The Christian year begins in late November, with the four-week season of preparation known as Advent. For Christians, preparation for Christmas is not simply the crescendo of excitement that has come to typify the Christmas season in America. This season of watchfulness and expectation is meant to prepare the heart for the second coming, the “advent” of Christ, as well as for the celebration of Jesus’ birth some 2,000 years ago.
In many churches and Christian homes, the period of preparation is kept by the weekly lighting of Advent candles, one on the first Sunday in Advent, two on the second, three on the third. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, just before Christmas, all four candles are lit. The lighting of candles draws upon ancient traditions of kindling fires at the time of the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year. From the fourth century, the celebration of Christ’s birth was set on December 25, the time of the Roman celebration of the “Sol Invictus,” the “Unconquered Sun,” at the time of the winter solstice when days began to lengthen once again.
From its earliest days, the Christian tradition has spoken of Christ as the “Light” of the world. For Christians, the candles and lights of the season symbolize the Light that has come into the world. One Christmas hymn begins, “Break forth, O beauteous, heavenly Light, and usher in the morning!” The Christmas lights of today, decking trees, homes, and public buildings, might be seen to be a modern transformation of the ancient symbolism of light.
America has added much to the Christmas tradition. In the nineteenth century, the custom of New Year’s gift-giving was redirected toward Christmas, as new German immigrants brought with them the traditions of the Christmas tree and Christmas gifts. In 1823, Clement Moore’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” entered the Christmas repertory. By the late nineteenth century, the European St. Nicholas had been transformed, through myth and commerce, into the full-fledged Santa Claus, jolly, bountiful, and distinctly American. The commercialization of Christmas in America began in the nineteenth century and continues full-force today.
The nineteenth-century Americanization of Christmas also produced many of today’s most popular carols, such as “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” written by Phillips Brooks in 1868. Today, throughout the Christmas season, the repetition of the story of Christ’s birth is sung in carols, told in story, and enacted in dramas. The scene of that story is recreated in homes, churches, and even parks, with the “nativity scene,” also called a crèche or a nacimiento. Countless churches present Christmas pageants, as church members take on the roles of Mary and Joseph seeking room in the inn and finding space in the stable. The congregation, children included, become for a moment the shepherds and angels, and the wise men who saw the star from afar and came bearing gifts.
Hispanic Americans, like immigrants before them, have brought their own traditions of Christmas to America. Among them is the Mexican tradition called the posada, which means “inn.” For nine nights, the community follows Mary and Joseph through the streets as they look for room in the inn, stopping at one house after another, singing “In the name of heaven, I beg you for lodging, for my beloved wife cannot walk.” In one place after another, the innkeeper responds, singing, “This is not an inn, so keep on going. I cannot open. You may be bad people.” In such cities as Dallas, Texas, and Fullerton, California, the pilgrims sing their parts. After a long journey through the streets, they find shelter in a church or community hall, and celebrate with hot chocolate, Mexican sweetbreads, and the breaking of the piñata filled with candies.
Along the Mexican-U.S. border in San Ysidro, California, the ritual drama of the Christmas posada has taken a powerful new turn. There, at night, across the fences of the border, under the floodlights of the Border Patrol, groups of Christians gather on both sides of the border, bearing images of Mary, Joseph, and the innkeeper. Joseph sings from the Mexican side, “Don’t be inhuman. Have mercy on us. The God of Heaven will reward you for it.” The U.S. delegation, dramatizing the innkeeper, sings, “This is not an inn, so keep going. I cannot open. You may be bad people.” From both sides of the border, they release doves who fly free. As these Christians hold candles in the night air, they speak of the significance of the birth of Christ, the one to whom no human being was an “alien.” As one American participant explains, “We cannot welcome Christ and reject the poor or the alien.”