This past weekend as I ran some errands with my family, I was amazed at the transformation of all of the stores out there.
Last week, they were bedecked in orange and black, with scary monsters, pumpkins, and ghosts everywhere you looked. This week, they are red and green, with holiday lights, holiday trees, holiday ornaments, holiday baking centers, holiday clothes, and, of course, holiday gifts.
Of course, much of this holiday paraphernalia has been visible since the back-t0-school sales ended in early July, but it has been a little more discreet, and a little less ubiquitous. Now, however, with Halloween dissipated like the mist from a haunted graveyard at sunrise, and Thanksgiving looming on the autumn horizon like a frightened Meleagris gallopavo, there's no further reason for the retailers of the United States to show any more restraint; indeed, since this holiday season is their single-biggest money maker of the year, holding off any longer from creating a holiday mood to entice holiday shoppers would be a nearly-suicidal mistake for them to make.
So sometime between last Wednesday and this past weekend, busy elves in stores across this great nation pulled down fake cobwebs and fake gravestones in order to put up huge fake cutouts of holiday cheer, all to get all of those holiday dollars secure in their cash registers before it's too late for them to dream of holiday solvency.
And there will be plenty of holiday shoppers, cutting each other off in holiday traffic, racing to the mall and the discount centers and the post office to get all those holiday packages and holiday cards off in the mail on time...
I once wrote to a couple of catalog companies thanking them for their "holiday" catalogs, and then explaining to them that I didn't celebrate "holiday" and didn't, in fact, know what "holiday" was. Oh, I got the standard politically correct response, about how there are lots of holidays celebrated in December, but I have yet to find anyone who is capable of showing me a Jewish "Holiday" tree, or Eid ul-Adha "Holiday" ornaments or creche, or Kwanzaa "Holiday" stockings. The fact of the matter is that none of those other holidays are celebrated anything like the Holiday they won't name; none of them are celebrated with the massive gift exchange that props up our whole retail sector of our economy; none of them involve huge expenditures of hard-earned dollars on such frivolous elements as plastic lighted reindeer for the front lawn or strings of colored light with which to outline every peak of our homes. There's only one Holiday around which we plan and shop and spend, and it's the one Holiday that none of the companies who take our money will ever admit they're helping us celebrate.
Many Christians have become increasingly frustrated with all of this, so much so that some of them are turning each year to a good old-fashioned holiday boycott. The concept is simple: they refuse to spend money with retailers who won't advertise the name of the holiday around which they rally each year, with trees and lights and cards and gifts. It's not a bad idea, as far as it goes; but my feeling is that it doesn't go far enough.
When did Christians accept the secular retail culture's timing of this particular Holiday, after all? When did we agree to celebrate our Holiday beginning the day after Halloween, ramping our efforts into high gear the day after Thanksgiving, and collapsing into a state of sickened exhaustion as we stand in the mile-long return lines on the 26th of December?
When did we stop celebrating the Twelve Days of...? When did we start ignoring Epiphany, moving it to the nearest Sunday for the sake of liturgical convenience? When did we begin to agree that the high point of the whole celebration was not the special and beautiful Mass of the Nativity, but the stacks and stacks of packages under the tree the next morning?
When did the Sundays in Advent become mere countdowns to the frantic and the stressful? When did the lighting of the candles in the family Advent wreath become an activity that unintentionally underscores the swift passage of time, and the sheer amount of Stuff Left to Do Before...When did Advent cease to be a time of prayer and reflection, and become a time filled with grumpiness and greed?
Our Christian friends speak of a war on this particular holiday, but I think for those of us who are Catholics, the real casualty in this war has been Advent, a beautiful liturgical season we can't really afford to do without. Easter, after all, would not be so meaningful to us without the forty days of penitential preparation beforehand, and though Advent's character isn't as strictly penitential as Lent's, it is still meant to be a time of peace, a time to prepare our hearts not only to remember with joyful celebration the birth of the Christ child into the world, but to prepare ourselves to meet Him face to face one day. Though I believe that our Lord always smiles on our real acts of generosity and selflessness, whenever we are generous and selfless in His name, I also think that He knows all too well that these good spirits are far from us at the very season when we should, by our prayers and practices, be preparing ourselves for His coming.
Let the merchants push their wares by playing holiday tunes and filling holiday displays with temptingly discounted holiday gifts and goodies. Let us take a deep breath or two and make our plans, not for their version of "holiday" but for our own special keeping of Advent; and then, with our hearts focused on the greatest Gift we have ever been given, we can truly and sincerely celebrate Christmas.
All twelve days of it.