Saturday, 6 December 2008

...and so with Saint Nicholas and all the saints...

I couldn't resist showing you a picture of this Edwardian Christmas card. I must apologise for my poor photography (yet again) but it shows Father Christmas giving a naughty boy a bit of a whack on the bottom with what looks like a collection of birch twigs. Yes, good old Santa was birching a small child whilst another child opens a collection of rather wonderful turn-of-the-century presents. I'm assuming the little boy was made of slugs and snails and puppy dog's tails and the little girls was all sugar and spice and all things nice. I'm pretty sure cultural studies students would have a field day deconstructing this image! Wowzers!

Our St Nicholas is a little more benign though. He comes on his horse every year and brings the kids three gold coins and a Christmas tree ornament. The idea is that when they leave home they can take their St Nicholas gifts away with them for their own tree. This isn't really a traditional tradition for St Nicholas day, but a tradition we just made up to tell the story of the good saint in our own way.

It's our church's patronal festival today, and I like the fact that the church we attend is dedicated to such a fun saint! Well, fun in the sense that most people have an idea of of Saint Nicholas' generosity of spirit, if not who the man actually was and what he actually did. To cut a long story short he was a Turkish Bishop who anonymously gave dowries to three sisters, this saved the poor girls from prostitution, but was also the beginning of the tradition of giving presents at this time of year and the story got mixed together with the gifts of the Magi and pagan traditions of the winter solstice. Sifting out the Christian tradition within the whole Father Christmas thing is a tricky process, and if I were honest with you, I love the whole secular shebang of Christmas. I love Santa, Christmas trees, soppy movies, parties, feasting, Christmas pop songs, therefore I tend to keep Father Christmas secular and Saint Nicholas Christian. My eldest girl is making connections between St Nicholas and Father Christmas, now that she's old enough to realise that mum and dad are buying the gifts, and she enjoys listening to stories about the saint and feels connected to him as a good, caring, Christian man.

Which of course brings me onto Advent and Christmas as distinctly Christian festivals, and how I try to celebrate these festivals whilst still embracing the secular nature of Christmas. First, I think we Christians must realise that this time of year has always been a time for celebration. In pre-Christian Britain December was a feasting month and the early church adopted the times and dates of this pagan festival as their own. This is called inculturation, the early church simply used the existing rhythms of the year to spread its own redeeming message of Christ's love for us. I think we modern British Christians can learn a good lesson from our forefathers in the early British church. That is to say, we can claim the good bits about the secular festival of Christmas for our very own. People are selflessly giving of themselves at this time of year, they are more generous in spirit, the media culture which surrounds Christmas appears to be more loving, caring, gentle and wonder-full (less violent, sexual and depressing) and people are more likely to attend a church service at this time of year than any other time in the church calender...and EVERYBODY adores the story of the Nativity, this positivity is an expression of God's goodness working within our culture, Christmas proves that the secular has not quite lost its sense of wonder just yet.

Anyway, here's what I do to keep the festival Christian in our home. It's a right old mixture and a bit personal, but I thought you'd be interested anyway.

  • I get the present buying over and done with by the end of November. This leaves me free to concentrate on Advent. For those who aren't into liturgy, Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year and is a time for reflection and penance. I desperately try to "keep" Advent, we all need a time of peace, reflection, and time to make ourselves "right with God"...I'm glad this time has been planned into the year...I'm organisationally challenged! Now, it is also a desperately busy time of year if you are a parent. I've ranted on to various blogchums about how busy I am right now, so I shan't bore you again, but I'm glad I bought my presents and made my pudding when I did, otherwise I would loose Advent.

  • I make an Advent wreath and use Advent calenders. Lighting the candles is an important count-down for my kids and is a calming way to remind ourselves of the meaning of the season. We also celebrate St Nicholas day.

  • We keep the secular festival of Christmas out of the house for as long as possible. Which means I don't decorate until Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete Sunday is the third Sunday in Advent, it's when we light the pink candle on the wreath, the candle that represents joy. Traditionally, when people would fast for Advent, Gaudette Sunday acted like Mothering Sunday in Lent, a time when the fast could be broken, a time for a mini-party to celebrate the coming joy of the birth of Our Saviour, Jesus Christ. It is this time when I get out the mince pies, or Christmas biscuits, put the tree up and get all Christmassy-fied! From here on in we can watch Christmas movies, put Christmas music on the CD player and so on and so forth. This, I feel, gives Christian meaning to the decorations. Hurray! We're joyous!!

