associated ability to express complex concepts has been reduced to a minimum. Babies are cared for in a Nurturing Center while elders live in a House of the Old. Pain and differences have been eliminated, and the setting is literally a colorless world. When the protagonist, Jonas, first begins to see the color red, he has no word for it. As the book progresses, he learns to see and name colors. He learns to want more than sanitized safety, even though this can involve pain. “Candle Ring Wreath” is as harmless and colorless as Lowry’s “Nurturing Center.” No one is offended, but neither is anyone edified.
Advent, used in this context to describe a wreath, is a word that is itself a metaphor. Rooted in Latin (adventus, meaning “coming”), it explains the purpose of the wreath. We await the coming of Christ. For four weeks, or forty days–depending upon one’s tradition–we await the approaching Nativity. To rephrase the descriptor is to eliminate the purpose of the wreath. The greens are no mere decoration. It is more than a circlet adorned with candles. For many, it is a devotional aid, a time to offer daily or weekly prayers. “Candle Ring Wreath” loses these inbuilt connotations. Worse, the phrase is an affront to aesthetics. It’s clunky. A store’s attempt toward inclusivity results in ugly wordiness.
Much has been already said and written about the so-called culture wars and the loss of Christian hegemony in our culture. I worry more about the loss of language and the loss of metaphor. When Candle-Ring-Wreath replaces Advent, we have lost more than Christian symbolism. We are losing language itself, substituting bland imprecision for poetry. I practice Advent because, like the Psalmist, my soul thirsts for God; I know that I live in “a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63). Only metaphor can describe our life with or without God. My fear is not so much that Advent and Christmas will be erased from our culture, but that when we avoid these words, we will be left in a bland and colorless world, an arid desert bereft of history.
In the Orthodox tradition, the five-day forefeast, or pre-feast, of the Nativity of Christ is marked by a hymn proclaiming that Christ is the “Tree of Life [who] hath blossomed forth in the cave from the Holy Virgin.” The Virgin Mary’s womb is the cave “wherein the divine and saving Tree is found.” Christ is the Tree of Life which counteracts the curse of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from which Adam and Eve ate. Metaphor upon metaphor upon metaphor! So much of Christianity is a metaphor—a metaphor that is also true. My favorite is that we are adopted as children of God. Metaphor is not only the best way, but in some cases, the only way to express deeper truths.
Christ is the Word, the eternal Logos (also a metaphor). God spoke the universe into being. While we await the Nativity of Christ, society dilutes the beauty of language.
O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in her ways to go.
(“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” Advent hymn)
Cynthia Long is a librarian and writer with an interest in fairy tales, Celtic mythology, and the intersections between Christianity and folklore. She has an MLS in Library Science from Simmons College and an MFA in Writing from Rosemont College. In 2016 her MFA thesis, an early draft of her novel about faeries in America, was awarded “Thesis of The Year.” She recently spoke at the 2017 Doxacon Prime convention on C.S. Lewis’s oft-quoted phrase that “someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” She blogs about literature, folklore, and faith at cynthiajunelong.wordpress.com.
Christian Background: An escapee from an Evangelical upbringing, Cynthia has sampled faith traditions from Anglicanism to Wicca (no X, Y, or Z yet). She is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, contributes to Orthodox Christian Network’s “The Sounding” blog, and maintains her parish library at the St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Upper Darby, PA.