November 24, 2020

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

Joseph Bottum: “The End of Advent,” at the First Things blog.

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.

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. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Contrast Advent with today’s Xmas/Holiday Season.

    Today, we have two months of frenzy starting around Halloween. Holiday Parties, Holiday Shopping, Frosty the Snowman and Jingle Bells on the radio and PAs 24/7, Holiday TV Specials adding new characters and myths to the Santa Claus Mythos each year, HO! HO! HO! MERRY BURNOUT! Until finally when Dec 25th comes at last, you’re too burned out to do anything else than grunt, pig out, and stare drooling at the wall. Oh, and report for work the next day as usual.

    The Church’s traditional way makes a LOT more sense. Four weeks of Advent to rest up for Christmas itself, which instead of a one-day pigout becomes a Twelve-Day Party. Makes a LOT more sense.

    (P.S. And the ever-growing Santa Claus Mythos, with its ever-growing stable of characters. So many that the guys doing South Park reacted with their Ultimate Insipid Xmas Character: Mr Hankey the Xmas Poo, a singing, dancing, talking turd, who hosts parodies of Holiday Specials every year. All that’s missing from the Santa Claus Mythos is an afterlife belief; the only one to attempt one were the euthanasia “scientists” in the B-movie Night of the Comet.)

  2. We’re heading in to our 3rd Advent celebration as a family and the kids are finally really “into it.” We do the wreath and the lectionary readings.

    I like the way you point out that we are celebrating the Incarnation of God rather than “Jesus’ birthday”. It begins to ascribe the proper importance to the season.

  3. Concerning Santa…I recall vividly when I accidentally learned that Santa isn’t ‘real.’ I was crushed….because the first thought in my little head was, “Oh no! God and Jesus are probably not real because, like Santa, they are not seen!” I wanted to cry because my parents had, in my thinking, been untruthful to me. Then, a little voice in my head said, “No. they were not untruthful. The giving of gifts by a person who is never seen and expects nothing in return, the sheer joy derived from those gifts, and the innocent feeling of trust in a spiritual being who is only good to all children…….is your first real real understanding of the nature of the Heavenly Father.

    Christmas is sinfully materialistic…but so are birthdays, Mothers and Fathers Day, Easter, Thanksgiving…all special days that should be about something much deeper.

  4. Actually, there’s another Afterlife/Santa movie- ONE MAGIC CHRISTMAS, in which Harry Dean Stanton as the saddest angel ever takes a little boy to Santa so that the horribly tragic Christmas can be repaired. While at Santa’s workshop, he sees kindly old people he had known who had passed away. Yep, if you’re good, when you die you go to work for Santa!

  5. Speaking of good Christmas TV, Stephen Colbert’s Christmas Special is silly and quite charming and everybody should see it. I like that guy more and more.

  6. On the Santa thing: My parents took an approach that I still admire fifty years later. They told us, “Santa Claus is a let’s-pretend that adults and children like to play together.”

    As kids I think we had the best of both worlds. We got to enjoy the secular Santa silliness if we wanted, but we also knew that our parents were telling us the truth. We understood that some of the other kids we knew believed Santa was real, but because we knew it was pretend, we didn’t have strong motivation to spoil the surprise their parents had so painstakingly set up (though we felt sorry for them if they were genuinely disappointed when they found out). All *our* presents were always from Mom and Dad.


    HT: PhoenixPreacher

  8. I never heard of Advent until my senior year of high school, when I sold advent calendars (with pieces of Swiss chocolate behind the doors, and Luther quotes behind the chocolate) for German club. My Jewish teacher knew all about it-even gave me a book about it-a Lutheran or Presbyterian one, don’t remember. I told my (Southern Baptist pastor, a young one, 30 or so (this was 1995ish) and he said Advent was this liberal Satanic thing done by witches…..

  9. Carolyn and Chrissl:

    My experiences were like yours. I was crushed as a child to find out that my parents had not been truthful with me and wondered if anything else they had told me was true. With my own children, Santa was a game we played. My children always differentiated between the secular and the religious. They always knew the truth.

    When I was a RC, we always celebrated advent. I could not wait until the “baby Jesus” would be added to the manger in the creche scene at church. I am Vineyard now and they have incorporated advent for the past four years. I do not wait to place the baby Jesus in the creche anymore. As I get older time seems to fly by and I want to be able to enjoy the creche scene throughout the season.

  10. imonk,
    are there any other websites with ideas/information on advent (not a commercialized version of it) that you know about?

  11. Kevin C writes – “I told my (Southern Baptist pastor, a young one, 30 or so (this was 1995ish) and he said Advent was this liberal Satanic thing done by witches…..”

    That made my night – I needed a good chuckle. My family celebrates Advent each year. Each of my children take turns blowing out the candle (my older ones light them) and saying the prayers. It helps to keep our focus during this season and also helps build the anticipation for Christmas day.

    I am happy to see other faith traditions rediscovering this observance.

  12. Well, we did “Evangelicalâ„¢,” I don’t see why we can’t use “Christmasâ„¢” as short-hand for “the christmas shopping season.”

    Try as I might to re-educate the church I pastor about the goodness of advent, it just doesn’t seem to soak in. Heck, I even did a video on it

  13. It was not until I married and began to attend my husband’s home United Methodist Church …that I learned of Advent. But even then…it was just a Sunday service thing…not done in the homes. Advent…when done from the heart is a beautiful way to keep the focus on what Christmas is really about. The gift-giving and secular celebrations can be incorporated when kept in perspective.

  14. WEZLO: The video is wonderfully done. I was brought to a place of quiet worship as I watched it. Thank you for the time and effort you put into it.

