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.
Maybe that’s what has happened to Christmas, in the days since Dickens bestrode the season. The ideas and the emotions have all broken free and smashed their way across the fields. From Longfellow’sI heard the bells on Christmas Day / Their old, familiar carols play to Irving Berlin’s I’m dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know, there has been, for a long time now, something oddly backward looking about Christmas lyrics—some nostalgia that insists on substituting its melancholy for the somber contrition and sorrow of Advent. In the same way, childhood memoirs have become the dominant form of Christmas writing. Often beautiful—from Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales to Lillian Smith’s Memories of a Large Christmas—those stories nonetheless deploy their golden-hued Christmassy emotions only toward the past: a kind of contrite feeling without the structure of Advent’s contrition; all the regret and sense of absence cast back to what has been and never will be again.
Meanwhile, weirdly, the forward-looking parts of Advent have also escaped the discipline of the season. In certain ways, the season has become little except anticipation—anticipation run amuck, like children so sick with expectation that the reality can never be satisfying when it finally arrives. This, too, is something broken off from the liturgical year: another group of adventual feelings without the Advent that gave them form, another set of Christmas ideas set loose to drive themselves mad.
Back in the early 1890s, William Dean Howells published a funny little fable called “Christmas Every Day.” Once upon a time, the story begins, “there was a little girl who liked Christmas so much that she wanted it to be Christmas every day in the year.” What’s more, she found a fairy to grant her wish, and she was delighted when Christmas came again on December 26, and December 27, and December 28.
Of course, “after it had gone on about three or four months, the little girl, whenever she came into the room in the morning and saw those great ugly, lumpy stockings dangling at the fireplace, and the disgusting presents around everywhere, used to sit down and burst out crying. In six months she was perfectly exhausted, she couldn’t even cry anymore.” By October, “people didn’t carry presents around nicely anymore. They flung them over the fence or through the window, and, instead of taking great pains to write ‘For dear Papa,’ or ‘Mama’ or ‘Brother,’ or ‘Sister,’ they used to write, ‘Take it, you horrid old thing!’ and then go and bang it against the front door.”
These days, by the time Christmas actually rolls around, it feels as though this is very nearly what we’ve had: Christmas every day, at least since Thanksgiving. Often it starts even earlier. This year I started receiving the glossy catalogues of Christmas clothing and seasonal bric-a-brac in September, and there were Christmas-shopping ads on the highway billboards before Halloween. The anticipatory elements reach a crescendo by early December, and their constant scream makes the sudden quiet of Christmas Day almost a relief from the Christmas season.
I don’t remember quite this much opposition, the battle between Christmas and the Christmas season, when I was young. When I was little (ah, the nostalgia of the childhood memoir), I always felt that the days right before Christmas were a time somehow out of time. Christmas Eve, especially, and the arrival of Christmas itself at midnight: the hours moved in ways different from their passage in ordinary time, and the sense of impending completion was like a flavor to the air I breathed.
I’ve noticed in recent years, however, that this feeling comes over me more rarely than it used to, and for shorter bits of time. I have to pursue the sense of wonder, the taste in the air, and cling to it self-consciously. Even for me, the endless roar of untethered Christmas anticipation is close to drowning out the disciplined anticipation of Advent. And when Christmas itself arrives, it has begun to seem a day not all that different from any other. Oh, yes, church and home to a big dinner. Presents for the children. A set of decorations. But nothing special, really.
This is what Advent, rightly kept, would halt—the thing, in fact, Advent is designed to prevent. Through all the preparatory readings, through all the genealogical Jesse trees, the somber candles on the wreaths, the vigils, and the hymns, Advent keeps Christmas on Christmas Day: a fulfillment, a perfection and completion, of what had gone before.I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh.
Joseph Bottum is a best-selling author of Kindle Singles on Amazon and the author of The Christmas Plains (Image/Random House). This excerpt appears here by permission of the author and all rights are reserved.