Thursday, January 4, 2007
Holidays and/or ‘holy’ days
This week I want to talk about holidays and holy days. The word holiday, of course, derives from the word “holy day,” but sad to say, most of the church’s “holy days” have become, simply, holidays. I like the holy days that have not become holidays. I like them because they require no presents, no shopping, no fancy meals, and do not leave one exhausted from all the fuss and commotion that surround our holidays.
The Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6, which follows the twelve days of Christmas, is a good example. The Eastern Orthodox churches exchange their Christmas presents on this day which commemorates the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem.
Since it takes me this long beyond our traditional Christmas to get all my card-writing and gift-giving done, this secondary Christmas fills the bill for me perfectly. I sing “As with gladness, men of old,” or “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” or the verses in “The First Noel” about the wise men and have a much quieter celebration than all the goings-on around December 25, when the shepherds find themselves almost crowded out of the manger scene with all the noise and hoopla that surround our current American Yule revelry.
Sometimes December 25 just wells up and overflows in my heart. I suspect I am not the only person who feels this way. It is complicated, and far too much to reflect on now.
By the way, I always smile at the advice of a Virginia friend who believed that the singing of “We Three Kings” ought to be made a separate service unto itself. It is not my favorite carol, with its many verses and minor key in the opening lines. (Did you know this carol — by an American hymn writer — is not even included in the standard hymnbooks of Great Britain?) When we sang it in the Presbyterian Church here this year, I insisted that we use only the first and last verses! It is by far the longest carol, except for “The Twelve Days of Christmas!”
Christmas Day is both a holy day and a holiday. New Year’s Day is a holiday — civil in origin, but an occasion of which the church takes notice. On the official church calendar January 1 is the Eighth Day of Christmas, the Feast Day of Christ’s Holy Name — commemorating the traditional occasion on which the baby Jesus was named — but for those of us who use the western calendar, it is the day we flip over all the numbers and begin counting to 365 once again.
Interestingly, because of the Puritan heritage of most of our churches, you will still see more services for New Years’ Eve than you see for Christmas Eve. This is because the Puritans insisted on keeping no holy day but Sunday, which they honored as “The Lord’s Day.” So there were no services for Christmas Day, or on Christmas Eve. (Strange as it may seem, except for the Lutherans and Episcopalians, churches were dark on Christmas in Protestant churches until the 20th century.)
But “The Night Before Christmas” poem, movies such as “Miracle on 34th Street” and “White Christmas,” and yes, Bishop Hopkins’ “We Three Kings” changed all that, and changed it for the better, and now most churches gather on Christmas Eve.
It does the Lord’s Day no harm, and may do it much good, as Christmas Eve is a wonderful opportunity for church folk who have not seen each other as often as they’d like to renew acquaintances and resolve to be more regular in participation in the future.
The New Year’s Eve Watch Night Service, however, used to be the far greater Protestant occasion.
Churches were filled, and the services were long. You can still see this in the non-conforming churches of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But in America, those crowds now tend to be small.
Dr. Davies, our minister in the church I served in Chicago had been reared in Wales where Watch Night Services were still popular. He insisted that we have one in Chicago, and often led it himself. It was one of his favorite church occasions. The evening was given over to lots of singing, a sermon about making and keeping resolutions, and a supper buffet of extraordinary quantity and quality. (I especially remember the hot chocolate and whipped cream — remember Chicago was cold on New Year’s Eve!)
Now, for most of us, the New Year celebration has been thoroughly secularized, and many would not think of going to church. Still, it is worth remembering the psalmist’s word, “our times are in thy hand.”
More complex are those civil days — Thanksgiving Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day — that have a quasi-religious character.
For Americans, these are almost holy days. And most people would be hard-pressed to explain why they are not — except that furniture stores have sales in honor of these days, and most of us would prefer the day off to yet another day of churchgoing.
Thanksgiving and honoring those who have died are biblical mandates, as does submission to the ruling authorities. But how many were as surprised as I was, when visiting a British family in one long-ago November to realize that not everyone sets aside a day for Thanksgiving then as we do, on the fourth Thursday in November. (You can thank the Puritans for that one, also — although the actual date of the observance was fixed by Congress in the 1930s, not early American tradition!)
I have also been in London on July 4. You can be sure no special mention is made of America on that day, and I am not sure I would have wanted to hear what might be said were there to be notice taken on that day!
Thanksgiving Day is an occasion we can legitimately share with our Muslim, Jewish, and friends of other religions. Even those who make no religious profession feel thankful.
So compile your own list of holidays and holy-days, think of the distinctions involved, and as we come to this new year, be grateful for the passing of times and seasons, and especially for those quiet days when we can focus on the things that mean most to us.
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