September 21, 2020

iMonk Classic: Riff on “The End of Advent”

Christmas has devoured Advent, gobbled it up with the turkey giblets and the goblets of seasonal ale. Every secularized holiday, of course, tends to lose the context it had in the liturgical year. Across the nation, even in many churches, Easter has hopped across Lent, Halloween has frightened away All Saints, and New Year’s has drunk up Epiphany.

Still, the disappearance of Advent seems especially disturbing—for it’s injured even the secular Christmas season: opening a hole, from Thanksgiving on, that can be filled only with fiercer, madder, and wilder attempts to anticipate Christmas.

– Joseph Bottum, “The End of Advent”

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Riffs: Joseph Bottum on The End of Advent
(and the horror of our version of Christmas)

Classic iMonk post by Michael Spencer
November, 2008

Many years ago, we made a decision to, as much as possible, speak of Advent and not of Christmas, until Christmas. I’ve never been able to hold off the Christmas music, but as much as possible we’ve stayed with that commitment.

It’s also amusing to watch my co-workers get the puzzled look when I start referring to “advent,” something some/most of the have never heard of. They often assume I’m one of the “Christmas is a Babylonian occultic festival” whack jobs, which we usually have somewhere in the gallery.

It’s really very simple: Christmas is the feast of the incarnation and the season following that event. Advent is the recognition that we need a savior and the longing for that savior to come, according to God’s promises.

Christmas is joyous, but the joy comes after weeks of waiting, watching, lamenting and calling upon God. Advent is that season of waiting; of looking for the signs and promises of the savior in the scriptures and in the world.

That distinction should save us. We think we can manufacture our own salvation by going shopping. Advent says we cannot save ourselves, that only God can save us and that in his own time and in his own way.

Christmas is the return of the pagan festivals that we Christianized; the triumph of the commercial invention of a “holiday as shopping season” to end the year. It is the pagan, secular, godless imagination creating its own world of blessed wonder by way of its own story and its own magic. Christmas has become, in many ways, as spiritually dangerous as any of the recognized belief systems that apologists spend their time dismantling.

Joseph Bottum takes on the loss of Advent in the rise of the secular Christmas in an essay that continues to demonstrate his skill and importance as a writer. While I wish that Bottum had acknowledged the rediscovery of Advent by many evangelicals and the potential of the rediscovery to introduce the Christian year as a counterbalance to the pragmatic manipulation of time at the heart of our culture, it’s still an outstanding essay.

Read Joseph Bottum: The End of Advent.

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I have written about the celebration of Advent in our family with suggestions for that celebration in your family: Observing Advent and Christmas: Thoughts for the Christian Family.

I’ve also written on The Mood of Advent.

I hope all of this helps you get off to a good start with Advent this year.


  1. Steve Newell says

    A local Christian pop music station started to play Christmas music (Christian) and holiday music (secular) starting on “Black Friday” in St. Louis. They don’t play any Advent hymns.

    I love Advent hymns since they point to Christ’s coming both his incarnation and he’s return.

  2. I don’t see secular Christmas being harmed by lack of advent, in a way the Black Friday to Christmas Eve period is like advent. Everyone shops, does crafts, and bakes and prepares for the big day. Then the family gathers and enjoys each others company regardless of how grand or bleak the feast is, because it’s about the gathering, not the food. I’ve had Christmases when I’ve made handmade gifts because I had no lucre to spend. Every year I hand out home baked cookie packages (usually with 5 -6 types of cookie) and I think there is frequently more appreciation for that cheap gift than for the store bought ones.

    Another thing I’ve seen is if you look at the variety of charities at this time of year, many receive money even from non-Christians who simply are moved by the spirit of Dickens to offer something back this time of year. Surely that’s a good effect of Christian influence on the culture.

    I’ve been relearning the clarinet I could play as a youngster, and the songs I chose to help me relearn? Christmas carols. I figure if Barbra can sing them and Irving Berlin could write them, there’s nothing wrong with me playing them. Plus I know the tunes so well due to having heard them all my life that if I miss a note, I can hear it. It certainly has familiarized me with the key of D (I transposed them all from an easy piano book where all the songs were in key of C).

    My playbook includes “O Come, O Come Emanuel” (some nice B5s in there–about the top of my current range with it), “The Holly and the Ivy” (also some B5s), “The First Noel”(lots of A4 to B4 transitions across the break), “Silent Night” (6/8 time sig), and “Christmas Time is Here” (good grief transitions and slurs from G4sharp to C5).

  3. “Christmas is the return to the pagan festivals that we have Christianized….” It seems to me that that whole paragraph could make the case that it just could be more appropriate to say “Happy Holidays,” rather than “Merry Christmas.”

    • Richard Hershberger says

      I have been arguing for years that “Happy Holidays” is much more appropriate for a Christian nation to use in the commercial context. The War on Christmas used to be its commercialization. Anyone who has seen A Charlie Brown Christmas or How The Grinch Stole Christmas should know this. Nowadays, the “War on Christmas” is a complaint that Christmas is insufficiently commercialized. We are told that Christ is the “reason for the season”. What season is that? If it is the rabid marketing of stuff season, then someone is seriously confused about the point of the incarnation. If the season is Christmas, then let’s try to keep that separate from the marketing season. One way to do this is to remember that December 25 is the beginning of the Christmas season, not the end. All that stuff that happens leading up to December 25 is something else, and should be called something else.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Funny thing is, we haven’t seen the usual Culture War on Christmas this year.

      Is everyone still hung over from the elections?

  4. Bottum: “What Advent is, really, is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation and channeling it toward its goal.” And it is a discipline of which we are in great need. ” Advent is the recognition that we need a savior and the longing for that savior to come, according to God’s promises.”

    But even Advent in all its glorious expectation can become self-centered. As we anticipate and look for the Light of the Word, do those who are outside the box of our Christian world, but near at hand to us, see anything of that Light in we who are the light of the world?

  5. Last year the worship leader at our church was wondering out loud about doing Christmas music during Advent. She was met by blank stares and “Jesus is the reason for the season” . Most members of my church don’t seem to know what Advent is.

  6. As Christians who follow the liturgical calendar, we may certainly keep Advent and wait in expectation for the celebration of Christmas in its appointed time. But many Christians here and throughout the world do not follow the liturgical calendar except in a very vague and unfocused way, and don’t think it’s important to do so because they consider observance of the calendar among the adiaphora; and of course, the culture of North America and Europe is definitively post-Christian in all but nomenclature, so it’s only fitting that the secular holiday revert to a more pagan observance, like the Roman Saturnalia, for those who are Christian only by the thinnest threads of cultural tradition. I for one don’t expect that larger social world around me to follow my particular Christian tradition in this matter; also, I don’t make a huge stink about the necessity of keeping Advent before Christmas among the unconvinced and unaware. When people whose commitments I don’t know wish me “Merry Christmas!” before or after the Feast of the Incarnation, I reply “Happy Holidays!” and leave it at that, knowing that though we may have a similar lexicon, the words may have different meanings. I try to keep Advent in quiet ways in my heart and in my worship and at the same time share in the good will that to some degree exists in the secular culture, even though it occurs outside of the schedule of my liturgical culture. Sharing in that good will does not mean being part of the commercial frenzy; in fact, we, my wife and I, don’t do the gift giving thing at all, except to a couple charitable organizations. But we are not going to refuse to accept an invitation, given in good will, to a Christmas(I call it Holiday) party because it happens before the Feast of the Incarnation.