Joseph Bottum counts the days Jan 5, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 17 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
until after Christmas.
Christmas doesn’t really begin until Christmas—Christmas Day itself, that is. And I don’t mean just in the way the Christian churches lay out the season: the whole 12-days-of-Christmas thing, if you remember. And I know you do, because everyone remembers the song about the partridge in a pear tree, which is what our loves would give us on the first day of Christmas, if they were true.
Personally, I’m still suspicious, because I’ve never found seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, or even five gold rings under the Christmas tree. But as long as we’ve mentioned the ecclesial calendar, let’s get that part straight. Christmas Day is the end of the four weeks of Advent—and the beginning of the 12 days of Christmas, which run till January 5. Or Twelfth Night, as that last Christmas evening is called: the night before Epiphany and traditionally a time for skits and celebration, with a Lord of Misrule appointed to lead the festivities.
That’s why Shakespeare called his play Twelfth Night, even though it has nothing to do with Christmas. Nothing, that is, except that it’s joyous, comic, contains in the misruly clown Feste what may be one of Shakespeare’s few self-presentations, and was first performed in 1602 on Candlemas. And Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation, marks the absolute, final, pack-it-all-up end of the Nativity season—40 days after Christmas, 28 days after Twelfth Night—by which point the Christmas decorations had to be taken down to avert bad luck.
Now, all that’s distinct from the Octave of Christmas in the Catholic church, running the seven days from Christmas to a week later and called an octave because people who speak Latin count in odd ways. And things work differently in the feasts of the Eastern Orthodox churches, based in part on whether those churches keep to the old Julian calendar, in which case the Nativity falls on what’s January 6 for the rest of the world. Things work differently, as well, in the stricter of the Protestant churches, which don’t really do feasts—and, in the case of the Puritans, actually tried to ban Christmas celebrations.
Through the Christmas season, we have the feast of St. Stephen, which is called Boxing Day in England, Wren Day in Ireland, and December 26 in the rest of the world. And the feast of the Holy Innocents, the children slaughtered by King Herod. The feast of the Holy Family. The feast of St. Sylvester on New Year’s Eve day, which the Scots call Hogmanay. The Solemnity of Mary, and the feast of the Holy Name, and . . . it’s a mess, isn’t it? Even in the church calendar, the run from the first day of Christmas through to Epiphany and on to Candlemas has no clarity of narrative, no firmness of organization, and no sharpness of lesson.
Except, perhaps, in the sheer messiness of it all. Despite all the advertisements and canned carols that begin even before Thanksgiving, Advent is structured as a clean and penitential time. Christmas itself is the chaos. It’s there in the clutter of the unwrapped presents. There in the fridge full of leftovers. There in the burned-down Advent candles. There in the disordered piles of sheet music on the piano. There in the pine needles falling on the carpet. There in the jumble of ornaments. There in the fireplace ashes. There in the unshapely mounds of shoveled snow.
Christmas doesn’t come to us as a neat and tidy thing. It is not, as C.S. Lewis would have put it, a tame holiday. Even secularized into “holiday trees” and reindeer and snowflake designs, it will not hold still—as who could imagine that it would?
Apart, of course, from the designers of glossy catalogues, none of whom seem to realize that white furniture, delicate ornaments, and outrageously expensive glassware won’t survive even a single day of Christmas with actual people in it. Sometimes, glancing through a Williams-Sonoma catalogue or the upscale advertisements in the Sunday New York Times, I picture the breakage that would follow an old-fashioned Lord of Misrule, leading wild children on a Christmas dance through the oh-so-tasteful settings. It’s a small thing, I know, but it adds to my Christmas joy.
And Christmas joy is the point, isn’t it? The theological point, the psychological point—and even
the sociological point. Christmas is the untamed, all messy and unruly, set outside ordinary time. It smashes through our ordered experience, and it lasts for days. Twelve of them, in fact. Or maybe forty. A good long while, anyway.
