Santa Claus Worldwide distills the cheerful essence of Christmas from many sources and studies, old and new. In addition to his wide reading, author Tom A. Jerman has brought a wealth of personal experience
Rodney Dangerfield was an American stand-up comedian who began telling jokes in 1938 at age 17, quit the business in the 1950s to become an aluminum siding salesman (seriously), and returned to comedy in the 1970s where he finally hit it big on the late-night talk show and comedy club circuit and a starred in a handful of successful movies, including Caddie Shack. His trademark routine was straightening his tie and c mumbling “I don’t get no respect” before telling a joke like I met the surgeon general. He offered me a cigarette.
So what does Rodney Dangerfield have to do Avent? Nothing, except that in trying to decide what one could say about Advent Dangerfield’s line about getting no respect kept popping into my head. Until the Great Schism of 1054, the world’s Christians could be divided into the Western Church, which became the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Church, which became the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Western Church covered all of the nations north and west of Rome. The Eastern Church covered the nations east of Greece, including the Byzantine Empire, which comprised those parts of the Middle East that were part of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ but eventually came under Islamic control. Theologically, the Western and Eastern Churches were similar. Structurally, however, the Roman Catholic Church was more authoritarian. The Pope governed all Catholics worldwide whereas the Eastern Orthodox Church was a federation of autonomous national churches.
In 325 A.D., Roman Emperor Constantine organized the Council of Nicea, a meeting of all the world’s Christian bishops, to resolve a number of theological differences. The next major meeting among Western and Eastern bishops was the Council of Tours in 567 A.D. Among the disputes addressed at this meeting was that the Western Church had proclaimed December 25 as the birth of Jesus while the Eastern Church used January 6. The council reached a compromise under which December 25 was declared the birth of Christ and January 6 was declared Epiphany, a Greek word that meant appearance or manifestation, especially of a divine being.
The Eastern Church interpreted Epiphany to mean the baptism of Christ whereas Catholic Church interpreted it to mean the arrival of the Magi, the three “wise men” or “kings” who visited the infant Christ. The entire period between Christmas and Epiphany was designated part of the Christian celebration, creating what became known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. In western Europe and America, the twelve days traditionally begin on Christmas Day, meaning that January 5 is the Twelfth Night and Epiphany is not part of the Twelve Days. In eastern Europe, the twelve days traditionally start on December 26 so Epiphany is the Twelfth Day of Christmas but, oddly, the evening of January 5 is still considered the Twelfth Night.
At the Council of Tours, the Western and Eastern Churches also agreed to add a period called Advent as a time of spiritual preparation leading up to Christmas. In the Western Church, Advent begins on the Sunday closest to November 30, meaning Advent may last from twenty-two to twenty-eight days, making the entire season thirty-four to forty days. In the Eastern Church, Advent begins on November 15. Because November 11 was the feast of St. Martin of Tours, this period also became known as the forty days of St. Martin. Thus, what began as recognition of a single day as the Feast of the Nativity in roughly 330 A.D. had become by the sixth century an Advent-Christmas-Epiphany celebration that resembled or exceeded both the Roman midwinter holidays and the Germanic Yule celebration in duration.
Despite Advent’s long and distinguished history, and with due respect to the catechism teachers who taught me how to make Advent wreaths when I was a child, nothing much really happens during Advent. Some Catholic authorities identify Advent as a period of fasting to prepare for the holy event but the U.S. Conference of Bishops says that taking one large meal and two smaller meals qualifies as a fast. The only consistent practice of which I am aware is to lay a wreath of evergreens on the dining table with four candles, generally purple, arranged so as to create a square within the circle. Each Sunday, as I recall, one of the children would be chosen to light a new candle.
The most common activity other than lighting a wreath was displaying an Advent Calendar, and as far as I can tell that has nothing to do with the religious meaning of Advent. Rather, it is a calendar, generally covering December 1-24, with a door that can be opened each day to reveal a small sweet or gift. The religious importance of these calendars, however, is questionable. Good Housekeeping publishes a list of the thirty best advent calendars, and the top choices include the Official “Friends” Advent Calendar, the 12 Days of Socks Calendar from The Office, with each pair containing a Dunder-Mifflin logo, the Bonne Maman Limited Edition Advent Calendar, which features a new jam or jelly each morning, a Dog Advent Calendar which features a bone-shaped dog biscuit every day, and the Harry Potter Advent Calendar with an assortment of wizarding sweets like chocolate frogs and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. Precisely how these calendars will help your spiritual preparation for the Feast of the Nativity I cannot say.