A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


War on Advent

Here's a true story from last week: A woman was shopping and asked the clerk of a large store where she might find Advent candles. "Where you might find what?" The clerk was confused. "Advent candles. Three purple, one pink, for an Advent wreath." "I'm sorry, ma'am," the clerk replied, "we only sell seasonally appropriate candles." I had similar problems last weekend trying to find Advent candles. After several stores and some phone calls, I gave up looking for purple and pink. But I really needed some color of candles for our Advent wreath -- and not electric ones either. How am I supposed to reflect on the mystery of "light from light" with electric candles? The Creed doesn't make sense with electric candles!And so I settled for the only long candles I could find: red and white. Christmas colors. There will be no penitential purple on our wreath this year. No Gaudete pink. It's just Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, and Christmas.Let us not be fooled by those peddling a "War on Christmas." That's the decoy to divert our attention from the real war going on right underneath our red noses. Everywhere I look or listen, I get Christmas: the colors, the music, the smells, the imagery, even the theological import. Everyone around me knows what Christmas means. Anyone who's heard the four verses of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" has all the Christmas theology they need.The real war is the WAR ON ADVENT! (Yes, I'm shouting, on the off chance that Bill O'Reilly -- four-star propagandist of the decoy war -- might hear me.) People don't even hide the fact that they are trying to eliminate the season of Advent. Everywhere I go, it's "Happy Holidays" and "Merry Christmas." When I try to tell them that "Today is not a holiday" or "Christmas is on December 25" or "I can only assume you're wishing me a prevenient happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception" -- people think I'm playing the Scrooge.I understand that stores are concerned with the bottom line, and that Christmas sells. But we ought to remain vigilant about how the liturgical season of Advent has steadily been replaced with the secular season of Christmas shopping. Then again, maybe American consumerism is just too strong of a force. If only there were a way to combine the season of Advent with our compulsive shopping needs...I know! How about a Lego Advent Calendar with a theme of intergalactic warfare! We can turn the war on Advent into 24 days of Star Wars-themed gifts during Advent! Imagine it: each night of Advent, above our deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by, and in that darkness shineth the everlasting light. It's the Death Star exploding! Merry Christmas!

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

For years now, I have been really strict about my home reflecting only Advent and no Christmas until Christmas Eve. I love the whole atmosphere of Advent and so decorate for it during this time. I also use plain white candles and have put purple and pink ribbons around the candle holders that I use because the only place I could find the right color candles was the local Catholic bookstore and even then not in the size that I wanted. In the past, I've sometimes snatched up purple/pink candles when I've come across them at other times in the year but they do seem to all completely disappear just when you need them. I drive friends and family crazy with my insistence upon celebrating Advent but I've found that since placing my emphasis there, I have a much calmer December than I used to when I got too caught up in all the Christmas fuss.

We got our candles from Amazon.

I'm surprised the Catholic religious goods stores in New York had no Advent candles. A shame the bookstore at Fordham doesn't carry them.

The suddenly very popular use of "Advent Calendar" to mean "Toy that counts down to Christmas" is a major peeve of mine. I loved having an Advent calendar when I was a kid, but it was always the kind where you opened a window every day and got a bible verse, or saw another part of the nativity scene. You know, something relating to Advent. But there's also the simple excess of getting a toy every day of December in anticipation of Christmas. Kids today, grumble grumble.Re: Advent candles, yesterday I overheard someone ask for them at the drugstore in our town (where I've seen them in the past). The clerk apologized that they had sold most of their stock after running out of regular candles during the post-Sandy power outage!

Sorry to talk Marx this sacred season, but he said the big fish eat the little fish, and the big companies like Amazon eat the little companies like your religious supply stores. My kindy neighborhood druggist just sold his business to Walgreen's -- gave his 6 employees one week's notice. And you think you got troubles?I"m starting to understand the socialists.

Amazon can hardly be accused of eating religious goods stores. Ziegler's, e.g., has been in business for generations. The thread starter could have obtained candles from them. Do bishops buy their rings on Amazon?

To play devil's advocate, I offer a quote from Fr. Andrew Greeley's book The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council. (And remind you that Greeley is hardly a flak for traditionalists or the likes of the SSPX.) It may shed some light on why appreciation of Advent has dissipated. I'm not sure we can blame this one on capitalism. Much of the ceremony and art of the Catholic tradition was summarily rejected, without vote or even consultation. The altars were stripped, to use the phrasing in the title of Eamon Duffys book on the Reformation in England. The leaders of this secondary revolution banned statues, stained glass windows, votive candles, crucifixes, and representational art from new or remodeled churches. They rejected popular devotions like May crownings, processions, First Communions, incense, classical polyphony and Gregorian chant. They dismissed the rosary, angels, saints, the souls in purgatory, and Mary the motherof Jesus. They considered these old customs and devotions liturgically or ecumenically or politically incorrect. ... These various movements subverted much of the richness of the Catholic imaginative and communal tradition in the name of being correct and postconciliar. There was nothing to be learned from the preconciliar past, from anything that had happened before 1965. ... No one seemed to understand that they were destroying precisely that sacramental dimension of the Catholic heritage that was more important than prosaic rules and that held Catholics in their Church regardless of what else happened.

