I read a post online earlier this week by a preacher acquaintance of mine to the effect that putting Christmas at the beginning of winter was a mistake—the best part of the season is out of the way just a few days in with nothing but dreary days stretching out in front of it for the next few months.
As a confirmed lover of winter, I completely disagree with the premise; I might be the only person in Liberty County eagerly anticipating the temperatures in the teens that are forecast this coming week. But I do find the idea of how we can be shaped by the rhythms of the calendar instructive.
It wasn’t always the case that Christmas Day was the highpoint of this time of year. As I alluded to in a recent sermon, in the Middle Ages it was only the beginning of the festive season which stretched until Epiphany, the commemoration of both the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus and his baptism by John, on January 6. The only real vestige of that in popular culture is the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” But for much of its history, the highpoint of Christmastide was not December 25, but January 5: Epiphany Eve or Twelfth Night, celebrated with feasting, wassailing, and the eating of the Twelfth-night cake with its hidden bean that made the finder king for the night (the forerunner of the King Cakes that we will see in Wal-Mart over the next month).
Traditionally, then, Christmas decorations were left up until Epiphany (or even later, until Candelmas, in some places—that’s another article) rather than being taken down on December 26 as I know so many do. Why does this matter? Well, the reason that still having your tree up in January seems strange to us is the same reason that we start hearing carols the day after Halloween: consumerism. In the Middle Ages, the seasons of the liturgical year established the rhythms of people’s lives: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time (which is basically anything in the next 6 or so months). Now we mark time by whatever holiday we are supposed to buy for next—some of those made the cut, but they are fortified with a host of others. And so we have to move the Christmas merchandise out as soon as possible to make room for the Valentine’s Day candy, and the days after Christmas are celebrated mostly by retail sales to clear out old stock.
Am I suggesting that we should go back to celebrating all of those festivals on the church calendar? No. But what I am saying is that how we mark time reflects more about who we are than we might realize.
The First Day
Have you noticed how many calendars now begin the week with Monday? It has not trickled down to our printed calendars, yet, but it is the norm for a lot of electronic applications; you have to change settings to begin the week on Sunday. In Europe, which is a century or two further down the road toward secularization than we are here, it has been the norm for sometime. I remember as a child taking French in school how surprising it was to me that the first day of the week was Monday.
Of course, historically the first day of the week was Sunday. The earliest Christians met on that day because it was the day Jesus rose from the dead. They also wrote about it symbolically being the day of new creation—the 8th day—with his resurrection, after God had rested on the Sabbath. It was a fitting reminder of beginnings at the outset of every week.
In contrast, we tend to think of Sunday as part of the weekend. It’s Saturday redux: aside from the hour we (sometimes) spend at church, there is little if any difference. We sleep late, we go to the lake, we take weekend getaways that routinely pull us from the church. We work on projects around the house that we do not have time to address during the rest of the week. We involve our kids in sports that have games or practices on Sunday with little or no thought. Because it’s the weekend—that’s what they are for, right?
Certainly, we don’t want to do anything to interfere with work. That begins on Monday. That is how we mark our time now in so many cases, even when the calendar has yet to catch up. And it shapes our lives.
How many of us see our lives primarily in terms of work? “What do you do?” is the most common question we ask someone knew we meet—and we mean, “what is your job?” We think about life primarily in terms of productivity. We cannot set anything aside for our job; it is the priority.
But when we begin the week on Sunday—when we order our lives around worship and fellowship and service and joy—that reorients us. It is not an afterthought, shoehorned in at the end of the week if we can fit it into our otherwise busy schedule.
As Christians, Jesus and his Kingdom should come first in our lives. Sunday is his day—the Lord’s Day.