Culture. How do we as Catholics engage our American culture? Some of us go through great efforts to fight the culture we live in. Being that America can be a highly secular country, that fight is understandable and even necessary. But not always, and often in the midst of our culture wars, we end up missing the good, beauty, and truth around us. I dare say, especially around the holidays.
I know, I know. I’ve been there too. Fighting the good fight against secularized St. Nick, a Thanksgiving that is mostly about football and getting ready for Black Friday, and a commercialized Christmas. And don’t get me started on the dreaded decisions over Halloween. (Do we participate? Only saint costumes or is a superhero okay? Trick-or-treating or church event? Is my love for Christ gonna be questioned if my fellow churchgoers see my kids dressed as ninjas and begging for candy in my neighborhood!?) I’m a mother of ten, and I’ve navigated these waters for years now. Maybe some of my experience can help put your mind at ease so you can focus on significant things this holiday season.
Let’s begin with Thanksgiving. I’m an Eastern (Byzantine) Catholic, so Thanksgiving is during our Advent season. We start fasting and preparing for Christmas on November 15th. Because Thanksgiving is an important Holiday in America, most (if not all) of the Eastern bishops will allow us to break the fast on Thanksgiving and will also usually give us the next day off to eat the leftovers before resuming the Nativity fast which when kept traditionally means eating no meat amongst other things (people do adjust the fast for dietary/personal needs). Yes, the feast is appreciated even more by the fact that we have already been fasting for Christmas.
Thanksgiving is a holiday we Catholics should be happy to embrace. Offering thanks is a completely Christian thing to do. It’s a good time to set an example to others in our society that it is God we are thankful to for the blessings in our lives.
We can set a good example of the importance of giving thanks to God by participating in the ultimate act of thanksgiving which is the Divine Liturgy (Mass). Eucharist is from the Greek and means thanksgiving. In my family, all of us (or most of us) will start Thanksgiving by attending Divine Liturgy.
This year I will remind my family again of some of the last words said at Divine Liturgy by the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann on Thanksgiving Day. His prayer began with “Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.” (You can read the entire prayer here.)
Opportunity for Hospitality
Thanksgiving (and Christmas) is an opportunity for hospitality. The holidays can be lonely for many. Opening your home to others, if possible, is another way to share Christ with those you know. And please, do make an effort to enjoy the company of your family and friends and not just fuss over food, focus on football, or pour over the shopping ads.
Thanksgiving is a beautiful holiday in its own right and not just a day off to prep for shopping and watching the latest blockbuster movie. Those things aren’t bad in themselves but should not be our sole focus. They shouldn’t keep us from truly being thankful to be American, for our lives and the lives of those we love. And above all, thankful to God for His gift of salvation.
Now what to do about Santa Claus? I’m all for embracing the fun of Santa Claus, with a twist, of course. Catholics should be celebrating Saint Nicholas’ feast day on December 6th. Our kids put their shoes out (stockings work too) the night before his feast and wake up to them filled with chocolate coins, candy canes, and other small treats which they gobble up before heading out to Divine Liturgy (Mass) to celebrate his feast. On that day or close to it, most Eastern Catholic parishes have St. Nicholas, all dressed in his bishop’s clothing, visit and hand out more treats to the children.
When my kids ask me about the Santa Claus they see at the stores, I tell them that’s just another way to say St. Nicholas and explain to them the different traditions about St. Nicholas around the world. I explain what they see here are the American traditions (I even have a set of St. Nick figurines from around the world, including a bobblehead Coca-Cola Santa!) I don’t see the point in fighting the culture on this, but have seen the benefit of embracing the good. We have our religious traditions and enjoy the fun of Santa Claus around the holidays, and this has never harmed my children’s faith but has only made it fun and tangible for them.
There are so many other Christmas traditions you can embrace that have come to America from various cultures. This article has a list of ideas and additional links of resources.
This leads us to Christmas day. What is considered the holiday season in America is mostly Advent for Christians. The holiday season is bursting with parties, shopping, cooking, plays, and busyness. Here is a place where I would challenge you not to embrace this aspect of our culture completely but make an effort to simplify your usual preparations and spread out those activities over the real Christmas season which begins on Christmas day.
The Incarnation of Christ is a reason for joy, celebrations and most definitely feasting (all feasts should point us to the Eucharist and the eternal banquet). But we need to make an effort not to let the busyness drown out Christ. And don’t get me wrong, I have a large family, even with things simplified it is still a busy time. But we need to learn to embrace Christ during this time which sounds easier than it is when in the midst of wrapping, shopping, and meal planning.
One of the beautiful truths about the birth of Christ, is He sanctified all things when he took on flesh and walked this earth. Because of this, we have Him with us at all times and in all activities–we simply have to make an effort to see Him shining in our lives and the lives of those around us. The traditional tools of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can help us have the eyes to see.
Finally, Halloween. I know it’s already occurred, but it will be around next year, and for a lot of Americans these days, it’s considered the start of the Holiday season. My Halloween turmoil began when my now 22-year-old was young. I did not like the dark side of the holiday, such as over the top horror movie costumes and wild partying by adults. I did love that Halloween was the eve of All Saint’s day and followed by All Soul’s day and I’ve shared this history with my children. At first, I only allowed saint costumes and even passed out homemade holy cards of martyrs one year along with candy. (I was quite passionate about keeping the holiday purely Catholic!)
As the kids grew, they asked to be other characters. Since I regularly used good stories to share Christian truths with my children it only made sense to allow them to be whatever good character they wanted to be. So, I’m open to anything that isn’t a flat-out evil character. Ninjas, friendly ghosts, even Darth Vader who turned at the end, have not harmed my children’s souls or lead them to the dark side.
Another new aspect to our Halloween celebrations is embracing Dia de Los Muertos which you may have heard of from Disney’s fantastic movie Coco. You can read about how I have used that movie to share our Christian faith with my kids here.
This holiday season (and remember that only means ‘holy days’) keep St. Porphyrios’ words in mind: “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.”
image: andreagen / Pixabay