By Mary Ann Eagleson
I spotted something very tiny that looked like a human figure on the floor near the fireplace. As I was getting down on my knees to discern what it was, I spotted two other similar figures nearby. I wondered if the hero from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! had visited our home. No, it was the wise men from our miniature nativity set. Mimsy, our third born, was simulating the long journey of these seekers. I learned that she inched them along each day during the Christmas season until they traveled across the family room to the nativity by January 6th every two years. She desired to follow the scholars’ suggestion that Jesus was likely two when the wise men visited. I was amazed that she found playtime for this, an element of our faith. She had heard the Scriptures for many years during our extended Christmas season, and this gave me pause to think about the blessings of the Church Calendar.
This discovery took place during Advent, one of our favorite times of the year. It is the season that includes the four Sundays preceding Christmas, and the days in-between. It marks the beginning of the Church Calendar year for most of the Western church.
The Church Calendar, also known as the Ecclesiastical Calendar, the Liturgical Calendar, or the Church Year Calendar, is the organization of the days in a year around special feasts, memorials, significant events, activities and the like in the Christian church. There is variation in the Church Calendar among the Western churches, those bodies in the Roman Catholic tradition, and those springing from the Reformation, and the Eastern Church, those bodies that follow the Eastern Orthodox pattern for worship.
Advent, which means “coming” in Latin, refers to the coming of Christ, and Christmas as a celebration of His coming. Every day of Advent we light a candle on our Yule log, alternating them, so that by Christmas there is a full set of triangle shaped, lighted candles, reminding us of the darkness dispelled by the coming of Jesus. We also use an Advent wreath, which has four candles, one for each Sunday in Advent and one for each century of waiting between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Christ.
These provide light for our family devotions that center on God’s Word regarding the coming of Jesus so the children are hearing the story over and over, year after year, gaining a memory of the prophecies of old.
Years ago I made an Advent calendar that has daily activities related to Christmas tasks. This helps reduce the load of the Christmas rush and chaos as the month rolls on. It takes us several days to get the tree in order. For example, Day 5 states, “See Dad about a special evergreen purchase,” so we go to a nearby tree farm and cut a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. A bare evergreen sits in our family room and this brings many questions from guests. Some days later the activity is to add the lights, and even later in the month the actual decorations appear on the assigned day.
On December 6, the activity is to learn about the real Saint Nicholas, a well-loved Christian who lived in the 300s. This day is St. Nicholas’ Day and we learn how it is celebrated around the world.
Some activities are designed for sheer pleasure, like the days we read I Spy Christmas and make either a gingerbread church or giant gingerbread men.
As a child, I was noticeably sad at the conclusion of Christmas day. Christmas was forever in coming. The day of fun arrived with an explosion of gifts from Santa and others, only to be suddenly over until another year. When we had children, we purposed to find an alternative way to celebrate so we might focus more on Jesus, the joy of the holidays, and reduce this let down.
When Christmas Eve and Christmas day arrive, we begin the celebration of the wonderful season known as Christmastide. Just as we learned that Advent is celebrated in many places around the world, we also discovered that the Twelve Days of Christmas are as well.
We knew there was so much joy in the real story of Christmas that we refrained from sharing the myths associated with the season as if they were true. We wanted the children to celebrate the real meaning to its fullest extent. This really avoided disappointment in the long run, and built a tradition on the best news possible in life.
On Christmas morning, each child receives one gift, something they hoped for, from Bruce and me. There are others from extended family members, and now that they are older, gifts for one another they have bought or made. This is plenty for them to enjoy Christmas day, and it helps avoid over-stimulation. We also require that as each person opens a gift, the rest watch. This helps us appreciate the time and effort that the giver put into selecting the gift.
We then continue in the joy of the Lord as we celebrate the next Twelve Days of Christmas. The fun and blessings of the season are actually just beginning on Christmas day. Melancholy is absent!
We light all the candles as we share our daily devotion. We each receive one gift each day. They are often small, like a pair of socks, or a favorite treat. About half of them are more substantial gifts, but some are non-material to help reduce spending and excessive focus on things. One Christmas I made puzzles and guessing games about different countries. When they guessed the country, we learned about it and what God was doing there.
