Fasting for the Nativity of Christ in America

It was hard for me to tell what was funnier—Snoopy or my son Micah.  Micah had not seen the Charlie Brown Christmas special before and so I took it upon myself to make sure we watched it.  At three years of age, he was definitely at the age of cartoons.  We were eating popcorn.  He was sitting cross legged on the floor.  The bowl had been balancing on his legs, where his shins crossed, but had tipped forward, scattering popped corn on the blue-grey berber in front of him.

Micah doesn’t share daddy’s physique-challenged predicament.  He is nothing but sinew and bone, but on this night, his belly popped up and plunged down with the rapidity of the lid on a John Deere’s smoke stack as he laughed his so-deep alto three-year-old laugh.  As enjoyable as that laugh was, we were watching the Charlie Brown special because I had one thing in mind, Linus’s monologue about the Gospel-centered meaning of Christmas and the change in behavior it brought to the other characters in the cartoon.  The cartoon ends with “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!”

I was reminded of this event because our parish has just hosted its first St. Nicholas Day retreat as part of celebrating the memory and intercessions of St. Nicholas, our parish patron.  St. Nicholas, though a saint, is hardly known as such by most in America, but in my mind, he has always been linked to Christmas and gift giving ever since I learned of his story (before becoming Orthodox).

I realize that others of you are on the Julian Calendar and so that day will not arrive until December 19th.  Regardless, St. Nicholas Day falls during a fast.  For American Orthodox, this fast occurs right in the midst of a time of feasting and stuffing oneself, at least for many within the surrounding culture.  It also occurs in the midst of the same kind of consumerism that bothered Charlie Brown so much.  Ok, the consumerism is now worse.

How we got to this point has a fascinating history all of its own.  Early Puritans had actually made it illegal to mention St. Nicholas’ name and celebrate Christmas, but it did not take all that long, historically, for Christmas to begin spreading across the country in the nineteenth century.  During this time, the poem “The Night Before Christmas,” in which “Santa Claus” is portrayed as an elf, gained popularity.  In the twentieth century, Christmas became a much more public spectacle, not something confined to home and church alone.  Initially, this helped in some ways to lessen the commercialization because the focus shifted from store windows to community activities (such as the festival surrounding the city Christmas tree on main street).  In the midst of these changes, “Santa Claus” became a grossly overweight old man, though apparently he was still able to go up and down the chimney with the same agility as his old, magical elfin self.  Before long, however, the commercialization not only reestablished itself, but flourished even more precisely because the celebration of Christmas had morphed into “the pluralism of a publicly celebrated Christmas. … Still, we cannot overlook our own collusion … customers have responded approvingly to strategies that fuse the spheres of sacred and profane into a compelling certainty.”[1] More on this sacred/profane problem in a second.

So, here we Orthodox sit, observing the feast of a saint, whose vita (written life) tells us he fasted on Wednesday and Fridays even as an infant (not suckling on those days), in the midst of a season that might be labeled pluralistic, secular, even profane.  What are we to make of our situation?  Even our own practices have changed during our time in America.  Increasingly, we have more and more Orthodox parishes celebrating according to the “new calendar” or Gregorian calendar rather than the Julian calendar, or “old calendar,” for which December 25 falls on January 7 (on the new calendar, which American society follows).  With an increasing number of both converts to Orthodoxy and third and fourth generations of traditionally Orthodox families, many of the traditional Eastern European cultural practices surrounding Christmas have faded.  To be fair, of course, some families have held fast to those religio-cultural traditions and there are new immigrants arriving every day.  Nonetheless, many parishes are filled with people whose great-grandparents or grandparents kept the sviata vechera (“holy supper”) on Christmas Eve but who do not hold it themselves.

In the midst of the ever changing, perhaps ever secularizing, trajectory of Christmas in America, the Nativity Fast stands as an opportunity to solidify our calling as Orthodox in America.  I’m not saying the discipline of fasting before Christmas has not changed during the course of Church history.  It has.  What I am saying is that keeping the fast anchors our Orthodox praxis in contemporary America.

Fasting reminds us poignantly that we are not of this world.  American society has it bass ackwards and frankly, so do a lot of American Christians (including—alas—Orthodox).  No longer are there really twelve days of Christmas, which would start on Christmas day.  Instead, we have about thirty days of food, shopping, and advertisements.  We go from one Christmas party to another and in between load up on some extra baking and cooking of our own.  The average American gains a small amount of weight during a time of preparation for the Nativity of Christ and a minority gains significantly more.[2] My point here is not the evils of gaining a pound or two, especially since one may reenter his or her normal schedule and reestablish a workout routine.  My point is that during a time in which we should be preparing for the Nativity of Christ, we are all too often being lazy, gluttonous, or simply disregarding the “true meaning” of the season—that the Crucified and Risen One has entered into the fallen history of our world.

So, what should we do and how can the Nativity Fast anchor us during this time?  First, we must find the meaning of Christmas not in touchy feely television specials or the commercialized trimmings but in the Gospel itself—the birth of our Savior, Emmanuel.  This will enable us to fast from the misdirected forces around us and within us.  Within our own house, for example, we do not “do Santa Claus.”  We talk about St. Nicholas and celebrate St. Nicholas Day.  We do, however, have Christmas trees and share gifts.  Whatever criticisms of me and my family this might encourage you to send my way, I ask that the general point be something we can all agree upon, that we must fast from what distracts us and keep only the things that can help lead us to Christ and the celebration of his Nativity.  Avoid the things that distract from the Gospel and perpetuate commericialization.

More than that, when we fast, let us keep the culinary fast as well, but go one step farther: keeping ourselves to cheap foods.  Eating food that was cheap and common was at the heart of the fasting of the Desert Fathers.  Yet, today, we can spend a fair amount of money on shrimp and organic produce.  Let us discipline our bodies, for that same discipline will carry over into other spheres of our lives.  Let us repent for the sins we have committed.  Let us remind ourselves that all is from God, and not ourselves.  Let us spend less on ourselves, to have more for others.  Let us be thankful.

The second thing we should do is question the simple sacred/profane distinction that has come to characterize this season.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann has discussed this in his book For the Life of the World in a way more profound than I could do.  One way to do this would be to encourage the watching of the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  Yep, that’s right!  In the midst of commercialization and secularization, I am saying we should watch a cartoon program aired by ABC.  Let us all laugh at Snoopy as we journey to the climactic monologue from the Gospel of Luke.  Let us also be willing to have Christmas trees, share Christmas letters and Christmas cards, and bake and prepare Christmas meals for family and friends.  We are Orthodox, after all, not New England Puritans.  Discernment is required to do this appropriately, however, and so we should not simply accept all of the commercialized and secularized aspects of Christmas.  We are not non-Christians celebrating a secular version of the feast, with Santa the giant elf (or morbidly obese man), flying deer, and no connection between gift giving and The Gift Himself.  The history of how America celebrates Christmas will continue to be written.  I proffer that it will continue to become increasingly secularized.  For those of us who are grounded in the Nativity fast, however, preparing for the birth of Christ, none of that will dissuade us from knowing and proclaiming, “For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord.”

[1] Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 159, 161.