On Religion

The same thing happens to Father Kendall Harmon every year during the 12 days after the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

It happens with newcomers at his home parish, Christ-St. Paul's in Yonges Island, South Carolina, near Charleston. It often happens when, as Canon Theologian, he visits other parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.

"I greet people and say 'Merry Christmas!' all the way through the 12 days" of the season, he said, laughing. "They look at me like I'm a Martian or I'm someone who is lost. ... So many people just don't know there's more Christmas after Christmas Day."

To shine a light on this problem, some churches have embraced a tradition -- primarily among Anglicans and other Protestants -- that provides a spectacular answer to an old question: When do you take down that Christmas tree? The answer: The faithful take their Christmas trees to church and build a bonfire as part of the "Epiphany Service of Lights" on Jan. 6.

As always, in a rite framed by liturgy, there is a special prayer: "Almighty God our Heavenly Father, whose only Son came down at Christmas to be the light of the world, grant as we burn these trees this Epiphany night, that we, inspired by your Holy Spirit, would follow his example and bear witness to His light throughout the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit, live and reign in glory everlasting. Amen."

The struggle to observe the 12 days of Christmas is similar to other trials for those who strive to follow the teachings of their faith during the crush of daily life, said Harmon. But while similar tensions occur during other holy seasons, it's hard to deny that the cultural steamroller called "Christmas" -- which seizes shopping malls well before Thanksgiving -- has become uniquely powerful.

"If we are going to take Christmas seriously, we have to start by taking Advent seriously," he said, referring to the four-week season that precedes Christmas Day. "Then you have to think of the Christmas season like Holy Week, when we have service after service to truly prepare for Easter. I think you have to market this to your people as a challenge, a way to keep the celebration of Christmas going."

It helps that for Catholics -- as well as Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox Christians and others with liturgical calendars -- the days after Christmas are packed with significant feasts, many shared in common and others unique to the various church traditions. There's the feast of the great martyr St. Stephen, as well as that of St. John the Evangelist, while New Year's Day is marked by different feasts in different churches. However, since ancient times, the days after Christmas have pointed toward the great feast of Epiphany, or Theophany in the East.

It's easy to spot the thread -- the incarnation -- that ties it all together, through feasts "consistent with tidings of comfort and joy, and some more alarming," noted Father C. John McCloskey, a Catholic priest known for his evangelistic work in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before moving to northern California's Silicon Valley.

These 12 days help believers "go deeper into the celebration of Our Lord's nativity and our understanding of his coming to secure the means of our salvation," wrote McCloskey, in a CatholiCity.com essay. "Through his birth of the Virgin Mary ... Christ began his earthly journey to his death for us on Cavalry some 33 years later, and his resurrection from the dead three days after that. ... From Christmas to the baptism of Our Lord, we are still marking the infancy of Christ's incarnation among us."

The bottom line, said McCloskey in an interview, is that "Christmas is not over just because the culture says that it's over."

Harmon said it helps if people find ways to celebrate both inside and outside of their church sanctuaries during the 12 days after Christmas Day, in worship and in festivities. It's a good thing to challenge the status quo in people's calendars.

"Burning all of those Christmas trees creates a pretty big bonfire," he said. "This isn't your normal trip to church. I mean, you take a tree to church and set it on fire. ... That gets your attention."

(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)

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