Keeping the Christmas Season

On the streets of my home town (New York City) it is not uncommon to see somewhere a tree thrown out into the trash the day after Christmas. There may be some practical reason (a long voyage begins the next day, and they don’t want to leave the tree unattended for a month, or whatever), yet for me the sight of a forlorn tree on the trash the day after Christmas stands as a sorry symbol of what commerce does to the feast: Everything leads up to one day -- and then it’s over.

The engine that drives commerce is of course the practice of gift-giving and the need to prepare homes for the celebration. By this calculation, Christmas truly is over (except for the post-Christmas sales) once Christmas day arrives. And for those who experience a glut of Christmas-themed activity in the weeks before Christmas, they may well be glad that Christmas is over.

The liturgy, of course, keeps a different timetable. Christmas day is the beginning of a season of celebration, not the end.

The liturgical season of Advent is designed to be a time of reflection and prayer, leading up to a festive three-Sunday season of Christmas. While the world around us is “rocking around the Christmas tree” we are supposed to be thinking over the message of John the Baptist or reflecting on Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. In the Christian East too, the rhythm differs from that of the commercial calendar. A season of fasting prepares for Christmas, and the fast is followed by a feast both at church and at home. There too, Christmas lasts for more than a day.

Have you tried to keep Christmas as a season which begins on Christmas day rather than ends on it? If you have, what practices have been helpful? I know of some parishes that have moved their Christmas concert into the Christmas season for example, and they report well of it. Certainly the week following Christmas is popularly a time of holiday visits with family and friends, and this can prolong the sense of festivity. The feast of Epiphany during this season is a true highlight for some. The celebration of the Three Kings is a big deal in Hispanic communities, for example, and Epiphany Vespers is a beautiful and special liturgy of light. The Twelve Days of Christmas still have resonance here and there, too. I know people who, although may not give a gift to their true love each day, would never take down their tree or wreaths before the twelve days had passed.

For me, one element in keeping the Christmas season alive has been the music. I have a number of recordings of Christmas music that I enjoy a lot. I look forward to listening to them every year. But I generally wait until Christmas day (although sometimes I break down and start listening on Christmas eve) to start playing them. Then it’s a festival of sound. It’s not the only thing I do to mark this time, but it’s one that helps me especially because I find that the music has a way of coloring everything else.

I was affirmed in thinking about the power of music by reading Markus Rathey’s wonderful essay on Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in the current issue of The Yale ISM Review (full disclosure, I am the editor of this publication). Although he doesn’t argue for keeping Christmas music in the Christmas season, he begins with a general observation about music and Christmas that rings true.

Christmas and music seem to belong together. Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and the Christmas sections from Handel’s Messiah are an integral part of [our] public and private soundscapes . . . They belong to the feast like roasted chestnuts and peppermint sticks. The soothing sound of the Baroque pastoral and the festive splendor of concerto-movements from the first half of the eighteenth century seem to capture the Christmas spirit and are often appreciated even without a deeper knowledge of classical music. What is more, Christmas is probably the only Christian feast that has developed its own unmistakable musical idiom: triple meter, simple texture, slow harmonic rhythm, organ points—these are not only the ingredients for a musical pastoral but they likewise characterize a wide array of popular Christmas songs, from “In dulci jubilo” to “Silent Night.”

The Christmas Oratorio is one of the pieces of music I look forward to listening to this week. After reading Professor Rathey’s essay, I am looking forward especially to hearing the music of the shepherds echo the song of the angels. Bach’s work assumes that music is a mode of divine/human encounter.

The shepherds encounter the message of Jesus’s birth in music and their first response is music. The encounter between the human and divine spheres takes place in sound. The theological synthesis is also musical synthesis. Harmony between God and man is represented by musical harmony.

May that encounter happen for all who celebrate Christmas—not only on one day but throughout the season. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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