A Countercultural Christmas Carol

[This is an updated version of a blog post from 2018]

Are you thinking about Christmas right now? I know I’m not. For once I have done quite a bit of advance shopping, but that’s so I can pack gifts in my bag when I go to visit my daughter and son-in-law in a few days. It’s mostly a matter of time management—it’s certainly not a spiritual exercise.

The stores have been trying to get me to buy Christmas decor and gift cards since September, which is just flat-out annoying. ’Tis not the season. I ignore the displays with a distinctly Grinchy mood. Okay, I might slow down if I see some really cute snowman figurines, but then I force myself to remember the amount of flat surfaces I actually have in my home for displaying them, and I just walk on. Mostly at this time of year I’m busy thinking about fall cleanup around the yard and Thanksgiving plans.

Yet each November, the Church’s Nativity season kind of sneaks up on me. Christmas, more officially known in the Orthodox Christian Church as the Nativity of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, is one of the Twelve Great Feasts on the ecclesiastical calendar. And like all feasts, it begins with a season of preparation.

I freely admit that I will be indulging my carnivorous cravings over the next week, as I often do before a long fast begins. The Nativity Fast commences every year on November 15th, and I’m gettin’ real here: the timing of this fast is seriously inconvenient.

[Photo by RitaE / 2528 images on Pixabay]

It is the second-longest fast of the year: forty days before Christmas. If you’re new to the Church, I should point out that fasting doesn’t mean refraining from food—the Orthodox fast is basically a vegan diet, with shellfish allowed but no wine or olive oil, except on designated days. The Nativity Fast is nowhere near as difficult as Great Lent, food-wise. Fish, olive oil, and wine are allowed every day, except on the regular Wednesday and Friday fast days. Also, here in America, all the Orthodox people I know take a break to celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November—way after harvest time. Go figure. At the end of the four-day weekend, we clear away or freeze all meat and dairy products then get back to spiritual business. (If you, dear listener, actually eat Tofurky for Thanksgiving, I bow before you in awe.)

But even without the rigors of Great Lent, for those of us who live in the world, the outside culture constantly interferes with our efforts at spiritual preparation. My husband’s office “holiday party” occurs each year in early December, and already I’m wondering what we will be able to eat and drink. For me, the fast during this particular season reminds me how countercultural Orthodox Christianity is.


Because the modern approach to Christmas wars against all three components of spiritual preparation: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.

Trying to Keep Christ—and Prayer—in Christmas

Every thinking Christian from every church affiliation has struggled with the acquisitive, commercial, materialistic nature of the Christmas season. The pressure is relentless—to buy more, more, and more things for our loved ones, to compete in the neighborhood lighting contest, to add holiday events to our already busy schedules. 

It’s insane, and the expectation to give meaningful, costly gifts can be strong, even in Christian families. So, every year we try valiantly to combat the spirit of the age. Some people make Advent wreaths and light a new candle each week. Others bake cakes for Jesus’ birthday. But in a child’s mind, such small gestures can’t compete with a month full of iced cookies and all those new toys on Christmas morning.

Does the Christmas season encourage increased prayer? No way. Personal prayer and church attendance require time, a commodity that is in short supply, starting with the American Thanksgiving holiday and on through the New Year. (Canadians celebrate their Thanksgiving on the much more sensible second Monday in October.)

Beginning in late November—not long after the Nativity fast begins—our spare time often is devoted to several days of Thanksgiving prep, followed by a December filled with baking Christmas cookies, addressing and mailing Christmas cards, attending parties for work, church, and other social circles, extra practices for “holiday” concerts at school, traveling to visit relatives, and making room for visiting family members in our homes.

[Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash]

Prayer? * sigh* Not this morning—I have to wrap that white elephant gift for the Secret Santa exchange at work.

Sometimes churches, including Orthodox ones, add to this time pressure. In well-meaning efforts to remind us that Jesus is “the reason for the season,” churches fill December with fundraising events, rehearsal time for Christmas concerts and children’s pageants, and other gatherings.

By the time the Christmas Eve service rolls around, we are exhausted.

