As the store displays and on-line ads for Christmas start earlier and earlier each year, it is hard to know when the Christmas season begins. It used to be just after Thanksgiving, then early November, then Halloween, and now even in September the commercial rush for Christmas begins. Some of our churches even start their Christmas celebrations and decorations and events well ahead of the season of Advent which leads up to Christmas. Just when does Christmas begin?
Even more difficult is to know when Christmas ends. Some of our neighbors seem to have removed their Christmas decorations the day or two after December 25th, and the post-Christmas sales have begun in earnest. Is Christmas already over? Did we rush through September, October, November, and the first 24 days of December just to get it over with? I overhead one person in a coffee shop in mid-December complaining about all the efforts required for Christmas, and he concluded by telling his friend in a loud enough voice for most of us to hear, "I'll just be glad when the damn thing is over."
Christmas traditions vary, of course, and some of them today seem quaint in the midst of the rush of "commercial Christmas." My wife, Marsha, grew up in a family where their home had no Christmas tree or decorations prior to Christmas Eve. Then the kids awoke on Christmas morning to find the house decorated, a beautiful Christmas tree, and presents under the tree from Santa – the idea being that Christmas comes as a total gift for which the kids were to wait in anticipation. Of course, I suspect their Christmas morning also meant very tired parents from doing all that decorating during the night! I wonder ... would anyone be willing to wait like that now?
I grew up in a home where my parents waited to decorate until after Thanksgiving, but the day after Thanksgiving started the rush of decorating. Since it seemed that my mother hung lights and decorations on anything that was not moving, it took a while to do all of that decorating. Then we would keep those decorations up until at least New Year's Day. Later in life after my parents heard their seminary-trained son talk about the 12 days of Christmas leading up to Epiphany, they would not un-decorate until January 6th.
So how about your family or your traditions? When does Christmas begin and end for you?
Our Christian calendar says that Advent is the time leading up to Christmas and helping us to prepare ourselves spiritually for the celebration of the coming of Christ on December 25th. Then the Christmas season continues until Epiphany Day on January 6th, which is the day many Christians (especially in the Orthodox tradition) actually give gifts to one another – remembering that the Wise Men brought gifts. Sadly, I don't find that many Christians in North America pay much attention to Advent and its meanings that run much deeper than just preparing for Christmas. Even fewer pay attention to Epiphany and its reminders about gifts and the extension of the Good News to the whole world. Advent and Epiphany could help us to find deeper meaning in Christmas, but we are in such a rush to "do Christmas" that we often don't do Christmas very well.
Perhaps Christmas "ends" when we forget the lessons of love and grace which come in the Christmas story. Christmas is really over when we lose the sense of peace which pervades even our dark world on Christmas Eve as we light our candles and draw closer to God and to one another. We are really finished with Christmas when we let the spirit of Christmas fade into the dullness of our everyday routines.
Maybe it doesn't have to be that way. No matter when we take down the decorations or finish with the Christmas events and parties, maybe Christmas can continue as a state of mind, as a spirit of peace, and as a spiritual focus in our lives. Maybe after singing and proclaiming the Good News of Christ, maybe – just maybe – we can live in that Good News every day.
Is Christmas over? I hope not.