This is the season I love the best. I love winter and I love Christmas. We were married on December 29th because I wanted to have our wedding and subsequent anniversaries around this time of year. I had always dreamed of a winter wedding, complete with white fur muffs, a horse-drawn sleigh, and wearing red in my wedding outfit. I loved having a candle-lit, winter wedding. I love the cold weather, the snow, the lights on people’s houses, the tree with all the ornaments that tell of our lifetimes in them, the smell of Christmas baking, the Christmas music my husband plays continually from Thanksgiving Day onward, seeing friends we haven’t seen in a long time, enjoying the joy of gifts given and received. I especially love Christmas Eve Vespers and staying out late and seeing all the lights, drinking hot cocoa and splurging on Christmas cookies. I love making Gingerbread Houses, a fairly new tradition my daughter-in-law brought to our family. I love baking during Christmas. I was never much of a holiday cook but since I married into this family, I learned so many delicious holiday treats. I love preparing the stockings even for our grown and married children. This year we get to add three stockings of our grandchildren. I love the prep and the running around and the chaos of it all. There are days I just sigh in contentment. All of it, Christmas; I just love it.
It was brought to my attention that I started sharing Christmas-themed posts and photos before Halloween. I am not sure about the October date, but I do know I started before Thanksgiving. It is my first season living in the Arctic Circle and I can tell you that weather definitely had an affect on me. Up here, people try to hang the lights on their houses and fences, front yards, and outside trees prior to the first snow. It makes sense. We were a little late, and with the help of our older son, hung our lights after the first serious snowfall (we got 6″ overnight) and it turned out to be a fun experience! The older sibling dumped loads of snow off the eaves onto his younger brother, as he carried the string of lights for his big-brother up on the ladder. The oldest brought his dad a cigar and the two of them smoked cigars in the snow (it started to snow while they were half-way through) and they had a lot of fun. We have since received a couple of feet of snow, and our Christmas lights glow through the snow accumulating on the roof. It is pretty. Because the house lights were up, we brought in all our decorations the following Monday and put up our tree and completely decorated our house. My husband came home and just smiled. Another tradition this far north is to keep house lights up until Spring and the days lengthen a little bit. The basic decor is taken down, but the lights remain to keep our spirits up in these long days of dark. And maybe I started a little early, but all this snow and minus temps just got me excited for the season, seeking some joy and happiness through decorating for it; I also was beginning to prepare for Christmas in my heart. A friend also reminded me that I used to decorate my homes all in red and green, it was wasted in Southern California, and perhaps I was always meant to dwell in the Arctic! She may be right, because I don’t like hot weather, the beach or sand, and I love wearing coats, sweaters, boots, and living in all this snow!
The season of winter and Christmas is also a very interior or prayerful time for me. We are indoors a lot, it is dark a lot of the time, and it brings with it a sensual experience of warm fires, gentle lights, and the quiet of the winter terrain, all buried in deep snows. I have found myself contemplating the whys and wherefores of Christmas and the traditions that go with it. And I have also been chatting with various people about Santa Claus, and other winter traditions. For me, I find that matters of faith, tenets of faith, all germinate in reality. The story of the Wise Men; the birth of Christ; the slaughtering of the Holy Innocents; the Crucifixion and Resurrection…these all had their start in truth and historical occurrences. There are those who poo-poo the whole December 25th date and the fact that the “Church” stole the date from the pagans of the early centuries; the fact that pagans had trees indoors for far different purposes; the “wise men” were not all that wise, nor were there just three of them…on and on it goes. I know that; I was blessed with studying Biblical Archeology as my minor in college. I know what we have physical evidence for, and what is real and what is hysterical – or historical – and what is not. And I acknowledge those who love just Santa Claus (made jolly and friendly by the early Coca Cola ads in the 20s), the Tooth Fairy (recently made famous again by “the Rock” in a movie), and the Easter Bunny (whose fame was resurrected in the movie, “HOP,” and which I just watched today with my grandson), and they do not want to know where those traditions come from. I will agree to just enjoy those “Hollywood” versions of the truth, but all the while knowing there is so much more to it.
I choose, however, to understand, celebrate, and share the historical roots of the things we believe in. Our parish here is St. Nicholas of Myra. It is the only Byzantine parish in the area and the diocese exempts our parish from the pre-Christmas Fast on the Feast of St. Nicholas, which we celebrate this Friday, December 6th. I have invited my son and daughter-in-law to attend, so my grandson can be exposed to this story surrounding Christmas. It’s wonderful to share these traditions with our families. St. Nicholas has been real for my husband and myself at least all of our marriage. There were many Christmases where we were in such dire straits that we should not have been able to provide gifts for our sons; St. Nicholas always interceded for us and Christmas was always a joy for our children. In Russia, St. Nicholas is the patron of the family and we took him as our family patron many years ago. St. Nicholas exemplifies giving and his determination to help families in trouble is one of the many reasons he is a Saint of the Church. (http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/fatherchristmas.shtml). Regardless of which story you have heard, or have not heard, Bishop Nicholas of Myra (now Turkey) was a Saint who later became a legend, and whose legend we keep each Christmastime. I love St. Nicholas and I love keeping his memory alive. This year, our youngest son remarked that he knows there is no Santa Claus and that we are the giver of the gifts. But he also said he likes believing in things at Christmas, so he’s choosing to still cling to Santa, and enjoys the stories of St. Nicholas. All of those heroes in our children’s lives are actually Saints, making their way into modern culture. A little twisted and turned to meet modern culture where it is, but they are present nonetheless.
