What About American Christmas?




It's easy for Orthodox get annoyed and complain about the American celebration of Christmas. For one thing, it's all overblown, giving the impression that Christmas rather than Easter is the 'Feast of Feasts.' And Americans 'celebrate' Christmas at the wrong time: there's no idea of fasting in anticipation for it, and by the time Christmas Day comes around most people are worn out with it. And of course the frenzy of gift-giving lays a burden on the givers, many of whom secretly feel 'Bah! Humbug!' while they say, 'Ho, Ho, Ho.' The sentimental emphasis on family and togetherness can be deeply depressing to those whose families are not so together.


We could go on. Certainly for those of us who are converts to Orthodoxy, there is also a temptation just to enjoy being different, to scorn others' celebrations just to make it clear that we know better. Some want to use the old calendar for no better reason. T. S. Eliot called it:


...the piety of the convert

Which may be tainted with a self-conceit

Displeasing to God and disrespectful to the children...

(The Cultivation of Christmas Trees)


As we think of these things, let us think of what is being celebrated, Our Lord's Birth in the flesh. We believe that the One born of Mary in the cave is the eternal Word of God. All things were made by Him. As such He is totally holy, and totally different from this world and its culture. Yet in being born He takes our life, our world, our culture as His own, and indissolubly unites it with His divine Life. The Jesus we see in the Gospels does participate in the culture he finds Himself in. He attends dinners and wedding parties, to the extent that His critics call him a glutton and a winebibber (Matt. 11:19). He participates in the worship of the Temple and the Synagogue, although He is the One who will fulfill this worship. He accepts gifts from people, even gifts some consider excessive or inappropriate, such as the fragrant ointment with which the woman anointed His feet (John 12:3-8). In every case He looks not on the outward appearance, but on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7) and honors the good intentions of those involved.


As much as we may wish American Christmas customs were different, many people of good will do try to express genuine love through them. The desire for unity and affection within families, the desire to make little children happy, the desire that no one be cold or hungry at this time, the desire that those who work together should share food and drink as friends at this time, and sing about the birth of Jesus even in the bank or shop--these are certainly not wicked things, and we should be grateful they are possible in our culture. We certainly can participate in these things with joy and discretion, while still preparing to honor His birth more perfectly in the Nativity Divine Liturgy.


1997 Fr. Paul Yerger Reprint Information