Some of these activities are wonderful, heartfelt traditions. Personally, I’m not much of a baker, but I seriously deck the halls—and the kitchen and the living room and every one of those precious horizontal surfaces—for Christmas. I love the twinkling lights and the greenery and the sparkles. But all the hubbub—the good, the bad, and the ugly—has nothing to do with time alone with God.

The Season of Giving

At least almsgiving feels more natural. We drop our spare change into the big red kettles while Salvation Army volunteers ring their bells, and we respond to the Christmas mailings from charities asking for end-of-year donations.

 In many ways, yes. But our motives are mixed. Many people give money during this time for reasons that are more pragmatic than philanthropic, donating their dollars in the waning weeks of the calendar year for the sake of income tax deductions.

Even when we include this frenzy of year-end donations, charitable giving among American Christians hovers around 2.5% of gross income, which falls well short of the biblical tithe. 

[Photo by anjo clacino 1251997 on Unsplash]

We spend far more money on gifts for family and friends than on giving. In the US, the practice of accumulating credit card debt during the Christmas season is common. The website of LendingTree, an online lenders’ marketplace,reports that in 2022, 35% of Americans took on holiday debt. But because of inflation, the average amount of debt was a little over $1,500, 24% more than last year. Note that most of these gifts are for people who don’t need them.

Generally, ’tis not the season for prayer or almsgiving.

Next comes the final component of the Church’s three-part recipe for lenten seasons: fasting.

Fasting and Christmas—Like Oil & Water

If you talk about the need for greater giving or a focus on worship during December, you will likely get nods of approval. But try to raise the idea of fasting before Christmas, and your Protestant and Catholic friends will give you blank stares. Even nonreligious people will bemoan the frantic pace and monetary excesses of the holiday season, but fasting—except for the latest fad in colon cleansing—is foreign to the unchurched, and completely lost among non-Orthodox Christians.

Instead, the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is a time of ongoing indulgence in rich foods and holiday cocktails. After Christmas, the guilt sets in along with the tighter waistbands, and after the final New Year’s binge, Americans collectively groan, “I need to go on a diet!”

The feasting is now followed by a time of fasting and self-denial, a rhythm that is the exact opposite of the ancient Christian pattern. Our society has turned our understanding of feasting and fasting upside-down!

Culturally, we Orthodox are on our own for this one, folks.

Anticipating the Joy of the Incarnation

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant’s bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness. — St. John Chrysostom

[Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash]

The ancient Church got it right. With a deep spiritual understanding of human psychology—as my former priest loves to point out, psyche (pronounced SEE-kee) is Greek for “soul”—the Church knows that a true feast requires the preparation of self-discipline. Just as children’s anticipation of Christmas Day grows as all those wrapped gifts pile up under the tree, our anticipation of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ grows during the fast.

Every act of self-denial, no matter how small, reminds us of the God who became man and gave Himself for us.

As we say “no” to schedule overcrowding, we say “yes” to time with God in prayer.

As we give more to the needy (even if this year we can’t afford much more than the widow’s mite), we remember that God has given us every blessing that we enjoy.

As we turn away from the rich foods that we really, really want, we anticipate the Kingdom feast in heaven, where we will celebrate eternally with our Bridegroom.

Every aspect of the Nativity fast, in ways large and small, turns our attention to the glory and mystery of the Incarnation on a daily basis. When we stumble and break the fast in one way or another, even our failures remind us of our need for transformation and forgiveness in Christ.

And when Christmas Day at last arrives, that delicious roast or ham tastes so good after a month of lentils!

The Nativity Fast reminds us daily of the Reason for the Season.


And, speaking of combating the secular onslaught, let me take this opportunity to remind you again of another tool that can help us focus our distractible thoughts on the Incarnation. Ancient Faith Publishing recently released Behold a Great Light: A Daily Devotional for the Nativity Fast through Theophany. The daily entries start with the beginning of the fast on November 15th and continue through January 7th. Each day’s pages include a reading from the Scriptures or Church Fathers, a hymn from the Church related to the day’s theme, and a meditation. The contributors are eight Ancient Faith authors, bloggers, and podcasters, who each wrote a week’s worth of meditations. I read their work numerous times during the editing process, and I’m looking forward to reading for enjoyment and inspiration. I hope you’ll read this devotional too!

Good strength to you all in the upcoming fast!


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