  15. Wezlo – well done.

  16. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I told my (Southern Baptist pastor, a young one, 30 or so (this was 1995ish) and he said Advent was this liberal Satanic thing done by witches….. — Kevin C

    First Halloween, now Advent….

  17. Thanks, gang. It’s nice to get feedback, but I’m just glad that (a)I’m not alone in thinking that Christmasâ„¢ is a bad thing and (b) I can offer Michael a, “Yup, with you dood.”

  18. The journalists’ blog Get Religion linked to a USA Today article on Evangelicals celebrating Advent.

    The article is both encouraging and depressing. Encouraging to read quotes from Evangelicals like this: “I so often felt that by the time I got to Christmas morning, after the parties, and planning and shopping and presents and travel, that there was a void, that I hadn’t had time to prepare my heart for the gift, with a capital G, of Jesus.”

    Depressing to read quotes from Evangelicals like

    “Since I’m not bound by the traditional Advent, I could choose writers for this collection who break out of the familiar talk of Christmas to the shocking wonder of it, that God revealed himself to the humblest among us.”

    Uh… The suggestion that other Christians are “bound by … Advent,” as if there were devotions that were legalistically required, is odd. And the speaker is under an odd impression of what “the traditional Advent” is about, if he thinks he’s being original in “break[ing] out of the familiar talk of Christmas” and discovering “that God revealed himself to the humblest among us.”

    This is an example of why I love/hate the “rediscovery” of things other Christians have always been doing. I love that we can share our common heritage. I hate the spiritual tourism and the attitude of “We’ll take the bits we like, dust off the musty accretions, and reinvent the wheel–except we’ll make it *round*!”

    I don’t mean to be too critical of our Evangelical brothers and sisters, and I really am thrilled about sharing Advent. We lit the first candle last night as a family, prayed the Collect for the 1st Sunday, prayed for the needs of our family and the world, and sang. And it was good to know that many other Christians were doing the same or similar.

    Don’t forget the Advent tradition of cleaning the house from top to bottom, giving away the clutter you don’t need, and returning any borrowed items. Besides being a metaphor for attending to the nooks and crannies of your soul (and a good deep cleaning can be surprisingly meditative, esp. if you offer up your labor to the Lord), it will remind you of how much STUFF you already have.

  19. I liked the whiney bits 🙂

  20. Scott Miller says

    I, like Carolyn, was devastated when, as a child, I found that Santa was not real. But I found out the hard way – when my Dad lost his job and we went from a bountiful Christmas one year to one present from my aunt the next. My parents had done the Santa thing so well, with a hired Santa who knew enough about me where I couldn’t find any fault in him. The reason (H)e didn’t come that lean year was surely because I had been bad, I thought.
    I am at a new church this year. Here in about 30 minutes, I will find out how they treat Christmas/Advent. It should be interesting.

  21. Ah Advent! My wife and I have loved this time for a few years now. We were both new to it down here in Oz(tralia), and oh so fed up with the dry and colourless liturgical practices of our protestant church and hungry for a deeper meaning to the Christmas season. So we gave it a go and so started our own family Advent tradition. We found what information we could, we pumped my German parents for information about their childhoods, and we got on to a little booklet put out by James Dobson! Our church culture was no help at all – yep the responses were either amused smirks or downright suspicion. Now the kids have left home and yes, we still observe Advent. Our family Advent tradition subtlely grows and changes with the years. Last night we set up the Advent ring, and the brilliant LTP Publications Advent calendar (with its reminders of the faithful of history, some of them modern, social justice figures) and had our first reading. And once again we determined that THIS YEAR we’d faithfully observe the season and enjoy more of its riches! The truth is, it’s always a challenge. It’s a challenge because we’re doing something counter-cultural (note the desperate efforts in movie-dom etc to invest Christmas with some non religious meaning) and until recently it’s felt like we’ve been trying to do it on our own as well. Sometimes it feels like a bit of a battle to to keep to it – there are skirmishes and setbacks, and small advances. There’s plenty to distract us – in your face advertising to BUY, tiredness and busy-ness and of course that old course of least resistance, vege-ing limply in front of the TV is a whole lot easier when you’re tired. Each year we arrive at Christmas feeling differently about how well we’re prepared. It’s not easy but it’s worth it! And this might sound weird but we like the fact that by observing Advent and reading the lectionary readings, an element of strangeness, disturbance and a little discomfort gets added to our overall picture of the God and the season. We’re challenged as we get reminded that God is not all soft and fluffy and just wanting to help us achieve our dreams etc. We’ve also found that it connects us to the world of other people who are doing the same thing, reading the same Bible passages etc. OK, so it is a discipline sometimes but with the richness and depth that gets added to life, it’s worth it. Give it a go – and enjoy!

  22. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Found what I wrote in the Advent thread last year. This supersedes my first post in this thread:

    I have no problem with Advent as celebrated in my parish. Due to my past, the surrounding “Happy Holidays!” have been something to be endured more than enjoyed. (Didn’t Chesterton’s Father Brown make a point that “There is no torment in Hell as terrible as Constant Forced Cheerfulness” in the story “Three Tools of Death”?)

    Advent: Four weeks of quiet preparation, resting up for the twelve-day party from Christmas to Epiphany. Makes a lot more sense than…

    Current Xmas: Two-three months of rushing around, shopping, partying, and being subject to cheezy Xmas songs, cheezy TV specials, and Constant Forced Cheerfulness until by the time December 25th comes around, you’re too burned out to enjoy anything. (Oh, and you’re expected back at work on the 26th.) I have heard that the divorce, domestic violence, and depression rates all peak around this time of year. Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Burnout!

  23. Wow! Advent Devotional app for the iPhone.