Christmas Traditions | Round Table
Christmas is a wonderful time of year, filled with family, food, and festivities. While almost all Christians agree that Christmas is an especially important time of year for the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, not all Christians concur on how to best celebrate the nativity of the Lord. This month’s Round Table reflects on how different traditions celebrate Christmas. As you read this Round Table, we encourage you to reflect not only on what you do to celebrate Christmas, but also on why you do those things.
Strangely enough, Anglicans begin their celebration of Christmas with a time of darkness in the season of Advent—waiting. Waiting for the Light to enter the darkness feels long sometimes. Daily—or at least, weekly—to remind us that our waiting is not in vain, we pray the following collect:
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen1
Much like Easter at the end of Lent, Christmas breaks the darkness and fasting of Advent, replacing it with light and feasting. At a particular point in history, God became a man and made his dwelling among us. We’ve heard this many, many times, but the reality should still quake us, rattle to the heart of the earth and reverberate from every particle. God, the Almighty and Omniscient One, bound himself inside the parameters of flesh and mind—of body, soul, and spirit.
Anglicans prepare for the reality of the Incarnation with a more reflective time of contemplation through evensong, select Scripture readings, and praying the above collect. Of course, there are still Christmas pageants, carols sung, and celebrations of the Christ child’s arrival, but we strive to have those as close to Christmas Day as possible. Christmastide lasts until January 6th, when we celebrate Epiphany (the revelation of the Incarnation to the Gentiles, in the remembering the Magi’s visit to Jesus). The Christmas season is marked by various celebrations and feast days, including Jesus’ circumcision, commemoration of the holy innocents murdered by king Herod, the feast of Saint Stephen, etc.Show Sources
A key aspect of how Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate any liturgical feast is in our preparation for the feast. The liturgical cycle is such that it helps us live our Christian lives by constant remembrance (anamnesis) of events—and preparation for events—in the life of the Church. In the Orthodox Church, the Liturgical New Year is celebrated on September 1st and, in a sense, our preparation for Christmas begins at this time as well. First, we celebrate the Nativity of the Most-Holy Theotokos (Birth of Mary) on September 8, then, on September 14, the Exaltation of the Cross (when Saints Constantine and Helen found the cross of Christ in the fourth century). On the September 23, we commemorate the conception of the Forerunner and Baptist, John. In October (18), we remember the Evangelist Luke, in November (16) the Evangelist Matthew. And then, on 21 November, we remember the entry of the Mother of God into the temple—when her parents, Joachim and Anna, like so many before them, gave their only child back to God—where she lived until her early teens when she and a widower named Joseph, who became her caretaker from then on, were betrothed. All of this enables us to embody the full story of Christ’s coming to earth through our immaculate lady the Theotokos.
Each year, Orthodox Christians fast for forty days in order to prepare the lowly caves (mangers) of our hearts—home to the irrational beasts of passion—to receive Christ during the Divine Liturgy on Christmas Day. Fasting, in the Orthodox Church, is not just an exercise in food selection or portion control (those these are certainly part of it, as laid out by the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church), but there is also an emphasises on almsgiving and mindful abstention from potentially harmful words, deeds, and actions (as we are to abstain from them all the time, the frequent times of fasting give us a chance to reflect, perhaps more often, in order to remember this). These steps of preparation are essential to the celebration of Christ’s Incarnation. The week after Christmas Day is fast-free, that is, Orthodox Christians will not fast on our normal fasting days Wednesday and Friday, as we continue to celebrate the Nativity.
Another part of the Christmas season for Orthodox Christians, is the feast day of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, on December 6, when children leave out their shoes, to be filled by the heretic-slapping Saint Nic with golden coins, raisins, and the like.
Small “t” traditions vary in local Orthodox communities (such as the time of Liturgy, what kind of feast is held afterward, how people celebrate with family, etc.) but the means of preparation is the same. Far from being a strict, rule-based system as many outsiders seem to think of it, the Orthodox Church realizes that we need physical reminders and manifestations of these mysteries in order to fully remember (anamnesis) them—a remembrance that allows us to literally partake of the mystery, just as, in our remembrance (anamnesis) of Christ in the Eucharist, we partake of His very body and blood.
Christ is come to heal the human person.
Christ is born! Glorify Him!