Try Gracious Home at 67th and Broadway.

Michael - bravo on keeping Advent! And Molly - right on re: Advent calendars. If all I want to do is count down the 25 days to Christmas, I can watch the ABC Family Channel.Re: where to buy candles: there is an entire industry of retail emporia that sell candles, e.g. Yankee Candle Company. In my experience, they are of the genus and species of stores owned and run by women for women, and, speaking as a man, shopping at one of them elicits an even more intense reaction than I get when I go into a Hallmark store: the clerks (all women) look at me with a mixture of surprise, pity and mild hostility, kind of like when a street person wanders into the hotel ballroom where the convention cocktail party is in full swing. But, those stores do have, literally, thousands of candles of every imaginable length, color, circumference and, need it be said, scent. The scent in these places hits you like a haymaker. While I'm too insecure to actually go into one of those stores to scout it out for you, I'd bet they'd have candles of the right length and color. And you might end up with some interesting scents, anything from lilac to cinnamon to frankincense.

Michael, Amen. Molly, a big Amen to you, too.

Please don't tell me that Catholic bookstores and/or liturgical supply houses do not carry the appropriate colors of candles for Advent.I'll bet (but not a lot 'cause I really don't know) that evangelical-owned bookstores have REAL Advent calendars.

The classical music station I listen to is now full of "music of the season," Christmas, that is. It will all but end, abruptly, on 26 December. Enough of that!The Advent Season has such a rich progression, from the end time to John the Baptist to Mary. The texts for the Mass and Office of the Vigil of Christmas are some of the most memorable in the whole of the liturgical calendar. For example, the Opening Prayer (collect) for the Vigil of Christmas (in the evening before the Mass of Midnight):Eternal God,every year you gladden our heartsby renewing our hope of redemption:grant that we who welcome your only Son as our Redeemermay face him with confidence when he comes as our judge,who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.The chant for the hymn at Evening Prayer in Advent, "Creator of the stars of night" (Conditor alme siderum) is tender, calming, and very accessible.As for Andrew Greeley, yes and no, but that for another time. Just to say, the Advent wreath and its blessing were unknown in the parishes of my pre-conciliar youth and hardly known at home. (The Liturgical Movement was largely suspect on the East Coast.)One more resounding vote for Advent. Come, Lord Jesus! Do not delay.

Enjoyable post. I haven't been able to find Advent candles this year, either. I did come up, though, with the album "Advent at Ephesus," some lovely Advent-related chant from the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of Apostles. It's this year's Advent phenom, climbing to No. 1 classical album after knocking off a collection of music compiled in connection with "50 Shades of Gray." When I bought it last Saturday, it also was No. 5 on Amazon for ALL albums.

The German custom is all red or all white candles. This purple/rose business seems to be a peculiar Irish-American custom, reflecting the vestments of the presider at the Sunday liturgy. (Even though I haven't seen rose colored vestments for years. And am rather grateful for that fact.)

Regarding the quote from Andrew Greeley above at 10:40 a.m.:Please review Greeley's statement. Nowhere does he mention Advent or damage done to the celebration of Advent. He is addressing some other area of Catholic devotions. As an avid reader of Orate Fratres and liturgical commentaries in the 1950's and 1960's, I must state that Advent was important both before and after Vat2. At last Sunday's Mass in our parish, the homilist pointed to the similarities of the readings in the last Sunday of the Year and the First Sunday of Advent, with the notion of two Comings. Our hymns were Advent hymns, not Christmas hymns. Two I recall: People, Look East, and Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.----Please do not fault the liturgical movement of the Twentieth Century for downgrading Advent. The advance of Christmas into Advent may be partly attributed to commercialization, partly to the the broadcasting industry, and partly to early decorations up and down the street. Our parish will have an outdoor tree lighting on December 7th. I think it is too soon, but please do not confuse that with Fr. Greeley's complaint.

I always get my candles at the Dollar Store. But shop early---theyre not packaged as Advent candles but are simply on the candle shelf among all the other colors.

A friend of ours does something similar to what Elizabeth does; she purple and pink "necklaces" she wraps around the base of four white pillar candles. The beads are shiny and add to the light. I'm talking to so many women at work who utterly hate Christmas and the stress of decorating, baking, visiting, card-sending, getting dunned for charitable contributions, etc. etc. Without Advent and its focus on self-examination, Christmas turns into a meaningless buying frenzy.I have found Fr. Imbelli's posts on the season good fodder for reflection. I also use the Advent collects in the BCP. And we have a prayer I think we must have made up when The Boy was little and still liked church: "Dear Lord Jesus, we invite you to come make a home in our hearts."

