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When is Christmas?

Seems a strange question to ask in the middle of November, but I have already seen signs on social media that, back in the States at least, the encroachment of Christmas on other holidays is already in full swing.

Keep Christmas in Christmas.

One of the great things I have loved about living in Italy is that they still know when Christmas is, and neither start celebrating/decorating/commercializing too early, nor do they quit before it is finished.

However, in the last few days, I have heard people playing Christmas music, I have seen stores start displaying gingerbread houses (!), and one colleague has already put up a Christmas tree.

Personally, I have only just gone shopping at Castroni to get pureed pumpkin so I can bake a pie, since I am somewhere between Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving (which is a big Italian holiday, you know, with turkey cacciatore, sweet potato parmesan, and cranberry cannoli.)

To be honest, I am not sure which end is worse – seeing signs of Christmas before Thanksgiving (or Veteran’s Day, or Hallowe’en) or seeing them disappear just as Christmas really gets started because people are tired of having heard Jingle Bells since August.

Christmas Day – 25 December – marks the beginning of Christmas season. The traditional 12 Days of Christmas run from Christmas Day to Epiphany (6 January). In part, this ties together the differences between Christmas on the Gregorian calendar and Christmas on the Julian calendar. (for more on that)

In Italy, the decorating begins, customarily, no earlier than around 6 December (St. Nicholas Day) or 8 December (the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary). The Christmas tree at St. Peter’s arrives around then, but is only lit on or about 17 December – which happily coincides both with the beginning of the intensification of Advent with the O Antiphons and with the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. In fact is only by that point in mid-December that Christmas season really feels to be upon us.

Who would think of stopping the Christmas music or tearing down the lights or throwing out the tree just as the holiday begins? Nobody takes anything down until after 6 January (feast of the Epiphany) at the earliest. At the Vatican, the Nativity scene (usually unveiled only on Christmas Eve) remains on display until 2 February (Candlemas), the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord as a child in the temple. (This is the source of the Nunc Dimittis, the Canticle of Simeon, who sings praise for being allowed to live long enough to see the messiah). A fitting end to the Christmas periphery.

A practical guide?

Presentation1

  • Remember Advent
    • The traditional season of preparation and hopeful anticipation preceding Christmas starts with the Sunday nearest November 30.
    • Celebrate Advent. Let Advent be Advent, and save Christmas until Christmas. Create or buy an advent calendar, and advent wreath
    • Sing advent songs before you sing Christmas songs. Abstain from Christmas music if you have to, early in December, so you are not sick of it by the time Christmas actually starts.
    • At the earliest, start with St. Nicholas Day – the original Santa Claus – on 6 December. A hint of “Christmas is coming”. Get some clogs and some chocolate coins and discover the traditions of this patron saint of children.
  • Celebrate Christmas from 24 December to 6 January.
    • Keep your tree, your decorations, your lights, and your holiday goodies throughout
    • Petition your local radio stations – at least the Christian ones – to keep the Christmas music going during this period, even if it means not starting it until later in December than they used to
    • Tell the malls, the shops, the community – No Santa appearances until, say, St Nicholas Day. Certainly not before Thanksgiving!
    • Keep up your “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” this entire period.
  • Celebrate Epiphany
    • whether as the visit of the magi or as theophany, mark the day as the end of the Christmas holiday
    • Save some of the goodies, presents, and parties for Epiphany – everybody seems to try to cram their “Christmas” parties in before Christmas even begins. Throw a Christmas party in early January. Throw an epiphany party.
    • At the latest, close it up by 2 February.
  • Even if you do not keep Christ in Christmas* at least honor the integrity of the holiday
    and keep Christmas in Christmas
    – and not in Advent, Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July.

    • *that is, if you are not a Christian
    • I am not Jewish, but I would not presume to start wishing people a Happy Hanukkah during Sukkot or Yom Kippur;
    • I am not Muslim, but I would not throw an Eid al-Fitr banquet in the middle of Ramadan.
    • I am not a secularist, but I would not throw a Super Bowl party during the World Series (or the World Cup, as it may be). Or start talking about the campaign 18 months before the election. Or apply for preschools while my kid was still in the womb. Or, well, you get the idea…

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3.1-8

An American Thanksgiving in Rome

When I was studying in the states, at Notre Dame and Catholic University, Thanksgiving was a welcome calm before the storm, a few days to catch one’s breath before the final push toward final exams. Here, the semester is just nearing mid-term, and of course it is not an Italian holiday. I did notice that none of the NAC residents came to class today: The North American College, the residence for diocesan seminarians and priests from the states, had their big Thanksgiving feast for lunch.

Our director, Professora Donna Orsuto and our chef, Feda, spent all day preparing a traditional Thanksgiving feast for the residents and about 25 guests. We had invited classmates and other ‘homeless’ Americans to join us. Two gorgeous roast turkeys, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn and green beans, stuffing, and even pumpkin pie. I was appropriately stuffed. We’re pretty well fed, and Feda does a great job with the Italian fare every night, but for the visitors who were used to living on their own in Rome I think getting a taste of home was truly appreciated.

It is always a nice surprise when a member of the community shares a gift that you did not know they had. The other American students in the house are a married couple, Greg and Karina, from Chicago and Houston, respectively. Karina closed our feast with a soulful rendition of Amazing Grace in a beautiful voice. You could hear a pin drop. There is much to be thankful for, being in Rome in such a community, but moments like that highlight the gifts God gives in a special way.

Happy Thanksgiving from across the pond! May you be blessed with bounty, faith, and friendship!

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