An Excerpt from "The Christmas Plains"
[Editor’s Note: Aleteia is pleased to offer this selection, the first in a series, from Joseph Bottum’s "The Christmas Plains," a dazzling, poetic, and insightful memoir of growing up and celebrating Christmas in South Dakota. In this excerpt, the author reminds us of the true meaning of the Advent season.]
What happens when Christmas absorbs the conditions for its own meaning? When the huge, ungainly thing grows so big that it eats up even its Christianity? For Christmas has, over the past century, devoured Advent, gobbling it up with the turkey giblets and the goblets of seasonal ale. Yes, yes, I know: Every secularized holiday tends to lose, in public contexts, the meaning it holds in the religious calendar. Across the nation, even in some of the churches, Easter has hopped across Lent, Halloween has frightened away All Saints, and New Year’s has swallowed up Epiphany.
Still, the disappearance of Advent in our common understanding is a difficulty—for it’s injured even the secular Christmas season: opening a hole, from Thanksgiving on, that can be filled only with fiercer, madder, and wilder attempts to anticipate Christmas. More Christmas trees. More Christmas lights. More tinsel, more tassels, more glitter, more glee—until the glut of candies and carols, ornaments and trimmings, has left almost nothing for Christmas Day. For much of America—even for me, out here in the Black Hills of South Dakota—Christmas itself arrives as an afterthought: not the fulfillment, but only the end, of the long yule season that has burned without stop since the stores began their Christmas sales.
It’s true that in the liturgical calendar, the season points ahead to Christmas. Advent genuinely proclaims an advent—a time before, a looking forward—and it lacks meaning without Christmas. But maybe Christmas, in turn, lacks meaning without the penitential season of Advent to go before it. The daily Bible readings in the churches during Advent are filled with visions of things yet to be—a constant barrage of the future tense. Think of Isaiah’s And it shall come to pass . . . And there shall come forth . . . A longing pervades the Old Testament selections read in the weeks before Christmas—an anxious, almost sorrowful litany of hope only in what has not yet come. Zephaniah. Judges. Malachi. Numbers. I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.
At its root, Advent is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation and channeling it toward its goal. There’s a flicker of rose on the third Sunday—Gaudete!, the Latin of that day’s Mass begins: Rejoice!—but then it’s back to the dark purple that is the sign of the season in liturgical churches. And what those somber vestments symbolize is the atonement and promise of reform we make during Advent. Nothing we do can earn us the gift of Christmas, any more than Lent wins us Easter. But a season of contrition and sacrifice prepares us to understand and feel something about just how great the gift is when at last the day itself arrives.
More than any other holiday, Christmas seems to need its setting in the church year, for without it we have a diminishment of language, a diminishment of culture, and a diminishment of imagination. The Jesse trees and the Advent calendars, St. Martin’s Fast and St. Nicholas’s Feast—the childless crèches, the candle wreaths, the vigil of Christmas Eve: They give a shape to the anticipation of the season. They discipline the ideas and emotions that would otherwise shake themselves to pieces, like a flywheel wobbling wilder and wilder until it finally snaps off its axle.