- PrefaceChristmas and the Catholic Consumer
As this issue arrives, you are now in the Christmas season, a season that, like a Midwestern American visit, concludes in stages. "Well, it's probably time we left you guys alone" is followed ten minutes later by, "We've got an early morning." "We'd better be off" is fifteen minutes later and then—first standing in the living room, then crowded in the front hallway, and finally with the hosts hovering over the open window of your car—the goodbyes proper.
Christmas is an eight-day liturgical feast, ending with the octave. But, to paraphrase Churchill, that octave (the feast of Mary, Mother of God) is not the end, nor even really the beginning of the end. It is more like the end of the beginning, since after the octave we reach liturgical completion at the end of twelve days of Christmas, Epiphany or the Feast of the Magi. Or, rather, it ends seven days later on Epiphany's octave, the Feast of the Baptism of Christ. Well, okay, even to say that is the end is a bit premature: the traditional end of Christmastide since the Middle Ages has always been on the Feast of the Presentation, often known as Candlemas, on February 2.
I love this delayed goodbye to the wonder of the Nativity, and not merely because I am from the American Midwest. Perhaps it's because [End Page 5] I discovered it as an adult when I got married and took up my wife's older Catholic traditions of bringing in the tree and decorating it on "Christmas Adam," the day before Christmas Eve, and only having the presents appear mysteriously in the night after Midnight Mass. That tree does indeed last until Candlemas Eve, the traditional date of taking down Christmas decorations. Indeed, due to disorganization, my wife and I are even more Catholic than the medievals—we sometimes don't get the things put away until even later.
Growing up Protestant, I operated on the Protestant/secular Christmas calendar, which begins the weekend after Thanksgiving when Christmas trees and lights are put up; pop radio stations begin an endless loop of "Santa Baby," "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," and Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You"; and "Black Friday" sales bring stampeding shoppers to the malls and now the internet. Though technically, commercially speaking, Christmas ornaments and knickknacks will have been on sale since before Halloween, August or September depending on the store. December, known as the "Christmas season," brings approximately thirty-seven Christmas parties with enough granulated sugar, booze, and fruitcakes to make one's New Year's dieting resolution last until at least … January 3.
The end of Christmas is really somewhere in the vicinity of December 27, by which time most people will have been able to celebrate Christmas with all the branches of the family, including inlaws, step-family members, and even outlaws. For many, the trees will be out waiting for the recycler or trash no later than New Year's Eve, though in northern climes the outdoor Christmas lights are allowed to stay because the sun is still going down at 4:40 PM. January itself is a holy season of college basketball and a kind of Lenten preparation for the great American sports-liturgical feast known as the Super Bowl. The importance of February 2 for most Americans has more to do with Groundhog Day, which has taken on (and I'm not entirely joking here) a kind of interreligious quasi-liturgical significance mostly revolving around the brilliant 1993 Harold Ramis film of the same name.1 [End Page 6]
For most people, the Protestant/secular Christmas season, which effectively rules out any sort of season of Advent, does not lead to any great sense of happiness. Instead, Christmas is usually a season filled with sentimental childhood stories but also laments about "holiday blues," stress, and overloaded schedules. Indeed, by the time Christmas day proper arrives, one already hears that people are sick of Christmas. One might observe that Thanksgiving's belt-loosening feasting followed immediately by a month-long...