Another time, I took the sentence, “Today we will visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s house, Falling Water,” and cut up the separate words. Each child got a small gift of “words” to unwrap. They next put all their individual words together to make a sensible sentence, and learned of the field trip, which was a shared gift.
We end the Twelve Days on Epiphany, January 6th, the day that the church celebrates the coming of the wise men. On occasion, we host an Epiphany party and there are many traditions that go with this.
I like comparing the Church Calendar to a wheel, with Christ as the hub. Christmas is the first of several celebrations of the Christian life that are in the circle of the Church Year. In many churches, once Epiphany is passed, the church calendar moves into a segment of days entitled Ordinary Time for the rest of January and February. In almost all churches that celebrate the church year, the period after the Easter season is called Ordinary Time. The word ordinary here refers to ordinal, meaning number, rather than “mudane or common place.” This is because the Sundays and weeks in this time period are numbered. Even though the phrase Ordinary Time has this meaning, I have often reflected on the fact that this is the time when we focus on God working in our lives in wonderful ways in the ordinary days between the great Christian celebrations of the year: Easter and Christmas. Thus in a year, there is the increase of elation associated with the special days, and the calmness of “ordinary” days.
Once this first period of Ordinary Time is passed, we near the end of February when the season of Lent starts. As a family, we have been less faithful in keeping Lent, but still try to make it special. It is the period of 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before Easter
Easter, a Moveable Feast
Though the Church Calendar year actually begins with Advent, the dates for the calendar are set by Easter, the highlight of the Christian year and life. After passing through Lent, and thinking about Jesus’ suffering in numerous ways, March or April brings the joy of Easter.
Easter Sunday and the special days connected with it are moveable feasts, in that they do not fall on a fixed date in the Gregorian or Julian calendars. In 46 BC Julius Caesar established the Julian calendar, which the Roman Empire and the western world used until 1582. At this point, Pope Gregory XIII revised the Julian calendar by correcting complications with leftover time as related to the cycles of the sun and moon.
The church then used this calendar to establish what is known as the Church Calendar today. A day for celebrating the Resurrection and Pentecost was set by the second century. Perhaps Easter was earlier. By the fourth century, other Christian celebrations were added to the Church Calendar and changes have been rare.
The date for Easter in the western church is set by the cycles of the sun and moon, coupled with consultation of the Gregorian calendar tables. It is the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical, rather than astronomical, full moon, on or after the vernal equinox, the time when there is as much day light as there is darkness.
Once established, Easter is placed on the Gregorian calendar some time between March 22 and April 25. As Easter is the first holiday set in the Christian Calendar, it becomes the starting point for establishing all the other movable holidays in the Christian year.
We can have the joy of Easter for seven full weeks following Easter Sunday, for in the Church Calendar, Easter is more than one Sunday in the spring. It is a season known as Eastertide. The succeeding Sundays are referred to, among other things, as the Second Sunday of Easter, the Third Sunday of Easter, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, etc.
Our family has come to celebrate Easter in a more specific way during the season. We sometimes use Easter-centered devotions during this time, and leave Easter decorations around longer as a reminder of the central truth that Christ has risen.
On occasion during Eastertide, we take time to study and learn interesting facts about this season of the year. We recently discovered that the first Sunday after Easter, also known as Octave Sunday, Low Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter, and by other names as well, is also Quasimodo Sunday. For those who love literature, this should “ring a bell.” The deformed, but loving character in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame bears this name because he was found on Quasimodo Sunday, lying on a wooden bed in the vestibule of Notre Dame. The bed existed so people could place infants that were abandoned there in the hope that someone would then take care of them.
An interesting Scriptural tie also exists. In Victor Hugo’s day, and in many churches today, 1 Peter 2:2-3 was and is used in the service for this given Sunday on the Church Calendar. The Latin for this verse is: “Quasi modo, [thus the tie to the bell ringer’s name] geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus.” The translation is, “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.” (NKJV) Quasimodo teaches us the Scriptural truth that it is the heart of the person that matters, not the outward appearance, as well as the truth of this verse. Many days of the Church Calendar year hold such gems for lessons of life in the Spirit.
After Easter, there is a brief celebration of Pentecost, the festival that marks when the church was established. As we move around the circle of the year, the second period of Ordinary Time arrives, pointing us to fall and October, which hails one of the great celebrations of the Christian church. The date is October 31, 1517.
