About a hundred years ago, the usual jolly G.K. Chesterton can be found lamenting two things that are still a problem today: First, that as a writer, he has to write about Christmas long before Christmas in order for it to be published at Christmas. Second, the rest of the world seems to celebrate Christmas long before Christmas and then when Christmas comes, everyone stops celebrating. Should be just the opposite.
Though we love Christmas for the traditions that it entails, we have forgotten one of the most important traditions. For several centuries people waited until Christmas to celebrate Christmas. And then they celebrated it for twelve days. There was a fast leading up to the feast, and then there were many days of feasting. But in recent years, in spite of official attempts to deflate Christmas altogether, the festival lasts for over a month leading up to the actual feast, and then it vanishes instantly and all evidence of it is erased.
Says Chesterton: “Modern men have a vague feeling that when they have come to the feast, they have come to the finish. By modern commercial customs, the preparations for it have been so very long and the practice of it seems so very short. This is, of course, in sharp contrast to the older traditional customs, in the days when it was a sacred festival for a simpler people. Then the preparation took the form of the more austere season of Advent and the fast of Christmas Eve. But when men passed on to the feast of Christmas it went on for a long time after the feast of Christmas Day. It always went on for a continuous holiday of rejoicing for at least twelve days.” It ended, he points out, in a wild culmination that was famously commemorated by a writer most of us have heard of: William Shakespeare. He wrote a play called Twelfth Night. And while most of us have heard of the play, most have forgotten the meaning of Twelfth Night. It is the twelfth day of Christmas. The last of a dozen days of great celebration, that begins with the birth of Christ and ends with the visit of the Wise Men.
Chesterton thinks that Twelfth Night is much more important than New Year’s Day. “While Progressives are already looking forward to the New Year, Christians should still be looking back to Christmas. It is all the difference between looking back with enthusiasm to something and looking forward with earnestness to nothing. People praise the future because it is blank and featureless; they are afraid of the past because it is full of real and living things.”
The modern world with its obsession for being modern, that is, up-to-date, is always at war with tradition, or what it perceives to be “out-of-date.” Its watchword is “change,” but the only change, says Chesterton, is on “the frothy and frivolous surface of society.” Underneath are the same issues, the same struggles, and the same ideas that all men have had to face, even if they try to avoid facing them. But even in our complex world they are reminded by the simple things of the permanent things. One of the simple things that remind them is “the prudence of the peasant on ordinary days and the festivity of the peasant on feast days.” The shepherds have always figured things out before the wise men.
Every ritual points to something beyond itself. Our Christmas figurines evoke actual people and a historical event. Our simple symbols point to an ultimate reality. Our “ritual rejoicings” are an attempt to express an unfathomable joy that even a chorus of angels could barely express. Unto us a Savior is born. There has never been better news and never a better reason to celebrate.
But we have to wait for it. We have to prepare for it. The one who prepared the way of the Lord did so by preaching repentance. Never has our world needed repentance more than it does now.
We should treat Advent as we should Lent. It should be a time of prayer and penance and preparation. And privation. Pray early and often. Hold off on the treats. Give things up. Give alms.
One form of penance, of course, is enduring the awful “holiday” music that blares out of the loudspeakers in every public place during the month of December. There is no escaping it. But then, when that music is finally and mercifully turned off, and when the rest of the world is taking down the decorations, our great celebration will just be beginning. And our music will be better, too.
Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Twelfth Night” was painted by Walter Howell Deverell in 1849-50.