On Advent

This week, as I was busy being adorable and minding my own business, I was forced to see with my very own face eyes, a very bad take from America about mixing over the holiday season.  To whit:

This is of course, absolutely bonkers and also a public health nightmare waiting to happen, for any number of reasons. Firstly, there is the massive red-herring of the conception of the “Judeo-Christian” anything at all. As I have written about before, that phrase is mostly a way of being Islamaphobic, and there is certainly no such thing as a “Judeo-Christian” calendar with comparable and tracking holiness.

The Jewish Calendar, of course, acknowledges that the holiest days of the year are the High Holy Days, and the Christian Calendar (a whole different thing!) generally agrees that Easter is the deal. You know? When Jesus came back from the dead? Yeah then. That is the holiest part of the Christian calendar and it is conspicuously absent from the Jewish one being as that’s you know, kinda the difference.

Anyway, what I am interested in talking about today is this framing of the theoretical “holiness” of this time of year that yer man is referring to. I find this interesting because what we can see in this tweet is how American culture has completely changed its relationship to this time of year in order to big up consumerism, to the point that it has both changed the definition of Christmas time, as well as its importance within the Christian calendar.

So, what is Christmas? Well from both a medieval and a theological standpoint, and as I have written before, Christmas time goes from Christmas until Epiphany, which takes place on January sixth. It is a distinct period of celebration, and from a secular standpoint it is intended to be enjoyed at length with multiple feasts if at all possible.  From a theological standpoint it will also have attended reflections upon the earliest parts of the Gospels and focus on Jesus’s early life. (The nativity, the visit of the magi, the flight into Egypt, all that jazz.)

Some traditional Christmastime stuff – The flight into Egypt from British Library Harley MS 3571

This is in stark contrast to our current relationship to Christmas where “Christmas time” seems to start some time in late autumn (depends on who you ask), and for Americans immediately after Thanksgiving, but sometimes even immediately or even before Halloween if you are trying to be a dick about people enjoying spooky stuff. As a general rule, at some point in late autumn  onward you begin to experience Christmas decorations everywhere, a lot of Christmas carols in retail establishments, offers of super sugary Christmas drinks, and if you are lucky you may hear the dulcet tones of St George Michael telling you about his weird Christmas-based relationship troubles. (Ore pro nobis, Sancte Georgii.)

This would make no sense to a medieval person, who would designate early December, and sometimes every late November (as was the case this year from the 29th) as Advent, which is defined very specifically as the period before Christmas. To be fair to Mr Dr MD up there, that is certainly is a holy time of year as evidenced by the fact that, for example, the Church would like it if you would refrain from sex during Advent until after Christmas Day. (Spoiler: no one did.) The idea was that people were meant to pause and reflect as they built up to the celebration of Christmas, not start celebrating Christmas itself.

This meant for medieval Christians Advent was conceived of as a time of fasting and reflection. We are unsure exactly when the conception came in, but we have records that from 581 a synod held in Gaul ordered that a fast be held from the eleventh of November until Christmas specifically on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. So pretty holy, but nothing like the 40 straight days you see in, say Lent. This didn’t last so much, and various conceptions of Advent came and went over the thousand or so years, with the eleventh century favouring a three week pre-Christmas model, while others stuck with doing five. One way or another it was eventually padded out to four weeks in the end.[1]

Just some traditional Advent stuff, from The Last Judgment, painted by Ende, from the Gerona Beatus.

Advent was meant as a sort of dual celebration, on the one hand, you were waiting to celebrate the birth of Christ, but on the other you were also meant to be reflecting on the second coming of Christ, which is to say the Apocalypse. All of the fasting and that was thus a way of preparing the soul for the inevitable (and imminent) end of the world.

All in all then, it was seen as a decidedly somber time. Did people go to Mass a lot? Yes, they absolutely did. But also, medieval people went to mass a lot generally. Not just during Advent, and in all likelihood their attendance at at Mass didn’t go up during this period. So, it was a holier time of year than standard time, but not the holiest by any means. Because that was Lent and Easter. When you fasted continuously and went to Mass as much as possible.

So anyway, medieval people would not conceive of this time period in the same way that we do, which is to say as a “festive” time when you sat around decorating and socializing and you decided that you were gonna go to Church for the nostalgia of it. Calendars with chocolates, office parties, and eggnog lattes were pretty scant on the ground when you were meant to be eating less than usual and thinking about the apocalypse.

Of course, a lot of the “celebration” that we do during this period now simply did not exist because consumerism didn’t. No one was supposed to be buying anything in particular, and they didn’t decorate and work themselves up into a lather the way that we do. Christmas trees were not yet a thing, and mostly it was just about having a festive atmosphere. You’d be talking putting up holly and making a very large fire. But you would be doing that on Christmas Eve until after epiphany, emphatically not right now when you are supposed to be thinking about the judgement of your immortal soul. You didn’t need to be worrying about congregating in a group at Church. You needed to worry about when your soul was weighed.

