The other day, as I sipped my extra hot Egg Nog Latte in its red cup™ and checked Twitter to see what people were saying about the release of John Lewis’ #montythepenguin advert, I glanced up at the new banners that were being hung at Westfield, my local shopping mall. The typically festive – and brand compliant – red banners are emblazoned with this strapline:
“The Christmas before Christmas.”
In case you missed it, the ads are suggesting that buying presents, going skating, partying and, essentially, spending money at Westfield are all Christmas – just a Christmas we celebrate until we get to the actual holiday of Christmas on 25 December.
This made me smile. I have friends who, like clockwork, see the launch of the secular Christmas season as the time to start saying: “It’s not Christmas yet,” to whoever brings up the subject. And, traditionally, of course, that’s true. The season prior to Christmas is “Advent”, meaning “coming” – a time of waiting. A time of expectation. A time of reflection, prayer and preparation for the big celebration of Christmas, commemorating the incarnation of Jesus. It’s also a dual celebration as the Church looks forward to a time when Jesus will return and all wrongs will be righted in, what he called, “the age to come”.
While lots of Christians love observing Advent in a kind of traditional way – although I don’t know many who fast for advent any more and most churches I know hold their Christmas carol service during Advent – I start to celebrate Christmas pretty much from the end of Fireworks night! Maybe I’m still a big kid – delayed gratification is part of growing up, after all. But I think the Christmas season is miraculous in our culture. It affirms so much of what the incarnation and the second coming is all about.
First, I really think we should be slow to criticise the instinct our culture has to eat, drink and be merry. Yes, the over-consumption and consumerism that comes with an imperfect celebration of Christmas are something to be critiqued, but we know that one of the things the incarnation means is that God thinks physicality is good. Eating is good, drinking is good, celebrating is good. Remember, Jesus was known as an eater and drinker and a ‘friend of sinners’. The “age to come” that Jesus spoke of so much is repeatedly described as a great banquet – a party – for whoever will take part in it.
Surely Christians should be the best celebrators during the Christmas period? After all, we know the kingdom of God is a party, don’t we?
Second, the Christmas season raises questions for people. For example, when Sainsbury’s released their Christmas advert this year, depicting the Christmas Truce of 1914 during the First World War, it raised questions: why would two enemies stop fighting at Christmas? What is it about Christmas that means we try to be a bit kinder and express love a bit more? Moreover, it also raised questions about whether a supermarket should use this type of subject matter for an advert. It’s almost as if people instinctively know that consumerism isn’t really what Christmas should be about, isn’t it?
So, surely we should be helping people ask questions during this season, too?
But, I hear you cry, what about all the reflecting and waiting and thinking about Christmas during Advent? Don’t we lose something if we just approve of all this Christmassing before Christmas?
Well, I think the secular rhythm of the Christmas season gives us another gift. That period between Christmas and New Year that I refer to as “Chrimbo Limbo”. It’s the week that you forget what day it is; annual retrospective documentaries start appearing on TV; people start planning New Years’ resolutions. In short, it’s a period of time that people are naturally reflecting and waiting and preparing.
Dare I say it’s the Advent after Christmas?
So, what do you think? Do we miss a trick by not engaging with people in this natural rhythm? Or should we fight for Christmas to be celebrated from 25 December and not before? I’d love to hear your thoughts…