By Katherine Billotte-Kelaidis
It is a little bit awkward for me to sit down to write about “pop culture and Advent,” because a) I am from a tradition in which Advent as such does not exist (and I promise to explain below) and b) it seems to me that popular culture has, over the past two centuries, essentially managed to eradicate Advent from our collective life, part of a larger cultural shift away from anticipation and expectation as a standard part of both Christian and wider societal practice. It is a shift that evidences the ways in which as a culture we have eliminated the traditions and language of preparation and replaced them with an extended, but ultimately hollow, celebration, devoid of any deeper meaning but merriment.
Let’s be clear: I am a weird person to be lamenting the loss of Advent. Advent is a Western Christian thing. In the Eastern Church, we have the Nativity Fast that begins forty days before Christmas and is a rather late addition to the liturgical calendar with little of its own identity. The Nativity Fast is a not-very-good attempt to apply the preparation for Easter to Christmas. Sort of like Mall Easter Bunnies are to Mall Santas, but in reverse. This is because the Feast of the Nativity of Christ (i.e. Christmas) is the only major Christian feast to move from West to East and is not, as such, the most important day of Twelvetide for Eastern Christians: The place of honor in the East goes to Theophany (Epiphany) on January 6th. This is all to say in the religious landscape of my childhood, Advent was only present in the grocery story chocolate calendars that my grandparents would purchase as gifts to be pillaged all at once on St. Nicholas Day.
My family did not observe Advent, but we did practice a faith in which the year was divided into cycles of feasting and fasting, in which preparation, reflection, and even lament, preceded celebration. And despite Advent, and little chocolate filled cardboard calendars, it does not appear to me that this pattern of preparation and celebration is part of our contemporary Western culture. And that is a shame, a lost opportunity, and a sign that a very important part of the Gospel, hope, has largely vanished from our midst.
“The Christmas Season” today runs from November 1st (or as quickly as the Halloween displays can be taken down) until the 26th of December when “After Christmas Sales” strip the shelves bare for retailers staring down the barrel of end-of-the-year inventories. We speak of this time as “the holidays” or (even worse) perhaps “the festive season.” A spirit of festive and goodwill that disappears as quickly as eager shoppers can strip it bear. It is a rush that has proven to be rather stressful and unfilling for many. Not unsurprisingly, Christmas has lost some of its immense popularity over the past two decades. Moreover, it appears Christmas’s popularity has not been strangely subject to the partisan divides that animate American life. While Republicans are likely to like Christmas “a lot” more than Democrats, they are virtually equally likely to dislike it “somewhat” or “a lot.”
Clearly there are a lot of societal and demographic factors that explain the decline of Christmas joy, but perhaps the most simple is this: We have rushed it all. And in doing so we have disregarded the glorious period of expectation and waiting, the anticipation, that makes most things all the more worthwhile. The consequence of this has been not only less joy, but less meaning.
But this is not a plea to “Put Christ in Christmas,” a plea often made by the sort of people who make “Happy Birthday, Jesus” cakes suggesting that their familiarity with Christian history and practice doesn’t go much beyond the age of television. Instead, my plea is for us to reclaim Advent (or the Nativity Fast, if that’s your thing–as it is mine) and the Twelvetide (the real Christmas season) as a means of reclaiming hope. Because, hopelessness is the very thing that put us in this position to begin with. We have rushed to superficial celebration because we have lost our ability to hope that joy and celebration might come. In a historical moment when it feels like there is impending doom at every turn – climate catastrophe, nuclear war, the collapse of democracy, the collapse of the Church – it does make sense to rush to the few good bits that remain. Let’s put up the Christmas tree on November 1st – there might be an insurrection or a mass shooting or a stray Russian missile – before Christmas Eve and we would have missed the whole thing entirely.
This is a reasonable response, a logical one really, but I would argue that at its heart Christianity fearlessly defies reason and logic in the name of love and joy. As such, the Christian story is filled with expectation and waiting and the demand for hope. “Faith,” the writer of Hebrews tells us, “is the expectation of things hoped for and a belief in things yet unseen.” (Hebrews 11:1). To be a Christian, to have faith, is to expect and hope, to believe in what is not yet seen. It is a story not yet ended in which we are asked to wait for the final consummation of the story, a story whose ending we are told will be a happy one despite all appearances to the contrary. The Gospel is the proclamation that real joy, lasting joy, the true cause of our celebration and rejoicing, will come after, will come FROM waiting and preparation.
Advent, like Great Lent, serves as a reminder of that. It is a calendar that takes us beyond one day on the calendar to a whole two weeks of celebrating the fact that God appeared among us. Both Advent and Twelevetide have been swept aside in popular culture because they demand hope beyond reason and we have so little reasonable hope. That is why we must once again embrace the unreasonable hope of Christ’s coming that is Advent.
Katherine Billotte-Kelaidis is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics at Loyola University in Chicago and a Visiting Instructor at DePaul University. She is a Scholar in Residence at the National Hellenic Museum. She holds a PhD in Classics from the University of London. Her research interests are the Reception of Greek & Roman Drama and Greek-American studies.