Monday, December 10, 2012

Advent is not Christmas

Guest post by Patricia O’Sullivan
 The Mayflower Pilgrims disembarked at Plymouth on December 25, 1620 and immediately began building shelters and fortifications. I learned this as a child and always wondered why the Pilgrims didn’t spend that first day celebrating Christmas. When I was older, I learned that the Puritans didn’t celebrate Christmas because they believed it was a pagan festival adopted by a corrupt Roman Catholic Church.

It’s true that Christmas wasn’t a Christian tradition until the fourth century, when the Church was endorsed by the Roman Empire. Romans celebrated the birthday of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun, at the winter solstice. The tradition of marking the birth of Jesus on December 25 comes from this Roman tradition. Pope Benedict XVI confirmed this in 2009 when he said, "Christmas acquired its definitive form in the fourth century when it replaced the Roman Feast of the Sol Invictus." According to the official Church calendar, Christmas begins December 25 and lasts for forty days, culminating on the Feast of the Presentation on February 2. 

 The tradition of Advent was not firmly established by the Church until sometime during the seventh century. Today, Advent occurs between the Feast of Christ the King and Christmas Eve, a period of 23-28 days depending on which day Christmas falls on in the week. Advent marks the end of the liturgical year. For most of its history, Advent was a time of fasting and penance, a time to prepare both for the second coming of Christ and the birth of Christ. Marriages could not take place during the Advent season because fasting included sexual abstinence.

Over the last couple of centuries, Advent has changed from being a time of fasting and penance to a period of joyful anticipation. Though the rituals and spiritual focus of Advent have changed, Advent remains a time before Christmas begins. In cultures focused on gift-buying and holiday parties, where Christmas decorations appear right after Halloween and retail stores and radio stations play Christmas music in November, it’s easy to forget Advent.

What also gets lost in the retail reconfiguration of the Christmas season, is Christmas itself. As people take down their trees and pack up their decorations, the Church is still celebrating the holiday. Some people keep their trees up through the Feast of the Epiphany, marking off the Anglican tradition of twelve days of Christmas. But few people continue to make merry after January 6. The Church observes Christmas another month after that. For retailers, these four weeks are preparation for Valentine’s Day.

When I reflect on how Advent has been consumed by Christmas and how Christmas has been consumed by Valentine’s Day, it occurs to me that the preparation for and expectation of the holiday have become more important than the holiday itself. This shift in focus is significant. It means people are taking joy in the journey, not just the destination.

Sol Invictus was celebrated at the winter solstice because that is when the sun is weakest in the northern hemisphere. The month leading up to the solstice was a time to prepare for winter, the season of death. The original focus of Advent was death as well. Advent was a time to prepare for the physical death that would occur when Jesus returned to earth. Fasting is a means of disciplining the body and suffering physically as a penance for sin. In the Christian tradition, physical death is the path to spiritual life.

Christmas is the Feast of the Nativity, a holiday that merges physical and spiritual birth even as it heralds the season of death. But Advent is not Christmas. Death is certain. Time to prepare for it is not. Advent is the journey, a reminder to live joyfully while anticipating dying. For that reason I don’t mind Christmas decorations in November.
Patricia O’Sullivan is the author of Hope of Israel, a novel about the readmission of the Jews to England in 1656, and Legend of the Dead, a novel about the transformation of the New World and one young man’s attempt to carve his place within it. Her novels explore religious history and religious conflict in the 17th and 18th centuries. Visit her blog at 

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