The poet Alexander Smith once wrote that “Christmas is the day that holds all time together.” Yet, I would argue, that it is not Christmas alone, but all holidays, religious or otherwise, that occupy this role, by both forming the constitution of time and informing our conscious awareness of it. “How many days until Christmas is it again?” “Is it time for Halloween already?”
To put it simply, holidays help us make sense of our lives. Like seasons, they structure our year. Like weekdays and weekends, they separate the mundane from the sacred. And perhaps most importantly, they bestow upon us traditions, which provide not only comfort, but a sort of grounding that brings meaning to our daily existence.
The universal nature of holidays is probably a matter of common sense, but let’s explore it briefly anyway. While each person’s life might be structured by a different collection of holidays (based on their religion, culture, family, etc.), it seems incredibly unlikely that any one person could escape holidays altogether.
Even the apathetic postgrad, who, having taken an Intro to Philosophy or Global Studies class, might smirk at the concept of a “holiday” and applaud himself for not “buying into” such “social constructs” meant only to serve the various agendas of religions, governments, consumerist economies, or even greeting card companies, cannot help but fall into his own pattern of holiday-like traditions, even if they are made up of no more than Thursday night Wilfred episodes, Weekend pot smoking with friends, and the Sundance Film Festival in January.
If I offended you with that particular example or with that overly-lengthy sentence, I apologize. I only mean to make clear that we all structure our lives around “holidays” of sorts, and that there is something about doing so that is uniquely human. From Kindergarten to College, an individual’s holidays may consist of “Summer,” “Christmas Break,” and “Spring Break” or whatever the equivalent “school not in session” periods may be. For married couples who work and have kids, holidays might consist of weekly or monthly “date nights” and “family vacations.” During my senior year of college, the weekly Wednesday night LOST party was a very well respected holiday.
Interestingly enough, it is these personal holidays, which we may not even recognize as holidays (such as those of our imaginary, apathetic existentialist), or may only label as “secular holidays” that best pinpoint the components that make up a holiday: the physical actions that constitute celebration. In this way, it is not so much the concept of a holiday, as it is the traditions that are ushered in by one that affect us.
Following this line of thought, and taking Christmas as a stand-in for holidays in general, we might ask: What then, is the Christmas Spirit? Is it some mindset within ourselves, or does it infect us from the outside in? Is it the hustle and bustle of “busy sidewalks” that Silver Bells proclaims? Or is it, according to It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas “the carol that you sing, right within your heart?” Is it the sharing of gifts and fudge with family that brings the holiday into existence? Or does the holiday only occur during those moments, when, as some pastors might confusingly say, “we make sure to take time to think about Jesus this year?”
Or, is it possible, that no such divisions exist? Could holiday traditions be inseperably intertwined with the concept of holiday and the holiday spirit itself? And further, is it possible, that the modern church just might have something to learn from secular culture when it comes to “doing holidays?” In order to answer these questions, we will first take a look at that which is often labeled “secular” within holidays, and see whether it is really secular after all. Second, we will address the concept of liturgy, and discuss its important, though often hidden presence within both secular and Christian tradition.
1) What is it about those pesky holiday activities that seems so (gasp) “secular?”
To return to the confusing, yet commonly heard-while-in-church command to “take time to think about Jesus,” we see that there is a underlying, almost latently Gnostic sort of mentality in which the HOLY (aka: the sacred and divine and even conceptual) is viewed as distinctly separate from the SECULAR (aka: the physical, earthly, and material). I am sure I am not the only individual, who, as a young child, left church during the Christmas season, and contemplating this apparent divide between “doing” Christmas and “thinking about” Christmas, attempted to spend some time alone in my room trying really hard to focus on Christmas (only to come out five minutes later embarrassed by the fact that I had given God so little of my Christmas season).
Of course, I am in no way trying to advocate for a wholly unreflective mentality toward holidays. What I am trying to say is that reflection on a holiday does not need to be separated from partaking in a holiday, and furthermore, the traditions we partake in are not secular, but are in fact an equally valid, and equally holy form of celebration. Thus, I am saying that singing carols, baking cookies, and giving gifts can be just much a form of worship as my childhood attempts to contemplate the Christ child in silence.
This makes sense to us in secular holidays, because we no longer experience pressure from a false dichotomy. We no longer fear that the sacred will be contaminated by the secular. Thus, we partake freely of fireworks and hotdogs on the Fourth of July. We gather with friends to watch the Superbowl and laugh at the new commercials. We plan special date nights for Valentines day.