  • I tell the story of St Boniface when I put the tree up. Here was a man who believed in inculturation! Although he was born in Devon he worked as a missionary in unconverted Germany, where he taught the people to worship the Creator and not the creation. He asked them to decorate an evergreen tree in honour of Christ's birth and this simple idea caught on. The fact that a Christmas tree is an evergreen (as opposed to the pagan oak, yule, log) is important because it represents the fact that Christ did not die, He lives on!

  • We make a big deal of the Nativity. It's important for the girls to love this story, to feel the gifts within this story and the wonder of this story. Christ's birth and the reasons for Christ's birth are easily understood by even very small children, my belief is that this resonance is innate, we are born loving this story. Too many children have their sense of wonder squelched at too young an age in our culture, the Nativity acts as a de-squelcher!

Now, other than going to church every Sunday and on Christmas day, I suppose this is all we do that is markedly different to the traditions of a secular family. But thinking about it, what we actually do is very similar to the average non-believing family's traditions. However, as with most things, it's not what we do at Christmas that's important but why we do it. Why we should keep Christ in our hearts, why the festival brings us closer to our Creator...and let's face it the Christmas season can be a time when we're so angry, bitter and stressed that we feel disconnected from our Creator, forgetting our faith. For me the rhythm of the liturgical year and our family traditions help keep me mindful of my relationship with God, the gifts He has given to the world and the blessings He has bestowed on me. I'd love to hear your traditions for Advent and Christmas. Speak up, gentle reader!


Nan said...

I loved this! And I am just the same way - I happily enjoy the religious and the secular, and I don't care when people go on about oh, this is from the pagans and the solstice. It doesn't matter. I like your word, inculturation - I hadn't heard it before yet it explains perfectly. Sometimes people speak as if somehow Christmas is 'less' simply because the older traditions are incorporated (inculturated). I love them all and feel they fit together beautifully, except for that spanking Santa - I don't like him one bit. The whole 'naughty and nice' thing, coal in the stocking. I think it has faded out quite nicely even from when I was a girl. I get my tree early in Advent simply because I love its presence in the house for most of the month, and as much as I'd like to do the whole tree until twelfth night, I just can't. After Christmas, I want it down. I guess I feel my Advent and my Christmas are quite part of a whole. Shopping, baking, cards all seem to be both - anticipation and joy. Anyhow, I've gone on and on, but I did so enjoy reading this. You are very thoughtful, and you express your thoughts beautifully.
Oh, and starting when our children were in 7th grade, we gave them one ornament a year, then 8th grade -two, until by 12th grade they had quite a collection to take out into the world, into their own homes with them.

monix said...

I have just arrived home from a day of retreat, my way of making Advent special. It was lovely to read your post, reinforcing all that I've been reflecting on during the day.

Every year,I organise an Advent activities day for the children of the parish. We held this last Saturday, making the Advent wreath and Jesse Tree for the church.

Zillah said...

Great post, DD.

I'm a great stickler for Advent traditions, and all must be just so.

The first thing that happens is the Christmas box is opened, and the Christmas books, sheet music, cds and the nativity scenes come out.

Then we eat mince pies. I adore mince pies. I have an awful confession. I've made 72 so far this Advent. Only 8 made it to the freezer. Ooops.

Decorations go up slowly, but the Christmas tree does not enter the house until the night before Christmas Eve, when it comes in to let its branches settle. On Christmas Eve we decorate it in time to admire it while listening to Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings and, you guessed it, eating mince pies!

DH and I both feel that we would like some more overtly spiritual aspects to Advent and Christmas, but it's hard to find exactly the right thing. Quaker's don't really do Christmas, so there's no tradition to draw on. We'll probably go to some services at the Abbey Church over Christmas, but it needs more thought. Hmmmmm.


Dulce Domum said...

Hi Nan
I've just read that the tradition of giving candy canes comes from the idea that Santa would spank naughty children!

