Of all the treasures in Kendra Tierney’s book The Catholic All Year Compendium: Liturgical Living for Real Life, I keep coming back to these words from the introduction: “When my social media feeds fill up with photos of donuts on the first Friday of June (National Donut Day), I can see that we as a society are hungry for community and shared experiences (and donuts, of course).” We see this phenomenon somewhat at Halloween, with gaggles of children running amok and teenagers, hopefully polite, using a white t-shirt as a costume. We see it, now more than ever, at Christmastime: community tree lightings, Operation Santa (in which Santa rides around town on a fire engine), Christmas Festivals, Christmas basket programs, and so, so much more.

As fewer people practice religion, and as lasting family traditions have weakened through divorce or lack of marriage altogether, we lack communal celebrations and feasts. Further, religions that traditionally had many communal celebrations and feast (such as Catholicism or Judaism) are now often reducing those celebrations to accommodate their members’ busy schedules. But we actually need just the opposite: we need more celebrations that interrupt life, rather than a focus on mere convenience.

More Sensory Input Needed

As human beings, we need sensory input. We experience the world with our senses and create nostalgia by the way those days engaged the senses. Yet, in modern religions, there is such a push towards putting aside those smells and bells; yet people are longing for it (and may or may not realize it). In response, secular culture hits these needs hard during Christmastime.  

Beginning with Halloween’s conclusion (All Saints Day?) or Black Friday, Christmas music can be heard in stores and radio stations throughout the country blessing us with Brittany Spears and ’N Sync’s renditions of Christmas Carols. Pine-scented soaps go on sale. Sparkle and fluff define home decor. Gingerbread lattes and cookies are decorated and distributed. Add the fireplaces, peppermint hot chocolate, and holiday movies and you’ve got Christmastime. What happens after Christmas? Nothing. We wait for the spring and flowers but nothing in our common cultural celebrations throughout the year have the massive sensual onslaught as Christmas.

It seems to be all we have culturally and communally.

Survey the general population, most will share Christmas as their favorite holiday. If we experience life through our senses, and engaging the senses helps to deepen experience, is it any wonder?

Who Will Decide Which Traditions You Practice?

The business world calls the approach to holiday shopping sensory branding. Companies seek to sell an experience rather than simply a product. Christmastime delivers this marketing approach to stores on a silver-leafed platter. Play some music, hang some tinsel and they find customers are more likely to enjoy, shop, and spend when they feel nostalgic.

In high-church religions such as Catholicism or Anglicanism, Advent is observed in the four weeks prior to Christmas as a mini-Lent, a season of anticipation. Then comes Christmas with its pomp and circumstance, celebrated, supposedly, for 12 days.

The move of a demanding religious practice to an accommodating one leaves a vacuum and commercial interests have been more than happy to step in and fill the gap. Last year, I saw several marketing campaigns for the Twelve Days of Christmas as count-downs to Christmas, the opposite of the historical Twelve Days. My non-denominational friend had never heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas beginning with Christmas Day. How many Catholics or Anglicans today even have?

This year, I saw an increase in proud social media displays of Christmas trees prior to Thanksgiving. The commercial world says it’s okay, and we gradually slide with the trend.

Unfortunately, in a culture driven by marketing and selling experience, there is so much anticipation, so much promise, and for what? It comes up empty. It cannot deliver the heart of the experience. It deepens the emptiness of those who have no religion or have no one to be with them on a holiday that celebrates togetherness.

Lean Into Celebrations

I am not calling for a ban on Christmas, holiday shopping, or the idea of getting shopping done before Advent begins. But as an individual who rather enjoys being swept up in the sensory input of the season, I want to exercise caution. For me, to observe Advent (or, um, November) I need to refrain from shopping in person, wandering Target’s Wondershop, and practice my hygge at home and wait for the religious season to come on its own. I can create three separate playlists: Winter tunes, Advent songs, and Christmas Carols.

Instead of pretending we aren’t body-soul creatures and denying the senses in the name of religious practice, why not lean into it and develop more traditions? More candlelight in Advent. More flowers in spring (lilies at Easter). More barbecue (or Constitution reading) in July. I combed Tierney’s book for ideas.

To maintain culture in modern America will require a dedicated effort to define our values, build traditions and stick to them, allowing the Church and her dedicated feasts to interrupt our daily in-the-world life for a lifestyle that is decidedly not of the world.