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I love the rituals of Christmas. The home ones are especially nice: hanging stockings (made by my Mom for my Pani, each of my kids, and me), putting up the Nativity banners, setting up the Nativity creche (are they statues if all the figures are pillows?), putting out the Advent candles, hanging up Christmas cards (how do other people get theirs out so early?!), and putting up the tree.
Wait, that’s misleading: I like watching my kids put up the Christmas tree. We have a mix of ornaments that will never make Good Housekeeping: classics like “baby’s first Christmas” bells for each of our children, candy canes (what is the shelf life of those things, anyway?!), kid-made ones both ancient and new, happy meal ones (how do those keep getting out of the trash?), and all the wonderful gift ornaments that friends and family have given us over the years. Each of them acts as a kind of hyperlink into memories of previous Christmases, taking the idle mind happily through the warmth of seasons past. It’s a bit cluttered and random, but it’s real; our kids participate in that reality when they take them out and hang them.
Ritual is part of what allows us to live well. Not just the intentionally constructed rituals of liturgies and parades, but the accumulated hodgepodge of habits that pile up in random but repeatable mounds around every holiday. Ritual is how we experience tradition; how we live the timelessness of love; how we begin to suss out our place in a community that started before time was measured, gathers in pools behind the dam of the eternal now, then down into the ever distant “ages of ages.” Through ritual, being human becomes as natural as putting chili sauce on eggs, blue cheese on roast beef, or bananas, peanut butter, and mayo on wonder bread.
Some people object when things that were created outside the formal historical channels of Orthodoxy are allowed in. I bet some of you are tempted into hissy-fits that an Orthodox priest has such things as an Advent wreath and Nativity creche in his home. They would freak out even more to learn that we, members of an “Old Calendar” parish, celebrate Christmas twice; singing carols and opening our presents and stockings on 12/25 (12/12 on our liturgical calendar) and then pulling out all the liturgical stops 13 days later on 1/7 (12/25 on our liturgical calendar).
Purists don’t like the pattern of rituals that have accumulated in my household around our Savior’s birth.
I wonder if they mind the trezub (trident, symbol of one of the gods of ancient Rus’) that adorns the walls of so many of our parishes. It has pride of place, as do icons of so many saints, images of the “all-seeing eye”, pelicans, peacocks, grape vines, … even Christ Himself. I am sure they are offended when they walk into a church and see images of the Trinity (complete with the “Ancient of Days”) piled up amongst the cherubim and seraphim that continually circle the Throne of Glory. So many things try to work their way into the presence of Our Lord.
God has a certain gravity. One of my high school science teachers (a dear woman, but perhaps mis-placed…) told us that any metal object we lost would eventually find its way to the magnetic North Pole. I imagined explorers on dog-sleds coming upon a huge pile of watches, bolts, matchbox cars, and pocket knives. All of creation emanated from and is sustained by the mind of the Creator. We have perverted many things, but He is drawing it all back towards Himself for the great re-making.
All of these rituals are piling up around Him like offerings at an altar.
My youngest daughter has a game she likes to play: it’s the “bring all my favorite toys to daddy because I love him” game. After about fifteen minutes of this, my lap and all the couch around me are covered with dolls, books, and various other treasures. There’s no real rhyme to the arrangement… only the guiding logic of the game. I don’t need any of these things – and I usually end up putting most of them away myself. But I sure do love to play that game. I have no doubt that I love it even more than my daughter does.
No one would intentionally mix the ornaments we do for our tree; no one would intentionally combine the rituals that guide my family through this Nativity season; no one would think of making a pagan god’s trident a Christian symbol or the yule tree an essential element in (almost) every Christian home; but this is the glory of a timeless God who works to perfect His people through time.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Dcn. James says
I remember back in the day, when I was new in my Orthodoxy, and full of such spiritual zeal, and a purist, I made the journey through Great Lent in a true monastic fashion. I would constantly chastise those not following “the rules”, until a wise priest pulled me aside and reminded me that we all have our own paths to take on our journey towards God. My path is not yours, nor is your path mine, but we pray that we shall meet together in the end.
I like you, celebrate two Christmases every year. So I have no issue in telling you and everyone I meet, Merry Christmas! In fact, I love having two days to celebrate. One day to revel in family, and another day to adore our Creator. But in true Orthodox fashion, we should have a third Christmas, because we like doing every thing in thirds. 😆😆😆
Although I’m laity and not clergy, I find this article as well as your podcasts to be most uplifting and encouraging. Thank you, Fr. Anthony, for reminding us sometimes over zealous, would be purist that “…the greatest of these is love.”