Green in exchange for green.Dec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Speaking truth to power is easy—or easier, anyway, than speaking truth to money. We might resist a sovereign who commands us to preach his favored doctrines. But a sovereign who slips us a little cash on the side, just for a sermon or two on something we maybe don’t really disagree with all that much? Harder. Much, much harder. It was true back in 1717, for example, when Benjamin Hoadly preached a famous Anglican sermon in front of a receptive King George I—a sermon that called for church government to be taken away from the bishops and given directly to the king.
How it is that we once again find ourselves rooting out sin, shunning heretics, and heralding the end timesDec 1, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 12 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
1. The Return of Original Sin
Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
Hazel Motes, the hyperanxious protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s great novella Wise Blood, finds himself so bedeviled by the demands of religious belief that he rebels by founding a religion of his own: The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. The mainline Protestant churches of the twentieth century, says our contributing editor Joseph Bottum, did something similar when the challenges of the secular world proved too much: They abandoned the inconveniences and discomforts of faith and became, instead, secular liberals.
A church father gets an ideological makeover. Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Vincent of Lérins was a Gaulish monk who lived and wrote in the fifth century. Little is known about him, really. It’s said that he was originally a soldier but gave up his military career to enter a monastery near Cannes, on the small Mediterranean island of Lérins (later renamed the Île Saint-Honorat, after the founder of Vincent’s monastery). He may have been a brother of the better-known St.
The evolution of forbidden language. Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
The early British and American reviews of this book are hilarious—hilarious, that is, in the sense of proving two of Melissa Mohr’s minor theses. In her account, the sex-based swear words so reviled by the Victorians have become almost commonplace: No real stigma attaches to their use these days, although certain classes may still feel a little antiquated frisson when they write or say them.
Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook is delighted to commend to readers a new ebook from our contributing editor Joseph Bottum.
The writer’s vocation in J. F. Powers’s correspondence. Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
One of the things you learn when you read the letters of great writers is how rarely great writers talk about literature in their letters. Mostly they talk about money. The letters of Henry Ford show more interest in big ideas and artistic principles than do those of James Joyce. When Joyce wrote a letter, it was usually a complaint about how expensive everything seemed—and would the recipient mind enclosing a small check in his next reply?
Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Early in 1659, a strong-willed woman named Sarah Chevers and an even stronger-willed woman named Katharine Evans arrived in Malta. By chance—or, as they insisted, Providence—they had been diverted, their Dutch ship chased into the port of Valletta by rumor of pirates and bad weather. And since Malta is where they found themselves, Malta is where they would stay, preaching God’s true Protestant faith—the Knights Hospitaller who ruled the Catholic island be damned.
The right man, at the right time, for Christendom. Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Most of the time, intellectual history is a tangle, the threads so snarled that the result looks like a skein of yarn after a dozen kittens have been set loose on it. That lump over there? The muddle that the Venerable Bede made of things. That twisted set of knots? The playful chaos that Thomas Carlyle constructed for us. That indecipherable web? It’s what was left of Western philosophy after Martin Heidegger got his paws on it.
Joseph Bottum, in mourning for peaceJul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I woke this morning to the gentle coo of a mourning dove on my windowsill. The gentle coo, the mellifluous murmur. You know that sound—mourning doves are everywhere in this country, over three hundred million of them across North America, calling out their woo-OO-oo-oo-oo in wistful sorrow at . . . well, actually, I don’t know at what. Their lost loves? Their absent parents? The sad condition of this fallen world?
The new pope’s first encyclicalJul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
There’s something in the new papal encyclical Lumen Fidei to disappoint everyone who longs for direct political action from the Vatican.
An Argentinian Jesuit in the Vatican. Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
There was much talk during the recent conclave in Rome, as there usually is at such times, about the Catholic church as a medieval institution. Occasionally that took the mild form of newspaper Sunday supplement pieces brightly describing the voting process in the Sistine Chapel. More often it combined a sneer at the past with an attack on the present.
All roads, historically speaking, lead to Rome.Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Athens and Jerusalem are not the sum of symbolic ancient cities. And in truth, they never have been. Even when Tertullian coined that distinction early in the third century—“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Or the Academy with the Church?”—he did so in the context of Rome: He was the son of a centurion, preaching and scribbling away in long-before-conquered Carthage. The Roman Empire was the ground on which he walked, so vast and omnipresent he could barely notice its existence.