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas . . .” Or, rather conjuring up memories of a few, scattered, semi-white Christmases. South of the Mason-Dixon line, snowfall in December is rather spotty—the further south you head, the less frequent it becomes. But, I digress. What we really are here to discuss is how my tradition celebrates Christmas. The answer is slightly difficult to pin down. As we work our way from broad to specific, though, we should be able to illuminate the topic a bit more.
On a broad scale, I am an amalgamation of both the Reformed and non-denominational traditions. This is a helpful bit of context for my observations. In my experience between these two Traditions, there seem to be two different approaches to celebrating Christmas. Generally speaking, Reformed churches seem to tend to be rather liturgical. The church calendar is often followed, and special services often pop up around the major Christian holidays (such as Christmas and Easter). Non-denominational churches, on the other hand, seem to take a more casual observation of the holiday. The weeks leading up to Christmas will certainly be filled with Christmas hymns, but the sermons (with the exception of the Sunday before Christmas) are not necessarily Christmas themed. With a broad perspective of the influences on my thought, we can look at the specific stance of my tradition, more narrowly defined.
If we are going to be nit-picky, I am technically a Reformed Baptist, rather than say, a Presbyterian. On many questions, the difference is negligible (if it is even present). The question of Christmas though, seems to be one where the differences are more noticeable and worth pointing out. As mentioned above, the Reformed tradition as a whole seems more inclined to following a liturgical calendar, solemnizing the celebration of Christmas.
The Reformed Baptist tradition however, at least from the experience at my church, does not seem to follow our Presbyterian cohorts here. Instead, we add Christmas-y reminders to our service the Sunday before Christmas (Christmas hymns, a Christmas reading for the call to worship) and, as we are able, hold a Christmas Eve service. Our pastor will continue with his sermon series wherever he left off the week before. The reasoning for this approach, as far as I’ve understood it is as follows: Christ’s birth is not commemorated in Scripture as the turning point in redemption’s story—the Resurrection is. Without the Resurrection, Christ’s birth would be meaningless.
Combined with the above thought is an adherence to the regulative principle of worship (short definition: Corporate worship should follow the directions and principles laid out in Scripture). Between these two, we see little direction to commemorate Christ’s birth, but clear celebration of his Resurrection. This being the case, specific commemoration and celebration of Christ’s birth doesn’t seem to fit in the normal, corporate worship of the body. In no way does this downplay the importance of the Incarnation (individually, we all celebrate that throughout this time of year, in addition to a special service dedicated to rejoicing in it), but instead states that, like most of the other attributes of God, it should be celebrated as part of our normal services.
That all being said, you might have noticed that my attachment to these ideas has been, well, tentative. On the one hand, solemnity often holds attraction for me. The aesthetics of our worship are important. This being the case, following a liturgical calendar and celebrating Advent strikes me as a rather wonderful practice. At the same time, my current church leadership doesn’t see this as particularly necessary. And it is never a good idea to contradict one’s pastor willy-nilly. So, for the time being, I personally follow my local church’s direction, but will probably be inquiring more about the reasoning behind it in the near future. After all, what good is a question that’s never asked? In the meantime, I hope that, white or not, your Christmas is filled with the joy of family and friends, and wonder at the Incarnation of our Lord.
Writing as a Christian “seeking” a denominational home, my answer to this month’s Round Table query takes an especially personal tone.
First and foremost, I celebrate the person and message of Christmas within the broader person and work of Jesus. That is, Christmas marks the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God, who would later be crucified, buried, and raised from the dead as the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ birth stands as a decisive moment in God’s redemption of the world, as that moment at which the Divine entered the world as an enfleshed human being. All of Jesus’ subsequent actions occur in light of when the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us. Thus, the celebration of Christmas takes place within the ongoing (and eventually eternal) celebration of God’s work in the world.
Second, I celebrate Christmas within the parameters of the Great Christian Tradition, joining with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as celebrating Christmas as the culmination of the season of preparation, called Advent. During this Church season, many Christians prepare their hearts and minds for the coming of Jesus through increased focus on the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, and the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth and personhood. Advent serves as an extended celebration of Christ’s birth by enabling contemporary Christians to experience how God’s People waited for the Messiah and participate in their joy at his arrival.
Third, I celebrate Christmas with family and friends, as a season of joy, giving, and thanksgiving for the blessings God has bestowed upon us all. Typically, this involves church festivities, family festivities, and Christmas parties of various sorts, each full of food, fun, and fellowship. In like manner to the future second coming of the Bridegroom, we celebrate the first coming of Jesus with great joy.