I think we Advent lovers miss a nuance when we complain that "they're already celebrating Christmas." It's really not true -- nobody really celebrates Christmas (except the day of), just as nobody really celebrates Easter (except the day of). The modern American Christmas season is just as much a season of anticipation as Advent is supposed to be (ask my 6 year old whether it's Christmas now or three weeks from now -- she's anticipating like crazy). It's what we're waiting for that's at issue.

Joe, thanks for your insights on Greeley and Advent. You're correct in pointing out that he doesn't mention Advent. Yet it seems to me that there was a clear depreciation of "devotions" in general, and all the old-school trappings of Catholicism. I don't blame the liturgical movement for downgrading Advent; I don't think the liturgical movement (or Vatican II for that matter) caused or controlled a lot of what was actually happening on the ground. So much else was going on, and I think some of the proverbial babies got tossed out with the proverbial bathwater. In any case, I'm glad to see some of the old traditions still alive or being brought back to life.

I don't think it's secularization that pushes these traditions aside, I think it's a culture and an economy that puts huge demands on people's time. People have so many obligations and commitments, parents are juggling full-time jobs and child-rearing and other caregiving. It's a challenge to put the time aside for holidays when you're already operating from a time-deficit to start with. We have a lovely advent wreath on the altar at Mass; I make do with that. I have a little book of daily prayersf or Advent I read with my younger daughter and I read the Little Blue Book of 6 minute reflections on the subway coming home from work.

On the bright side, people interested in finding out more about traditions such as the advent wreath have the Web at their disposal. A search on Advent Wreath returns about three million hits, which is pretty respectable. For comparison purposes, consider:advent wreath: About 3,000,000 resultsthomas aquinas: About 9,400,000 resultshomer simpson: About 22,100,000 results

We never celebrated Advent at home when I was growing up and I don't know anybody who had a home Advent wreath before 1990. And we were generations and generations of Catholics. Sorry, this just seemed uncommonly silly, especially the war part.

Ms. Follman,Thanks for that quote from Fr. Greeley. It may not be germane to the Advent discussion, but it is both accurate and important.As for Advent and Christmas, I note that the Pope puts up a large Nativity Scene and Christmas Tree in St. Peter's Square during Advent. He obviously sees nothing wrong with that, and neither do I.And here are some more thoughts from Joseph Ratzinger on Advent that I think are germane:What is Advent? Many answers can be given. We can grumble and say that it is nothing but a pretext for hectic activity and commercialism, prettified with sentimental clichs in which people stopped believing ages ago. In many cases this may be true, but it is not the whole picture.We can say the reverse, that Advent is a time when, in the midst of an unbelieving world, something of the luminous quality of this lost faith is still perceptible, like a visual echo. Just as stars are visible long after they have become extinct, since their erstwhile light is still on its way to us, so this mystery frequently offers some warmth and hope even to those who are no longer able to believe in it.We can also say that Advent is a time when a kindness that is otherwise almost entirely forgotten is mobilized; namely, the willingness to think of others and give them a token of kindness. Finally we can say that Advent is a time when old customs live again, for instance in the singing of carols that takes place all over the country. In the melodies and the words of these carols, something of the simplicity, imagination and glad strength of our forefathers makes itself heard in our age, bringing consolation and encouraging us perhaps to have another go at faith which could make people so glad in such hard times.

The Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square is unveiled on Christmas Eve. At that point the season of Advent has ended.

It's December 6th, feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. Please note the Bavarian and Rhineland Catholic custom of gift-giving to children this early in Advent. Also, if you are in New York, you might stroll up St. Nicholas Avenue and visit Incarnation church at West 175th Street, thereby marking the intersection of Christmas and the saint from what is now Turkey.

When my mother was a child gifts were exchanged on Epiphany. I don't know whether this was a French or a Spanish custom, or both. Their Christmas trees were decorated with real candles. (Sounds like a dreadful fire hazard to me.)

There is a great book "Unplug the Christmas Machine," (Robinson and Coppock Staeheli). It sure helped me and I know some others get a grip on this commercial monster we have to wrestle with.As for my household we are happy to spend a rather quiet Advent in preparation. Its kind of a game for the kids. On Christmas eve at sundown we turn on the Christmas lights (outside and tree) for the first time and then have a good 12 day period of jolly time with family and friends.

I'm having trouble finding Christmas wrapping paper that is about the Christmas story - what passes for 'Christmas' wrapping paper is Santas and reindeer and New England winter scenes. All very nice, but I'd like some wrapping paper that's not 'winter' paper.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment