The Nativity Fast vs. “Getmas”

Yesterday—Sunday, November 15—we entered into the forty-day Nativity Fast, or Advent, that prepares us liturgically and personally for the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity in the Flesh on December 25.  This is a sacred season because it leads us toward the awesome event of the Incarnation, expressed so powerfully in the Gospel according to Saint John: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth [John 1:14].

It is also the time of year that more than ever reflects what I call the “battle of the calendars”— our ecclesiastical calender with its ongoing liturgical cycle and rhythm of fasting and feasting and the secular calendar that is basically oblivious of the Christian revelation (though “Christmas” may show up on it).  But even if Christmas appears on both calendars, the path to that event is very different according to the two calendars!  The secular calendar has every day theoretically open to “partying” all the way up through the long-awaited Christmas gift opening/exchange and the final dinner party to follow.  Eat, drink and be merry, it is the holiday season!  Yet, the ecclesiastical calendar directs us to fast up to the Feast with the year’s longest fast-free period—December 25 through January 4—to follow.  History is with the Church, for in centuries past, Christian society would spend the “twelve days of Christmas” in a festal mood after December 25 itself.  The contrast is rather stark, so the choices present to us reflect two very different approaches to how we will celebrate Christmas.  When the Lord comes we will celebrate; but the time of expectation—the Nativity Fast—we will spend in vigilant prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Fasting implies restraint, and restraint is not only about the types of food and drink that we consume.  Last year I recall one of my priest friends telling me of a clever yet convicting way of describing the consumer twist that we now inflict upon the Feast of Christ’s birth.  For our society as a whole, Christmas has become “Getmas.”  Getmas is all about “getting” as much as possible, with no real restraint applied to the getting process.  How many children evaluate a “good Christmas” based upon what they “get?”  (Not all adults are exempt from such an evaluation I would imagine).  Not to get everything on the list could spoil the event.  Warming all of this up with a bit of Jesus in the manger is hardly a well-thought out response to the travesty of Getmas.  Of course, there is giving as well as getting.  But even that can be one more face of the consumer-driven event of the secular calendar.  In our Orthodox tradition, fasting is part of an over-all discipline that seeks to free us from the constraints and demands of the world and its passions.  Yet, what if we succeed in not eating meat for forty days, but still shop till we drop?  What if we fast from food but make the mall more of a “home away from home” than the church?  What if we practice a bit of charity for Christmas, yet spend way beyond our designated budget and get in further debt over Getmas?  That sounds like placing the form over the substance of true religious piety.

Over the years I admit to having become something of an ecclesiastical Scrooge; but the hypocrisy of abandoning Christ while maintaining the spirit of maximal spending and consuming has taken its toll on my over-all appreciation of the world’s embrace of Christmas—an embrace which has inexorably and unapologetically led to “Getmas.”