WITH THE FIRST SCENT of cooler weather in the air, merchants begin marketing potential Christmas gifts. As the holiday nears, the shopping frenzy intensifies with music, parties and decorations all telling us “Hurry up and buy something.” Our Church, on the other hand, tells us that it’s time for renewed fasting and almsgiving.
Gift-giving as we know it became popular in the 1860s and grew as mechanical and, later, electrical goods came on the market and Santa began appearing in ads and in stores. For most Americans, handmade goods such as pastries, canned preserves or hand-carved toys were the most common gifts until World War II. With the return to prosperity after the war, people set their sights on more expensive gifts. Today the average American is expected to spend between $700 and $800 on Christmas gifts this year.
Even as the marketing and the spending grew voices were heard denouncing the Christmas shopping experience as an exercise in wasteful consumerism. Environmentalists deplored the focus on acquiring more and more useless “toys.” Christians lamented the practice as fostering materialism rather than celebrating Christ’s birth.
While many people complain about the financial and emotional stresses of Christmas shopping, some people do something about it. Some parents have decided to give only one store-bought toy per child and to focus on shared activities instead. Well-planned Christmas outings with the family provide memories that will last a lifetime, long after plastic toys are forgotten. Others have revived the tradition of homemade gifts. They report that making a gift for and with your child provides an unforgettable and rewarding experience for both parent and offspring. Internet sites are filled with more suggestions for frugal and creative gift ideas than ever.
Our Secret Weapon: the Nativity Fast
Eastern Christians seeking to escape the commerce-driven “spirit of Christmas” have a formidable ally in the Nativity Fast. While the length of the fast varies in the different Churches, the spirit behind it is the same. We best prepare for a Christian festival by intensifying our practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We seek to deepen within ourselves the spirit of repentance which these practices foster. We are, as it were, heeding the message of St John the Baptist – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” – as we anticipate the coming feast as a manifestation of that kingdom.
At first our prayer life during the Nativity Fast does not revolve around the Nativity itself. While some churches serve akathists or a pre-Nativity paraclisis service, the focus of prayer in Byzantine Churches during much of this Fast is simply to deepen our relationship with the living Lord, the basic prayer life of Christians at any time. Our fasting seasons are fundamentally “excuses” giving us a reason to observe a fuller Christian life than we might live otherwise.
In the same way our fasting and almsgiving are not focused on Christmas as much as they are the basic practices of believers at any time. We intensify them at this time because a heart focused on the ways of Christ in the best preparation for celebrating His coming into the world.
The Fast Intensifies
As the feast draws nearer our liturgical prayer revolves around the time before the coming of Christ. Several Old Testament prophets are remembered individually, enabling us to focus on their role in preparing for the coming of the Messiah. On the two Sundays before the Nativity a general commemoration of the Israelites who came before Christ and a memorial of the actual ancestors of Christ are observed. During the fore-feast of the Nativity, the five days before the actual celebration, our liturgical hymns direct our attention to the mystery of the incarnation.
Unfortunately the Nativity Fast competes for our attention with the secular season of shopping, Christmas parties and gift exchanges. People seeking to observe the season as Eastern Christians might do well to view the question in light of the adage, “Enjoy the roses, but beware the thorns.” Employ the positive aspects of this season in our culture while avoiding the ones which endanger our Eastern Christian spiritual life.
“Enjoy the Roses” might include singing Christmas carols or watching faith-based films instead of our usual entertainment. Religious Christmas cards and decorations are still acceptable in our society and provide us with a chance to enter into the season in the spirit of the Nativity Fast. Perhaps most importantly, our secular society provides us with many opportunities for sharing with the needy during this season. Participating in such programs enables us to practice almsgiving in solidarity with our neighbors of other faiths.
“Beware the Thorns” takes us to the matter of Christmas parties. In some places these gatherings more resemble New Year’s Eve or a tailgate party than a Christmas celebration. Eastern Christians would do well to completely avoid participating in this kind of activity. If pressured to take part, especially in the workplace, an Eastern Christian may take the opportunity to explain that this is a fasting season for us and that it would be inappropriate for you to participate. Let them feel guilty for asking!
You may decide to attend a Christmas party which avoids excesses, particularly in the workplace, while still maintaining the fast. We can usually enjoy the conviviality while avoiding those foods from which we are fasting.
In any case Eastern Christian church groups should be expected to delay their own Christmas parties to the week after Christmas, when the fast is over and the Church is still celebrating Christ’s Nativity.
Most parishes have a children’s Christmas celebration which includes gift-giving. As a rule it is St Nicholas rather than Santa who presides at these events in Eastern churches. Still, there are few if any Eastern Christian parishes in the West whose children need to receive gifts from the church. The best gift a parish could give its children might be teaching them to give instead of receive. Children might be asked to give a gift to St Nicholas instead of expecting to receive one. The toys and games our children no longer enjoy can be re-gifted to the disadvantaged in hospitals, shelters or parishes in poorer neighborhoods. In this way we teach our children to be “Santa’s Helpers” rather than the victims of materialism disguised as the Christmas spirit.
Let us offer up a hymn to the fathers who shone forth before the Law and under the Law, and who, by their upright will, were pleasing to the Lord and Master Who shone forth from the Virgin, for they now delight in the unfading light.
Let us honor the first Adam who was honored by the hand of the Creator, and who is the forefather of us all and who rests with all the elect in the mansions of heaven.
The Lord and God of all accepted the gifts of Abel, who offered them with a most noble soul; and when he was slain by his brother’s murderous hand, He received his soul into light as that of a divine martyr.
Let us hearken to the divine sayings which declare the appearance of Christ; for, lo! He is born in a cave, of a Maiden who knew not man; for the star which appeared to the astrologers proclaims His awesome nativity.
Canon of the Forefathers, Ode 1