I'm glad you like the whole "inculturated" idea. I'm quite a folkie (into folk traditions, not just the music)and a lot of English traditions are a weird mixture of pagan and Christian. Having corn dollies in church during harvest festival comes from a very old country tradition/superstition, which was taken up by early Victorian vicars with country parishes, Christian-ised and inculturated. Anyhoo, I could go on.

My lot think I'm a big meanie for not letting a tree into the house before the third Sunday in Advent!

Hi Monix
I'm so glad you enjoyed your retreat. I wouldn't mind doing a bit of retreating myself. You know, I've heard a lot about Jesse trees this year. I don't think our Junior Church have done one, but they do look fun.

Hi Zillah
Such prodigious mince pie consumption is worth a round of applause. I'm glad you've got eight in the freezer though, you may get hungry in the middle of the night. There would be a riot in our house if we left putting the tree up until Christmas Eve (this is what I would prefer). Enjoy the services at your Abbey church!

Angela said...

Like Nan, I enjoy having the tree up early in Advent.I love the idea of Gaudete Sunday though[ we nonconformists only seem to have red candles, not pink ones etc]

I always thought the candy cane represented the shepherd's crook - and the other way up was a J for Jesus - sweet as his love for us, white for his purity and red for his blood that was shed.

I tried really hard with my children to get the Real Meaning of the Season across to them- maybe too hard - one year in Sunday School, they were decorating paper table cloths before serving mince pies after church to the congregation. Liz found a black marker pen and wherever another child had drawn Father Christmas, she wrote "SANTA is an anagram of SATAN"

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Angela
We nearly went all non-conformist this year! Could I find purple and rose candles? Could I wotsit! Ebay came to the rescue however. I think I prefer your interpretation of the meaning of candy canes...much, much nicer than spanking Santa!

Gumbo Lily said...

Mrs. Goodwyfe,
I loved reading all about your Advent and Christmas celebrating. We too, celebrate Advent with nightly devotional readings, lighting of candles as you do. This year I (the Advent mother) decided we'd take a step back in time and read stories and poems each night from The Book of Virtues as we did when the children were Littles. We have just two kids home yet, and they're enjoying this little flashback. Me too. We also celebrate St. Nick's Day. I usually buy the chocolate letters for each family member but this year chose to make them with molds. Let's just say they turned out very rustic... but appreciated nonetheless.

Advent keeps our eyes on what we believe and Who we believe in and I like that. We also do all the other Christmas celebrating too -- tree cutting, wreaths, jingle bells, lights and gifts.

Happy Advent Keeping,

Dulce Domum said...

Hi O'Pioneer!
Your Advent sounds lovely. I once tried to make my own Easter eggs using're right about the rustic results. I think observing Advent is good for kids, not just spiritually, but physically. Little ones get wound up in December unless they can find some quiet time at home, Advent provides that.

Left-Handed Housewife said...

Our Advent observances are much like your family's--and we keep the tree out until the third week, too! I like entering the holiday season through Advent observances, and then going wild that last week and a half--decorations, cookies, punch (no mince pies--you should post a recipe and I'll give them a try!), lots of music and candles and bells and Santa Claus musings (we're all still believers), the whole pagan deal. Joy to the world, indeed.

Very enjoyable post, per usual.


Melissa said...

I loved this entry, and I have shared it with many people. With my Anglican friends, as a reinvigoration of our Advent preparation in our hearts, and with my non-Anglican friends as an explanation of why I hold the rhythm Christian calendar so dear. The reflection on His gifts during Advent are so meaningful, and for me, calm me down when I become frazzled with the To Do lists of this time of year. Thank you also for putting into words what I held in my heart about intertwining the secular and the sacred. I agree with you whole heartedly, even though I could not verbalize it.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Frances
I'm making mince pies on Friday so I'll post a recipe then. Can you get mincemeat in jars in the USA? If not I have some other ye olde recipes up my sleeve.

Hi Melissa
Thanks so much for visiting. I think Advent is the calm before the party, the fast before the feast. The rhythm of the liturgy gives us a deep connection to the past, an awareness of commonality between ourselves and our forebears, I like feeling this at this time of year because it kind of shows us God's connection to us all. Ooh, I'm not explaining myself very well! Have a peaceful Advent and a Merry Christmas!