Clearly then, the Advent period was a holy time of year. However, I am going to take any advocations to celebrate it in large groups from people who don’t even understand its theological importance with a massive grain of salt. Dr church champion over here and his big brain are clearly not arguing for a traditional holy period of reflection. He doesn’t want you to quietly sit in a church and think about the end of the world. He is being a contrarian in order to have a giant consumeristic orgy.

The Last Judgement, from the ‘Queen Mary Apocalypse’, British Library Royal MS 19 B XV, f. 4 – a whole Advent vibe!

Stupid takes like this are a symptom of our society more generally, where in the interests of selling stuff we have barged right the fuck over the traditional understanding of Advent and realigned Christianity to mean that the time of year when we spend a bunch of money is also the “holy” part. Rather than a time to reflect on how the physical world is necessarily a fleeting occurrence, we now characterize it as just sorta pre-Christmas, where you do all of the prep for a big blowout on Christmas day, but also you do mini-Christmases along the way. “Christmas” is now a hugely lengthy affair before the date, that stops abruptly when you hit the actual Christmastime period. I do not think that your guy here is gonna be demanding you attend church on St Stephen’s day.

As a seasoned Christmas enjoyer it always raises my hackles when I see ridiculous statements like this, which manage to erase the historical wrongs that Christians have done to Jewish people and then also argue that everyone should get sick in the interests of a holiday that they can’t even properly characterise. I am on record as being a fan of having a large and extended holiday in the darkest part of the year. I myself am extremely tired and need some time to sleep and write. Probably I also need some eggnog. Ordinarily I would be looking forward to seeing my loved ones over the period, but obviously that is not what is going down this year.

Now if you want to do some nice Advent things without getting sick or putting others at risk, the good news is that there are a lot of innovative people who are finding ways to do just that. I have put together a little list of stuff you might consider instead if you are actually, truly about the celebration of Advent, instead of just trying to be a dickhead on twitter. Maybe check them out, but whatever you do, stay safe. It’s gonna be a cozy Advent. Nothing wrong with that. Don’t let blowhards redefine your relationship to this time of year.

I like the look of both of these online medieval carol workshops!  If you are interested in learning more about medieval music check them out!

In the UK check out all of these online Christmas markets! Super cute! In Chicago the Christkindlmarket is online this year too!

The Church of England is streaming services from inside churches is you really are about the holy Advent life.

Many of the Cathedrals in England also are broadcasting classical Christmas concerts. Should be v. atmospheric.

Check out this list of twelve (12) holiday cookies that you could start prepping for Christmas time.

[1] Francis, Mershman, “Advent.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Accessed 3 Dec. 2020 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01165a.htm&gt;.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on Christmas, see:
On the Medieval secret to a balling Christmas for once
On St Nicholas

For more on seasonal enjoyment, see:
On the Lusty month of May
On Michaelmas

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

11 thoughts on “On Advent”

  1. Also, I suspect that before the advent of well-insulated and heated houses, the month heading into midwinter as the dark and cold really moved in would not have been all that popular, (as opposed to the one or two feast days where you went a bit mental specifically to try and forget the other days).
    One of my favourite songs (Mirie it is) is an authentically medieval ditty which basically goes ‘Darn, it’s cold. Wasn’t it nice in the summer? Now I’m miserable and hungry’.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Epiphany, pah! In hardcore Catholic countries, the “Christmas season” extends all the way to Dia de Candelaria (Candlemas) in early February. We were in Mexico City during this time one year, and the tradition is, a bean or tiny trinket is buried in a cake eaten on Epiphany, and the person who finds it has to make tamales for everyone on Candelaria, and also decorate a doll of baby Jesus to be presented at the church. People are carrying these dolls everywhere they go, and there’s an entire street of shops where you can buy the dolls and the elaborate costumes they wear. And Candelaria, not Epiphany, is the day you take your Christmas decorations down. I don’t know how far back these traditions go.


  3. I wonder how much of your argument Dr Mr Dickhead MD would dismiss as Papist nonsense. I feel like a lot of these appeals to “Judeo-Christian” history are made by people who have actively rejected so much of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cantata for the fourth Sunday in Advent: https://youtu.be/HYGAlS6h-Zo
    Text (German and English): http://www.emmanuelmusic.org/notes_translations/translations_cantata/t_bwv132.htm#pab1_7
    Commentary: http://www.emmanuelmusic.org/notes_translations/notes_cantata/n_bwv132.htm#pab1_7
    Money quote: “While today it may seem strange to find such a forbidding piece in the Christmas season, Advent was always a penitential time in Bach’s church.”


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