As tomorrow is the beginning of Advent which commences on that Sunday the closest to the Feast of St. Andrew (November 30th), I thought it would be appropriate to put up a post on a religious theme. Well, mostly a religious theme depending on whether or not you consider Xmas to be a religious event.
I remember as a child that during the summer the vestments worn in church by the clergy were green. A never ending sea of green, week after week and month after month. And then suddenly they took on the color purple as Advent began. (This was a clue to the faithful that something was up – and what was up was that we were awaiting the arrival of Christmas – and, no that is not a misspelling of Xmas).
If I had somehow missed the hint dropped at church I received a reminder when I went to school as casting for the Christmas play had begun and I truly hoped that I wasn’t going to be the ox as had happened the previous year. As is appropriate to the season, my wish came true. I got to be the ass that year.
Now my school was way ahead of its time. It was a private but non-religious place of learning. It was a very ecumenical place. We students, as nearly as I could figure out were either Christian (in various forms), Jewish (in various forms) – well it was in New York City – unidentified, or unconcerned about the whole religious experience. Amazingly, we all got along quite well.
I always thought that it must have been hard for the Jewish kids to get into the spirit of a Christmas play – but they were all good sports about it. I give credit to the school staff for that. As we all know, Jesus was a WASP, but in our play they had dabbled in revisionist history and turned him, his father and mother into Semites.
This, of course, opened up a number of roles for the Jewish kids in class to play. If they didn’t get cast as Mary or Joseph – there was still plenty of room for them as one of the shepherds stage right. We didn’t have to worry about accommodating the Muslim kids as we didn’t have any in my class and the one child who was Buddhist just sort of transcended the whole thing.
Well it went on that way for years. We would send people Christmas cards to which we had affixed Christmas stamps. We would wrap Christmas presents and say to those we passed on the street, “Merry Christmas.” I remember saying that to Mrs. Rappaport who always wore her Star of David and lived in our building and she just smiled broadly at me and said, “Well, Merry Christmas to you too, sweetheart.” Then she bent down and kissed me on the cheek.
I’m not sure what Madalyn Murray O’Hair would have thought about my exchange with Mrs. Rappaport but it’s safe to say that she probably wouldn’t have been amused. But as I was in a private school and this was before the Supreme Court decided that prayer and Bible reading was a no-no, I suspect we really didn’t need to hear from her on the subject.
Well we meandered through the four weeks or so from the start of Advent until the big day finally arrived – or more correctly the big night – Christmas Eve. We would all trundle off to church for the Midnight liturgy filled with the old war horse hymns that we loved and which I still love. You probably know some of them, “O, Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and the excellent choir would always sing “Silent Night” a cappella in the church which was illuminated only by the flickering of a sea of candles.
That service was always my favorite of the year. You see, for just a few weeks, suddenly we all seemed to be just a little nicer as people. A little kinder. A little gentler. In some ways it was with melancholy that I walked home with my parents and grandmother. I knew that seven days hence we would start a new year. And with that new year, most of us would return to our old ways. It would be eleven long months until the spirit of compassion would once again reach out to us.
I’m not quite sure when Christmas evolved or devolved into Xmas. As I understand from a friend who’s spouse works at a division of Kroger Foods, the staff have been informed that the proper greeting for their patrons is, “Happy Holidays.” That is the only reference to the season which is permitted and should someone violate that they are subject to termination. Talk about a way to infuse a little holiday spirit in your employees and make their season bright.
I would be remiss if I didn’t introduce a little history here. You remember St. Andrew whose feast day is used to determine the start of Advent? Well he was crucified on a cross that was in the form of an “X”. So that might be the origin for our referring to the upcoming holiday as Xmas. I don’t think with our current need to sanitize, whitewash and PCify everything that Xmas is in any danger of extinction. I’m pretty sure it’s here to stay.
I admit to being old-fashioned in some ways and am going to keep a few traditions as I learned them in childhood. I am looking forward to the thought of a service starting at midnight, a choir singing a cappella and a church in total darkness other than the light cast by a sea of flickering candles.
I am going to hold on to Christmas and not be ashamed to call it that. I will try to be a little nicer, a little kinder, a little gentler to others and spread good cheer and warm wishes to those I meet. And I’m going to hope, as I do each year at this time, that the idea catches on.
I’ve been hoping that for a long time.