I tried to establish before that the season leading up to December 25 is Advent (not "the Christmas Season" or the "happy holidays"); Does that mean that Christmas only gets a day of celebration? This is actually one of the questions that cause people to balk against the historic, liturgical approach to Advent and Christmas: they (rightly) think that the Incarnation of Christ deserves more than a single day, and they (wrongly) assume that it only gets one if the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day isn't devoted to it.
Thus, I want to try to answer more questions about the time following Advent: Christmastide and Epiphany, and the season that follows Epiphany.
When do we get to celebrate Christmas? Are we only giving it one day's attention?
Of course we all know that Christmas Day is December 25 — this is the day that was assigned to the calendar to mark and recognize the birth of Jesus the Christ to Mary, a virgin. What we may not know is that December 25 is the first day of a season which the church calls Christmastide; it is also sometimes called Yuletide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas. It is a season that lasts 12 days (just as the song — and occasional name for the season — suggests), from Christmas Day on December 25 to January 5, which has traditionally been called Twelfth Night.
What are the themes and ideas that we focus on during Christmastide?
One obvious theme of Christmastide is the incarnation of Christ as Jesus, along with the miracle of the virgin birth by the Holy Spirit. Other themes that are also vital to Christmastide are the visitation of the shepherds, the visiting and gifts of the Magi/Wise Men/Three Kings, and the naming and circumcision of Jesus. Also prominent are themes of giving and sacrifice, and many feasts in celebration of Christ and His work.
Why do we celebrate this way? Why not just do like everyone else does?
If 21st century American culture is our barometer and guide, none of this is apparent: there is no Advent, and Christmas decorations go up by Thanksgiving weekend or earlier. Shopping, food, and travel mark the time surrounding Christmas Day, and many (if not most) people take time off from work for the week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day (notice the demarcation determined by a different calendar altogether, with the beginning of a new year). But usually by December 26 or 27, people have grown tired of the festive decorations — they've been around for a month! — and the Christmas tree has died anyway, so they all come down long before Twelfth Night; that is, when there is time to remove them, between all of the "after Christmas" sales that start early on December 26!
It's not that this is "wrong" in any way; it simply doesn't focus on Christmas as a Christian holy day, or Christmastide as a Christian season. Thus, it misses key elements: the acknowledgement of brokenness and sin; the anticipation of (held in tension with the "waiting for") Christ's return; the build-up to a genuine need for redemption. All of this leaves Christmas empty and toothless — part of the reason why we must constantly remind folks to "keep Christ in Christmas" and that "Jesus is the reason for the season" is because we have stripped it of Advent, and therefore stripped it also of a true Christmas. We also lose an appropriate pace: instead of the thoughtful, reflective, and even quiet spirit of a fasting season such as Advent, this sort of "holiday season" is frantic, stressful, and exhausting.
Christmas is meant to be a joyful celebration of a Savior's incarnation and birth, and of the promise of His return. In order for it to be either, we must have a great awareness of our need for such things! Celebrating Christmas "like everyone else" (meaning, just like the mall Santas, store clerks, and celebrity holiday TV specials) offers no sense of need — only of self-gratification, even if it is a sort of self-gratification veiled in good feelings about oneself because of nice things done for others.
How does Christmastide "fit" into the observance and celebration of the Christian calendar?
There is a logical flow of thought throughout the Christian calendar: the year begins with Advent, a four-week time of waiting and anticipation of Christ's coming in light of our fallenness; Christmastide follows immediately, proclaiming the truth of Christ's incarnation and the hope of His accomplished work being applied to all creation. This leads to a recognition of His true humanity and life, and also a focus on His earthly ministry. Following that time is Lent, when we consider our sin corporately and individually, and our need for a Savior particularly and permanently; Lent is followed by Eastertide, wherein we celebrate and meditate upon Christ's finished redemptive work and its significance for us. The last "feast days" are those emphasizing the presence of the Holy Spirit with us, and the truth and work of the Trinity.
What about Epiphany? What is that?
Epiphany, which means revelation or revealing, is a celebration of the day when the magi, or wise men, or kings, visited Jesus in his infancy, led by the star of Bethlehem; we celebrate this because it was revealed to them that He was the Christ, the King of kings, and they traveled from the far east to bring Him gifts. Thus, sometimes the day of Epiphany, January 6, is called "Three Kings Day".
What do we focus on during Epiphany and the ordinary time after it?
Epiphany — and the time that follows it until Lent (commonly called "ordinary time") — are a time for focusing on the life of Christ as a fully-human man and fully God incarnate. Christmastide, by the way, is also focused on this. Thus, sometimes things like the events of Jesus' childhood, the baptism of Christ, his earthly ministry, and events in his life such as the transfiguration are helpful themes or topics to focus on. These serve to prepare us well for the season of fasting and preparation that Lent represents, as a time of repentance, as well as for the Cross and the empty tomb!
John Witvliet, who is one of our contemporary experts on Reformed worship, commented that, "in recent decades many churches have recognized that jumping from Christmas to Lent and Easter without attending to the key events in Jesus' life can impoverish our understanding of Jesus' identity and mission."
May it be for us that these coming days and seasons will be a great reminder and encouragement of Jesus' identity and mission on our behalf, and in a new and rich way.