In these cases, it is the activities that are focused on: the gathering of family, the eating of food, the giving of gifts, etc. Furthermore, it may be helpful to note that a focus on activities during holidays is not without Biblical precedent. In the Jewish customs of the Old Testament, holidays are celebrated with traveling, feasting, the wearing of special and lavish garments, etc. And, whether or not we admit it, it is these same things that we anticipate within our celebration of Christian holidays, albeit with a large side dish of guilt that we are giving in to that which is “secular.”
“But what about that issue of reflection?” you ask, “If modern Christian holidays are supposed to learn from, or even regain a long-lost sense of celebration from these secular holidays…where does the reflection come in?”
2) What is a “liturgy” again? And are you sure it’s not just a boring church thing?
Enter in liturgy. Though many Christians perceive the concept of liturgy as nothing more than meaningless ritual practiced within the “Catholic church” or an “old people church,” the actual word refers to the format or structure of worship within a church, and defines not only what is done at the Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, or Presbyterian church down your street, but also what is done in your contemporary, non-denominational, even mega-church service. One church service might include hymnals, an organ, and the lighting of candles. Another church might include a rock band and a big screen. In both contexts, a particular form of liturgy is followed in order to structure and direct worship.
To follow James K. A. Smith (Desiring the Kingdom), in somewhat more broadly defining liturgy as the daily, communal actions that (perhaps unconsciously) order our hearts, desires, and objects of worship, we see that holidays, when fully embraced and celebrated should naturally give way to daily reflection, and a never ceasing perspective of ourselves as incarnately grounded within the global church, aka: the body of Christ.
This means that reflection is not restricted to Christmas and Easter, and then forgotten for the rest of the year, but rather, reflection grows out of a lifestyle, where worship is daily and constant, and ever in anticipation of celebration through holidays. In much the same way, the Christian week does not consist of “holy time” on Sunday, and secular time throughout the rest of the week. But rather, Sunday service is a time of celebration for a community of believers who are already doing life and worship together.
This concept of liturgy is, again, easy to perceive in the areas of our lives that we consider secular. Take for instance, the liturgy of a high school football team. In this analogy, the players worship daily through communal practices that orient their hearts, minds, and bodies toward a uniting purpose. Friday night games, thus, become holidays in which that unity is celebrated. Reflection is present, but nearly inseparable from their actions both in preparation for and during the holy game, and as they continue to participate in this culture of sports, they continue to become grounded in liturgy and worship.
Though it may seem like a new concept to the contemporary Christian, such practice is not without precedent in the history of the Christian church. It may be dusty, but the Liturgical calendar is alive and well, or, at least alive, in many churches throughout the world.
The reason I hesitate to fully acknowledge it as “alive and well” is simply because, like our modern way of practicing Christian holidays, the use of the liturgical calendar often fails to move past simply encouraging church members to “reflect” on the holiday. If any action is done at all to commemorate the holiday, it may not be more than simply changing the color of banners and flowers that decorate the church building. Thus, if the church is to revive the tradition of liturgy, it might not hurt to start with reviving the liturgical calendar.
Though some churches have started experimenting with bringing back traditions such as Lent and Advent time, much focus still seems to be on the prelude to Christmas and Easter, and the rest of the year seems largely unaccounted for. For instance, why do Epiphany and Pentecost get little to no attention? What about All Saints Day? And then, there is Ordinary Time, which is not so ordinary after all, but filled with several important feast days of its own.
Furthermore, I think that more can be done to actually celebrate these holidays. In keeping with the theme of this post, that it is the actions and traditions that affect us the most within holidays, I think it would do churches well to start brainstorming ways in which members can actively engage and participate in the celebration. And no, I am not talking about just responsive readings or themed hymns. I am talking about fasting during Advent, visiting graveyards on All Saint’s Day, laying on hands and commissioning members for ministry during Pentecost service.
Perhaps, in an effort to celebrate the traditional 12 days of Christmas, churches might encourage families to plan a special celebratory activity on each of the days, which end with Epiphany, the revelation of God’s incarnate nature, literally to the Magi, and symbolically to the Gentiles. Perhaps, in an effort to celebrate Ordinary Time, which bears the color green, and runs longest from spring to harvest, the church might encourage its members to participate in a church garden, or at home personal gardens, the fruit of which can be shared or given away to the community.
Such activities may do more for encouraging reflection than simply commanding it, and would certainly seem promising for promoting a lifestyle of liturgy where worship is not separate from daily life, but embedded in it. It may just also help Christians regain a healthy sense of holidays: how they fit into the Christian life, how they inform our sense of time, how they encourage daily reflection, and how they affect the focus of our hearts, through our partaking in tradition and embracing of celebration.