(Originally published in Gilbert Magazine)
Most mistakes made by the human race are an attempt to fix some other mistake. Celebrating Christmas during Advent (and ordinary time, and one increasingly fears, Easter) is undoubtedly a mistake, but like most mistakes, to fix it we must find out what it is balancing. And when we ask ourselves what is being balanced, I think we will discover that on the other side of the scales from so great a holiday are several sins.
The first and most obvious reason for celebrating Christmas early is simply the extensive preparations which the secular celebration of Christmas has come to demand. That this preparation is a miserable experience scarcely needs defending. Indeed, when some months ago one of my atheist friends was complaining about all of the bother associated with Christmas, I suggested that the secular holiday should be moved to Black Friday, with the minor modification that people should buy presents for themselves instead of each other. If nothing else, under this scheme people would not have to worry that their gifts will be unappreciated. It is a sufficient sign of the times that he thought this transformation unachievable, but said nothing about it being inadvisable.
Whatever might reduce this stress, the stress still exists, and preparation would not, in itself, require the early celebration of Christmas. Women spend nine months preparing a child for birth, and do not ordinarily comfort themselves during that work by throwing the child birthday or graduation parties. When the connection between the difficulty of a job and the results of a job are well understood, it can be endured without aid. Where that connection is not apparent, unpleasant labor can still be undertaken as a penitential exercise. In the case of Christmas, however, modern culture has made it so unpleasant that nine people out of ten can't conceive of their sins being that bad. Lacking any concept of vicarious atonement, the solution, to keep a weary race pulling its plow, is to borrow the enjoyment of the holiday to get people through its preparation.
The second reason to celebrate Christmas early is our culture's slavehood to the calendar. Once December 26th hits, some are simply tired of Christmas celebrations, but for many it's a yet lower idea: that one must always be up to date. It is acceptable to the chronological snobbery, by which people have flattered themselves for the last century and a half, to be in advance of the calendar but never to be behind it, for the devil will take the hindmost. Christmas is too great to confine its celebration to a mere twenty four hours, and the chronological snob can extend the celebration in only one direction which will keep him up to date.
The third reason is more subtle than the first two, but I think it is the most significant. Christmas, though it be no more than secular christmas, vigorously opposes the general nihilism of our time. Even watered down, Christmas still has flavor. Saint Nicholas, even when he is merely Santa Claus, still stands against Arianism. In the same manner that Arianism attempted to divorce the Son from the Father, modern culture tries to divorce happiness from goodness. This is not possible, and even bad christmas songs remind us it isn't possible. The most theologically suspect lyrics about Santa Claus spying on people, with unspecified and probably magical technology, connects good behavior with happiness. It is true that it often connects it in a mercenary way, but it nevertheless connects it in an unbreakable way. It is also true that the proponents of unconditional affirmation — an absurd attempt to ape the generous love of God — will complain that this is an awful message. And yet not a single one of them has made a Christmas movie in which a bully gets a present from Santa Claus as the bully finishes beating up a smaller child for his lunch money.
It is a theological point, but it is the incarnation which makes this connection unbreakable. Arianism, which was a milder form of Gnosticism, held that spirit could not marry matter, or in more Thomistic terms, that the unconditional could not truly know the conditional. It is a recurring suspicion of the human race that the infinite can have no regard for the finite, and against all this, the incarnation proves that omnipotence loves weakness. But God's love is a generous love. It turns weakness into strength. And that is why happiness cannot be separated from goodness: they have the same source. Gnosticism claimed that you could have happiness apart from goodness because the material world and the spiritual world had different fathers. Arianism had God adopt the material world; the incarnation proved its true parentage. It was, after a fashion, the first paternity test. The modern world denies this paternity, since it denies God, but every winter Santa Clause declares that the goodness of children, no matter how unenlightened or materialistic, is loveable.
These three reasons, between them, compel our culture to celebrate Christmas early. Until we explain to people why they prepare, that the calendar is a good servant but a poor master, and that God loves them and not merely the idea of them, we shall have Christmas during Advent. We can take comfort that at least it's not Advent during Christmas.