This was originally posted on Facebook as a Note on Christmas Eve 2008.
II wish a very merry Christmas to all of my friends.
This is only the third time or so I’ve said or written anything like “merry Christmas” since last January. Not because I am unfestive, but because (to put it in the least flattering light) I am a semi-pious pedant, and the Christmas season starts tomorrow.
Many people apparently believe that the Christmas season begins somewhere around All Saints Eve/Reformation Day or Thanksgiving (just when isn’t clear) and ends sometime between midnight tomorrow night and the second or third of January, and this view is reinforced by radio stations, grocery stores, billboards, and in fact the whole commercial enterprise here. Unfortunately, all these people are wrong, and it’s not their place to say.
Christmas Day may, like few others, be a civil as well as religious holiday. The authority to define the dates and nature of the season, on the other hand, lies solely in the hands of the Christian faith. The Christmas season, or (perhaps more precisely) Christmastide, like every other named subset of the Christian liturgical year (except perhaps the bits called the “Ordinary Time” in some circles), begins with the day that defines it. Eastertide begins on Easter; Passiontide begins on Passion Sunday and runs the two weeks until Easter (not inclusive); the season of Epiphany runs from the day of Epiphany (thirteen days after Christmas day, inclusive) until, if I recall correctly, Ash Wednesday. Similarly, the day of Pentecost begins an octave (eight days) bearing its name (lengthened to a full season, lasting until Trinity Sunday, which itself becomes a full season, in my home-away-from-home church in Grand Rapids.) Lent has Ash Wednesday to set the tone, but it and Advent are the two almost-exceptions that prove the rule: They are seasons centered on preparing for an upcoming holiday. While there is a certain element of celebration because we know the outcome of the events we are preparing to commemorate, penitential preparation, rather than the unrestrained jubilation the culture expects us to have from now until the (civil) New Year, is appropriate and called for by the nature of the season.
A related thought: C.S. Lewis once wrote an essay distinguishing “Christmas,” as celebrated by Christians, from the secular “Xmas” (or was it “Exmas” in the essay?). I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, he has a valid point about how the secular “celebration” of the holiday is much divorced from the true meaning of the day, etc. On the other hand — as I realized a couple of years ago — the X in Xmas is an abbreviation of “Christ” by replacing that name with its first letter in Greek. (In passing I note that one reason that the fish was an early symbol of Christianity — even before the cross, I’m told — is that the Greek word for “fish” is an acronym for “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Savior.” It’s a pity that the signs explaining the new chapel plaza here at Calvin merely call them “a symbol of evangelism” because of the “fishers of men” image.) In times past that same abbreviation was applied all over the place. I suspect that it fell out of usage with the growing popularity of typewriters and especially computers, which made writing without abbreviations or shorthand at close to the speed of thought (or at least speech) possible.