Years ago, Max Weber asserted the Protestant work ethic made America and England great. While that may be true, it is much easier to demonstrate that the Protestant work ethic made America secular humanist and atheist.
As we noted last week, the Christian assault on Christmas has been subtle but unrelenting. This is due in no small part to the Protestant work ethic and Calvinist theology which insists that we can tell who is saved by looking at who has the biggest bank account – according to Calvin, the elect aren’t poor.
The attack on Christmas in America began in earnest during World War II, when this virulently Protestant nation started sending its boys overseas to fight. Prior to that war, Advent and Christmas were still recognized as distinct seasons. It is difficult today to imagine the scene, but we must try.
How Things Used to Be
The liturgical year used by Christians for one and a half millennia was intended to make us aware of Christ’s life every day. According to this way of understanding the passage of time, Advent served two purposes: it made us aware of Old Testament anticipation as Israel waited for the coming of the Saviour and it made us aware of our own current anticipation as we wait for His Second Coming. Advent was meant to look backward and forward simultaneously: backward to the sinfulness of man prior to the Incarnation and forward to both the sinfulness and the glory of man that would be revealed at the Last Judgement.
Because Advent had this dual meaning, Christmas also had a dual meaning. The celebration of the Christmas season was meant to remind us of both the gifts of salvation Christ brought through His Incarnation and the gift of heaven, the eternal exchange of divine Persons which we would in some sense experience in the Beatific Vision.
This was the reason for the gift-giving during the twelve days of Christmas. The days between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three kings laid theirs at the Child’s feet was a reminder both of Christ and of heaven. While every feast day in the calendar year involved some kind of feast and some kind of gift-giving, Christmas season was pre-eminent precisely because it alone was meant to be a foretaste of heaven. In fact, the season was not considered complete until the Feast of the Presentation at the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin on February 2.
After the Feast of the Presentation came Lent, when everyone spent six weeks walking the Via Dolorosa, with the suffering Christ, walking the Way of Tears. After we lived His suffering and death, we lived His Easter Resurrection. For the liturgically-minded, Easter day lasts eight mortal days – the whole week following Easter is considered one long celebration, although the partying didn’t end until Pentecost, which marked the end of Easter and the beginning of ordinary time. During ordinary time Christians lived out and contemplated the growth of the Church through history as She prepared for the Second Coming and the Last Judgement.
When this is understood, the importance of the Feasts of All Holy Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, indeed, the whole month of November, is much more obvious. This season was crucial to understanding and properly celebrating Advent. Those feasts and that month were spent in special contemplation of death and dying, of sin and judgement and all who had gone before us, marked with the sign of Faith.
The Four Last Things are Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. During November, Christians contemplated and prepared for Death. During Advent, we contemplated and prepared for Judgement. During Christmas, we contemplated and lived out Heaven, at least as best we could.
So, up until World War II, every Christian treated Advent as a time of preparation and repentance. No one would think of putting stockings, ornaments, even Christmas trees, up until Christmas Eve. During Advent, everyone meditated on the world’s wickedness prior to God come in the flesh (past), and prepared themselves for the Last Day, when God comes as Judge (future). For centuries, Christmas was at once both a reminder of the Incarnation, the First Coming, and a reminder of Dooms-Day, Judgement Day, the Second Coming.
Why Things Changed
Martin Luther changed the understanding of November and of holy days in general; World War II changed the understanding of Advent and Christmas. As war swept the world, buying habits had to change. Because it took six weeks to transport anything by ship over the ocean, Americans were told to buy their Christmas gifts for their sons overseas by Thanksgiving, or their sons would not receive those gifts by February 2.
The Christmas buying season had been December 25th through February 2nd, with the most intense gift-giving happening during the twelve days of Christmas. But during the war, it extended from Thanksgiving to February 2nd. American Protestants, that is, American businesses, liked the extra income generated by the much longer and earlier selling season. The war against the Germans ended in 1945, but the war against Christmas was just revving into high gear.
Ever since World War II, America’s Christian businessmen have been strenuously trying to destroy the whole concept of Advent. Repentant people, sorrowing people, people aware of their gluttonies, these kinds of people do not buy much. This is unacceptable to a Protestant understanding of commerce.
Not only was this sorrow bad for business, it was bad for the pulpit. If Calvin is right, we have no reason to repent. We are the Elect – we are assured of our salvation! In fact, we have a duty to show others how well the Elect live! Break out the credit cards!
Sixty years of advertising broke two millenia of Christian practice. America famously refuses to contemplate death, so all Holy Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day had to be destroyed. Protestant businessmen knew just how to do that. They disassociated the days from their traditional contemplation of the saints’ joy in heaven and turned them into pagan party festivals. Contemplating saints is dangerous, after all. They don’t own credit cards. Christian businessman could not afford the possibility that anyone would realize this.
So, Halloween has now become the closest thing we have to an Advent season. Advent has been transformed into a four-week long Christmas season, and Christmas season is now Purgatory. The season during which we are supposed to celebrate our life in heaven with the Christ child is now the time we pay all the bills. Today, we sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” during Advent. Unlike Good King Wenceslaus, we toss all of our Christmas decorations on the trash heap on the Feast of Stephen. The Church’s first martyr has lost out to Boxing Day and end-of-the-month card statements.
When was the last time anyone had a school Christmas pageant or business Christmas party during Christmas season, that is, after Christmas Day? Indeed, how many Christians even gather together to worship on the Feast of the Incarnation? Even as the Christmas/Holiday controversy swirls through the news media, CNN reports that most large evangelical church congregations don’t even have Christmas services.
The irony is rich. Protestants insist on retaining the word “Christmas” even though they have already drained every scrap of belief and practice out of the word. They stripped the Mass out of “Christ-Mass” day, they stripped the contemplation of death and judgement out of the Advent season, they stripped the gift-giving out of the Christmas season, they don’t even gather to celebrate on the day of His birth, but they are in high dudgeon about the missing word. The day is dead, but the lack of white-washing on the tomb offends them.
And I’m supposed to join them in being upset?
Alright, I will.
Just wait until I stop laughing.