From the Rector…
Many of us are unaware of how high a feast day All Saints was once considered. In the High Middle Ages, it was more popular and more widely celebrated than Christmas or even Easter. The feast celebrated the lives of those who had gone before and lived into their Christian beliefs often to the point of martyrdom. It was a feast day meant to inspire hope and celebrate the harvest of life especially as the earth turned toward the colder, darker days of winter and uncertainty.
All Saints or, as it was more commonly known in the medieval era, All Hallows, was a time when everyone would gather at the church. They came from miles around—from their farms or villages—often requiring a full day of travel so they arrived on the eve of the feast day. All Hallow’s Eve was a time of celebration and fun as people were reunited with friends and loved ones they otherwise didn’t see or spend time with during the year. The eating of tasty treats and telling of spooky stories were part of their tradition. After a night of revelry, the day that followed was filled with religious celebrations in which mass was sung and Eucharist shared and people recentered their life on God and the hope of his salvific grace as witnessed through those saints who had gone before.
As the years moved on and the Industrial Age began, the ritual and importance of All Saints began to fade. Many continued to keep the All Hallow’s Eve Vigil, but instead of pilgrimaging to the church they stayed home, carved gourds to put by their front doors to keep the evil spirits away and feasted with their family. Slowly, and over time, the reason for the celebration of All Hallow’s Day began to lessen as well. People still went to church but the feast day itself began to fade in its vitality. Children became more enamored with dressing up as the evil spirits they hoped to keep away and playing tricks or asking for treats instead of going to church or recognizing the hope that was once associated with the feast. Now, we have all but lost the tradition of this high, holy feast day. Some of us will attend the All Saints’ Evensong at church and those who come to church on the first Sunday in November will celebrate All Saints’ (whether they intended to or not) as a “moveable” feast in the church calendar. But for the most part, all that remains of what was once the most important feast day of the year is Trick or Treat and the decrying of this evil night—All Hallow’s Eve—by more fundamental evangelical Christians.
Sadly, I think we are witnessing the demise of Christmas in that same way. Not because we don’t come to church—though many of us are more concerned with Christmas parties and dinners than prioritizing church and worship with the Christian community that is the reason for this feast in the church calendar. No, it is not that church has become less important, even at Christmas, it is because consumerism and entertainment continue to shape our understandings of our culture—economically, politically, in the home, at school and work, even our religious beliefs. There is nothing that our capitalistic society has not tainted when it comes to perspective. Christmas is not threatened by church attendance, it is threatened by a growing greed and gluttony around all things Christmas that has little to do with the birth of a savior or his coming again and a whole lot to do with satisfying our desires.
I blame Macy’s. Though my favorite part of Thanksgiving after the turkey and family time is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, I see the deep connection between this parade that ends with Santa Claus coming to town and the consumerist approach to what was once a religious feast day that we prepared for in the season of Advent. Now we see stores and commercials putting out their wares and advertising Christmas before Halloween has come and gone. This year, TBS even started playing Christmas movies the week before Thanksgiving. We’ve pretty much gone straight from Halloween (what was once known as All Hallow’s Eve) to Christmas with a passing shout out of gratitude on Thanksgiving. (Even crazier—Thanksgiving is not a religious feast day, it is an American secular holiday that The Episcopal Church recognizes because we are a predominantly American church.) Advent has been all but lost in the shuffle and Father Time seems to be speeding up the clock to keep pace with us.
Don’t get me wrong—I love all the secular aspects of Christmas. But I know when it is bad or good and this tendency to suffocate the “real” reason for the season will definitely wind us up on the naughty list. Don’t just keep Christmas in your heart—make Christmas religious again—or at least differentiate that which is Santa and that which is Jesus and choose Jesus.
Even as Christmas becomes more secularized and its vitality and importance for the church is threatened, it is not too late to keep it from the fate of All Hallow’s Day. We need not celebrate it any less, but we might consider how we are shaping our preparation and experience of Christmas for ourselves, our families, and those around us to be about Jesus Christ.
Light and Life,