The introit for the first Sunday of Advent: Ad te levavi (Paslm 25) Missal from Durham Cathedral, England, c. 1348 British Library, Harley MS 5289, f.9r
Dec 3, 2008 Happy New Year. Yes, I’m pushing it, but not as much as you think. I’m not talking about those woozie performances of “Auld Lang Syne” and the Rose Bowl, but instead the first Sunday of Advent that started off this week. Once a year I have the pleasure of introducing our students here at MTSU to the wonderful music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Teaching about that music requires teaching about the Mass, and since it’s hard to make sense of books like an antiphonal or gradual without knowing the basic contours of the liturgical year, we start by discussing the Christian calendar, which starts with Advent. It’s not a very sophisticated study, but we cover the basics, which are new to almost all my students. (Most of them are not unchurched, it’s just that Baptists and Church of Christ folks don’t do a lot with multiple altar cloths). I draw a line on the board, mark off the fixed date of
Christmas on its center and add in its twelve day prolongation (“You mean that silly song really means something?”). Put in Easter and Pentecost, talk about their movable dates, add the balancing springs of Epiphany and Pentecost, and finish it with the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent. We talk about how Scripture readings are divided by the seasons and how the calendar has both a devotional and pedagogical function and talk a bit about its relationship with the Roman calendar. And we talk about how studying calendars is a way to understand cultures. Not only are they necessary for basic survival —if you plant either before the last frost or too late after it you’ll starve—but calendars are also ways societies mark their priorities and organize their memories. “Christendom” was very much Christian, and the calendar made that pretty clear.
Durham missal, full page First day of the Christian year
For comparison, we then draw a second line under that diagram and sketch out our modern American calendar. The liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, but where does our year begin? Of course everybody says January 1, but after a bit of discussion that bit of finishing off one wall calendar and tacking up a new one appears a bit trivial. Yes, thatâ€™s when we change the number of the year and the IRS is very interested in our finances prior to midnight December 31 as opposed to after it, but that chiming clock is not really when we begin a year. That beginning is deeply rooted in our childhood, with memories of the smell of new shoes and the anxiety of new classrooms; we really begin our year in the fall when we enter a new grade in school.
Christmas at Marshal Fieldâ€™s, Chicago
Labor Day used to be the holiday that marked the end of summer and the beginning of the new school year, but as school districts push back the beginning of their fall terms into August, and some even into July, that old marker has lost some of its significance.
But even with new terms starting in the late summer, we still mark off our lives as we did when we were six, with the beginning of our new grade in school. Everybody agrees that Christmas is the year’s most important holiday; in fact it’s the year’s most important day. A close second is Thanksgiving. Between the beginning of school and Christmas is Halloween, a children’s festival that has increasingly become an adult celebration of costumed hedonism. Preparation for Christmas used to begin in late November with Thanksgiving, which means that’s when stores put up their decorations, but this is being pushed earlier to where it’s not uncommon to see decorations for Christmas competing with those for Halloween. Christmas is prolonged a bit through January One, although here in the South the Christmas trees are typically dumped on the sidewalks the day after Christmas, and the whole period from New Year’s Day back through Halloween is regarded as the “Holiday Season.” Apart from New York City and a few other centers—and outside of Jewish families themselves—the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur leave no mark on our national calendar, and Chanukah is really only marked by elementary school choir performances of that dradle song. There is a kind of penitential season lasting the first few weeks of January marked by purchases of exercise equipment, but this is quickly swallowed by the Martin Luther King Jr. Day federal holiday. The holiday’s significance is observed by African Americans and politicians, but for the rest of the country it simply means a three day weekend. But then Super Bowl Sunday. It’s the most important occasion between New Year’s and the Fourth of July—actually, it’s more important than the Fourth of July. There’s a week or more of preparation for the game, and on the afternoon of the game streets are deserted as friends gather for Super Bowl parties. It’s a bit like Thanksgiving, except this holiday is a gathering of friends rather than relatives. The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, Mardi Gras, is celebrated in some Southern cities— New Orleans, of course, but also Mobile—but Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Holy Week pass by quietly. (There is one penitential day that sometimes falls in Lent: April 15). Easter, falling on a Sunday and unmarked by a day off from work—although the Stock Exchange and some school districts are closed Good Friday—is almost invisible. If you didn’t know it was Easter Sunday, you could easily miss it. But Mother’s Day you never miss. And it’s become somewhat traditional to schedule college commencements around that May weekend. Memorial Day, the last Monday of May, marks the end of the school year, or at least the coming end of the school year and the beginning of the summer. Although some schools shorten their summer recess, truncating the traditional three-month summer break, June through August are at least thought of, or hoped for, as vacation time. By August as much of the country as can has gone into sleep mode. (Has there ever been a stock market crash
in August?) The Fourth of July is a day off from work celebrated by evening fireworks. It is a holiday neither prepared for nor remembered. In the fall it all begins again.
Fourth of July, Fireworks over the Ohio River, Cincinnati
So that’s our calendar, the way we organize our time and the grid through with we weave our memories. But what’s illuminating is to see it next to the old Christian calendar. That abutment makes it pretty clear: The old calendar commemorates the saving work of God through history, our American calendar celebrates money. Why is Easter largely invisible and Christmas so prominent? Simple. We don’t give gifts at Easter. And why does Christmas have such a faint prolongation? Because the gifts have already been bought and given, there’s nothing to prolong. Why has the Super Bowl gained a significance that almost parallels Thanksgiving? There’s a lot of cash bet on the Super Bowl, nobody bets on the turkey (well, OK, sometimes we do). Why were Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays combined and King’s birthday, Memorial Day, and Labor Day all moved off their historic dates to Mondays? For money, to encourage the resort industry. July 4th would probably be moved too if weren’t so tightly bound to that exact date. And why is Mother’s Day eclipsing Easter? Because on Mother’s Day you take mother OUT to eat; Easter dinner is at home. It is our pursuit of money that unites us as Americans, and we’ve constructed our modern calendar to show that pretty clearly. If money weren’t so important to us, our calendar would look different, and I suspect that much of the dissonance many people of faith— Christians, Muslims, Jews, Native American traditionalists—feel with American culture comes from a sense that their faith-based notions of ordering time run against this American grid. And the question has to be asked, if—or perhaps better, when—we run
out of money, what will keep us together?
Christmas window in Chicago “Give a Little; Get a Lot”
None of this is particularly insightful of course. Americans are interested in money? And this is supposed to be news? But it’s a bit startling to see it so clearly expressed in our calendar, and, in any case, makes for an interesting discussion with undergraduates as we begin to look at the different culture of our medieval forbearers. So, as of this week, Happy New Year.
This was originally published on the First Things Blog December 3, 2008