Most of us, I suspect, have already begun taking down the Christmas decorations, whereas in Barcelona, which as regular readers know I visited recently, tonight things are ratcheting up to the peak of the Christmas season. This evening there will be a huge parade celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings or Wise Men, who sail into Barcelona’s harbor – yes, “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” – and then make their way accompanied by all sorts of attendants and entertainers up into the center of town, much to the delight of the children assembled along the route. Tomorrow morning, the good children of Barcelona will wake to see what toys, gifts, and treats the Kings have brought them while they were sleeping, and of course adults will exchange gifts with each other as well.
We are all-too-aware of the fact that the celebration of Christmas begins too early and ends too quickly in the present day. I say “Christmas”, though truthfully what we are often celebrating has little or nothing to do with the birth of Christ, but rather reflects the change of seasons from autumn to winter. It would be more appropriate to say that we begin celebrating the Winter Solstice around Thanksgiving, if not in some cases (such as with retailers) well before that.
Bearing in mind the traditional Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, we ought to remember that traditionally, everything leading up to Christmas Day is actually Advent, not Christmastide. Christmas celebrations start on the 25th, and run through tomorrow, the 12th day, when Christians celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, i.e. the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child in Bethlehem and the manifestation that Christ would be a Savior to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. In many parts of the world, such as Barcelona, the major exchange of gifts occurs not on Christmas Day itself, even if some small gifts happen to be given on Christmas, but on the Feast of the Epiphany.
Apart from my admitted bias in favor of anything having to do with Barcelona and Catalan culture, and the fact that I am certainly no theologian, this practice has always struck me, as a layman, as being theologically sound. Exchanging gifts on the day we commemorate the Birth of Jesus seems to take the focus off of the gift of God and put it onto ourselves. How could one reasonably expect to compete with the gift of eternal salvation by purchasing items in a shop? Whereas the Three Kings, in giving gifts to the newborn Savior twelve days later, give us an excuse to symbolically mimic their actions and give gifts that symbolize our love for one another.
I am always struck when I am in Barcelona during the Christmas season how even with the enormous quantity of lights and decorations spread all over the city, which in many cases far exceeds anything you have seen in any urban setting in this country, that there is at least still some element of a lessened materialism as compared to how we do things on this side of the pond. Yes, people are shopping and there are advertisements for all sorts of gifts that could be given, but in the lead-up to Christmas Day itself there does not seem to be the same focus on the accumulation of material goods at the expense of tradition. Even in a city as secular as Barcelona very often can be, there is still a love of family and community that seems to outweigh the amassing of things which no one really needs.
How long this will last, I do not know. Over the years I have seen attendance at Midnight Mass at the Monastery of Pedralbes, where we always go when we are in town, steadily decline. My mother can recall when Midnight Mass there was standing room only, and I would say ten years ago there was still quite a crowd of people – if not exactly standing room, at least it was full with perhaps a few stragglers standing in the back. This Christmas the pews in the monastic church were perhaps 3/4 full, at most, and the over-60’s outnumbered the under-40’s by at least 5 to 1.
There is no question that there needs to be a new evangelization in Europe, and that it will take a long time to see the fruits of such efforts. Yet here in America, we should not sit back and assume that we are in better shape, simply because the masses are still jam-packed at Christmas. There will always be Christmas poinsettias and Easter lilies, as a priest friend of mine likes to call them – those Catholics who only show up for mass on Christmas and Easter, like the flowers we associate with those major Feasts of the Church. Yet we could and should be doing more to encourage those people to stick around for the rest of the year as well.
Christmas is not over yet, gentle reader, and indeed, one could even make the argument that the celebrations continue up through Candlemas on February 2nd, though I suspect by then most of us would be rather tired of dusting the tree and ornaments and so on. However while there is still time do so, why not encourage a friend to attend church with you this weekend, when we will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany at Sunday mass? Let them ask questions and do your best to try to answer them, and see whether you can plant a seed that will germinate and take root – maybe not right away, but over time. What a wonderful gift you would be able to give to Christ, as we remember the day He received the gifts of the Magi.
Parade of the Three Kings through the streets of Barcelona last year