In many Christian cultures, we celebrate Christmas until the 6th of January, or in the west, Epiphany (in the east, it is the Baptism of the Lord, or the Theophany). In the west the different feasts were all celebrated together, and is where the tradition of the 12 Days of Christmas come from. In the East, as these feasts began to separate themselves, the Byzantine and Orthodox chose to celebrate the Theophany, or Baptism of the Lord, on the same date the west celebrates Epiphany. Interestingly enough, the term “Epiphany” is defined as a revelation. We can all have epiphanies when we learn something new or gain an awareness of something we never knew before. The Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of Christ to the world, and started with the 1st of the 12 Days of Christmas when Mary accepted the Word of God and proclaimed her great fiat of, “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38). The Epiphany continues through the Birth of Christ, the visitation of the Magi, and the Baptism of the Lord. Most people in western countries use the day to celebrate the Gifts of the Magi to the Christ Child and often have parties called, “Little Christmas,” where they give one another gifts (some families have adopted this date as their major Christmas celebration, keeping December 25th more as a reflective day and a day to celebrate the Birth of Christ). In the East, we celebrate the Theophany, or the Baptism of the Lord. Theophany means: “the manifestation of God to man; the sensible sign by which the presence of God is revealed.” It is when Christ was Baptized and His Kingship made known to man through His Father’s recognition in his declaration of “This is my beloved son” and of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. Both of the terms, Epiphany and Theophany, are words explaining the revelation of God to His People; to each of us.
“At Your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was revealed, for the Father’s voice bore witness to You by calling You His beloved son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of these words. O Christ God, who have appeared to us and enlightened the world, glory to You!” (Kontakion of the Theophany).
So much surrounds us during this Christmas season. I don’t understand why we need to limit ourselves to specific times; artificial dates. Some people will only decorate for Christmas between the day after Thanksgiving, and then take everything down by December 26th. In the seasonal feasting and fasting cycle of the Church, the preparation for the Feast is almost as important as the Feast itself. We in the East began our preparation for Christmas on the 15th of November, with the Feast of St. Philip. It is often called, “Philip’s Fast,” or the “Apostle’s Fast,” but is commonly called the “Pre-Christmas Fast.” In the Melkite tradition, this is when we begin singing the Kontakian of the Preparation:
“Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth to the Eternal Word of God in an ineffable manner. Rejoice, therefore, O universe, when you hear this news, and glorify with the angels and the shepherds Him who shall appear as a newborn Babe, being God from all eternity.”
We’ve been preparing for the Birth of Christ since November 15th, and have been since the Council of Constantinople in 1166 AD. Prior to that, the worldwide Church celebrated different dates, requiring daily attendance at Church for services and prayers, with moderate fasting. After 1166, the tradition we now keep was begun in earnest. So for at least the last 900 years in Christianity, the Preparation for Christmas began on the 15th of November. This year, I opted to keep the tradition of the Preparation alive by decorating my home, to coincide with our fasting and liturgical year.
The other interesting side-note to this is that our Liturgical traditions allow us to keep our Christmas decor up from November 15th through January 6th. It is a good thing we use a fake tree! Up here it seems we tend to celebrate Halloween and run straight into Christmas, with a brief respite at a little family dinner – Thanksgiving – in between. Thanksgiving, to me, is like the practice run for cooking Christmas dinner! It’s also a great day for Football on TV! And this year, our Parish celebrated Divine Liturgy with a potluck afterward; it was nice to celebrate as a parish family. Recently, my feelings were pretty stepped on and I was criticized for this early Christmas thing, and after thinking about it, and now posting about it, I feel sort of justified in keeping the traditions of my faith, even if public pressure is to downplay it. I will celebrate through fasting and preparation, decoration and cooking, gift giving and singing of Christmas songs, putting my tree up and hanging lights, from November through January, at the least. And in our tradition, you don’t party until AFTER the Feast…so true Christmas parties are from December 25th through Theophany on January 6th. It works perfectly for someone who decorates year round in red and green colors, collects antique Santas from around the world, loves the snow, and lives where people keep their Christmas lights up until Spring. Maybe I was meant to live in the Arctic all along!