My pal, Dave, recently spent a year in Poland. While he was there, he discovered that, at least in the diocese of Poznan, the celebration of Christmas extends from December 25 to February 2, the Presentation of the Lord. For weeks after we earnest Americans had resumed our position of nose to grindstone, the Poles were still singing Christmas carols, frolicking and feasting. Dave found himself wandering about Poznan murmuring, “On the fortieth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”
I think the Poles have it right. If you asked American secular culture what the Twelve Days of Christmas are, it would venture the guess (as I would have before I became Catholic) that these are the twelve days before Christmas. Formerly, (we are led to vaguely suppose) these days must have been some sort of festival or something. But as modern secularists, we can’t pause for such folderol (whatever it was all about). Rather, we should fill up this time with the productive work of stoking a vast consumer empire full of gunpowder, lighting the fuse, and watching the pyrotechnics of commodity exchange on Xmas morning. Then it’s over. Period. The next day is not the Feast of Stephen. It is the day to return stuff to the department store. The next week is not a time of feasting. It is, as the schools put it so colorlessly, “winter break” followed hard by work, work, work. Perhaps this explains our culture’s attitude to January, which is the month of “post-Christmas letdown” to quote Lucy van Pelt. We’ve worked so hard to secularize everything in the United States that we have all started to sound like the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, who made it “always winter and never Christmas.”
In contrast, the Church proclaims a feast on the heels of a fast (just as she does with Easter after Lent). Christmas, for us Catholics, lasts Twelve Days, just as Easter lasts eight days. During that time (and on into February) we are reminded again and again of the splendid fact that God has gratuitously revealed himself in the flesh not to the self-made man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, but to us losers, oddballs and factory rejects. In feast after merrymaking feast, God tells us to sing and celebrate because he appeared bodily to the poor (at Bethlehem), to the ignorant Gentiles (at the Feast of the Epiphany), to hard-hearted Israel (at the Feasts of the Baptism and Presentation), and to his clueless disciples (at the Feast of the Wedding of Cana). He showed himself, not because we worked hard and earned it, but because we failed miserably and deserved nothing.
This sort of lavish whoopification is characteristic of the Catholic faith. Believing as it does that our life is not founded on grim Darwinian struggle, but on the love of a God who made heaven and earth to be more delicious than useful, the Church is free to really celebrate. As Chesterton observed, when people keep a holy day for God, they find they have also been given a holiday.
The moral of the story is an old one: If you aim only for Christmas as a secular period of fun without God, you soon lose even that. But if you seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness then all these things will be added to you as well. The Church has nothing against gift-giving. (How could She when we are celebrating the Gift God made of his only Son?) The Church doesn’t even lift up the standard refrain of tsk-tsking about “materialism” at Christmas. (How could She when the whole point of the Feast is that the Word became very material flesh?) But the Church does say to grim secular culture as it tramps back to work the day after New Year’s Day, “It’s January! Christ is born! Let’s party!”