What happened on that day? Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-five theses on the Wittenberg Church door calling for reform in the Church of Rome, sparking the Reformation.
Protestants added Reformation Day to the Church Calendar, and we celebrated it with a party for many years. We varied the activities over time. For one activity, everyone dressed up as a biblical character or someone in church history, and the participants would try to guess who was who by playing 20 questions. Often my husband Bruce would dress as Luther and tell the story in first person. We played “Nail the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Door” (a variation of “Pin the Tail on the Donkey”) and always had treats of some kind.
With the arrival of November and early December, we have gone around the year, forming a circle, then a spiral as year passes to year. In this celebration of the great dates on the Church Calendar, and other events that focus on Him, we see His marvelous hand at work in our lives.
Some express concern that the dates chosen by the early church to celebrate our great festivals, like Easter and Christmas and some of our other church traditions, are rooted in paganism. Jesus resurrected near the time of Passover, so the general time of Easter is near that holiday. Jesus established this, thus the time of celebrating His resurrection is surely Biblical.
Christ’s birth date is really unknown, and many arguments can be made for it being in October or December, but that the church chose December 25, the time of a pagan festival, seems rather ingenious and maybe even God-ordained. The new converts made Jesus known during this time, and celebrated Him, not some pagan god.
Hank Hanegraaff, the Bible Answer Man, has an astute answer to this question. He writes:
The church was not Christianizing a pagan festival, but was establishing the celebration of the birth of Christ as a rival celebration.
Today the world has all but forgotten about the pagan gods of Rome. But at least a billion people today consider themselves to be followers of Jesus Christ and celebrate that reality every Christmas. (www.ptm.org/98PT/NovDec/HHhankronyms.htm, June 2007)
False religions confused—and still confuse—the creation for the Creator. Yet Paul says all of creation really points to God. When Jesus came to us, He began a reclaiming process, so that even items that for a season were stolen by the pagans, now have found their proper meaning. Evergreen boughs may have been used by pagans, but now they speak of the everlasting life that Christ brings to us.
Perhaps it is helpful to use the guide that the first reformers used. Those in Lutheran thought refrained from traditions that are contradictory to scriptural truth, but kept those that avoid this. For Christians, if some tradition violates the central truth of salvation by faith alone, it should be avoided, but if it is free from this error, it may be enjoyed and may even be helpful in faith and life.
I believe that deliberately planning activities daily, weekly, and yearly around God’s Word and even a few aspects of the Church Calendar, helps foster the love between us as family members and between us and God.
One Christmas Eve a couple of years ago, we sat down on the couch to read about Christ’s birth. Our twenty-two year old son snuggled close, rested his head on my shoulder and said, “This is the best part!” If you explore the church calendar, expect similar comments and wonderful memories – and keep a look out for the wise men!
Celebrate With Joy by Sondra Burnett - Transform Your Christmas Season, Sandra Burnett. (The Joy Book Company, 1992) www.joybookcompany.com. A complete handbook for the Christmas season from Advent to Epiphany. It is arranged as a daily devotional and includes the meaning of traditions the histories of many carols.
The One Year Book of Christian History, E. Michael and Susan Rusten (Tyndale House Publishers, 2003) This is a fantastic daily look at God’s mighty hand in history. The readings, mostly focused on biographies of great Christians, are about two pages long. There is one for each day of the year. They are great for Lent and Advent, and even younger children will grasp much of each day’s story.
“The Date of Easter.” Astronomical Applications, US Naval Observatory. 17 July 2007. http://aa.usno.navy.mil/faq/docs/easter.ht. This website is full of understandable and interesting information on the calendar.
I Spy Christmas, Walter Wick and Jean Marzollo. (Cartwheel, 1992) A delightful book of photos that have “hidden” pictures related to the Christmas season that the reader attempts to find.
Mary Ann Eagleson has a Masters’ in Christian Education. She & her husband Bruce have homeschooled their four children, ages twenty-seven to seventeen, since 1981. They serve on the boards of the Christian Homeshcooling Association of Pennsylvania (CHAP) and The National Alliance for Christian Home Education Leadership (NACHEL).
Reprinted from Homeschooling Today magazine, November/December 2007, vol 16. www.homeschooltoday.com Used with permission.