Advent: Toward a relevant celebration

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By Arnold Van Vugt

The Living Spirit

Saturday, December 14, 2013

THE four weeks before Christmas is called the time of Advent.

It is a time that we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Savior, the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. There is a need for us Christians to prepare ourselves for this wonderful event, spiritually and physically.

The liturgy of the Church presents a sober atmosphere: the vestments of the priest are violet, there is no Gloria and the priest admonishes the people to do some fasting or exercises of showing penance.

The problem here in the Philippines is that the atmosphere outside the Church is totally different from that inside the Church. There are Christmas lights all over the place, adults and children go around singing Christmas carols and are asking for a Christmas gift. Christmas parties with an exchange of gifts are organized starting early December. Actually, the Christmas celebration starts already with the so-called ber-months, September, October, November and December.

When I arrived in the Philippines fifty years ago, I was greatly surprised to observe this custom in the Philippines and, to be frank, I still feel a great unease with this practice until this time.

In Holland, we don’t have that custom. What we do have in Holland is the celebration of the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. It is not so much a celebration in the Church but rather outside the Church, celebrated by Catholics and non-Catholics alike but also by people who have no religion at all.

In Holland St. Nicholas is called Sinterklaas. St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, Asia Minor, in the 4th century AD.

A legend has it that he was very generous, especially to children and orphans. The small children in Holland believe that Sinterklaas will visit them every year on December 6. He comes then from Spain together with his servant Black Peter (Zwarte Piet) who carries on his back a sack full of presents and candies. Sinterklaas sits on a horse that walks over the roof tops while Peter throws gifts and candies down through the chimney, or sometimes Sinterklaas comes down from the roof and will visit the children in their home.

He is dressed as a bishop with mitre and staff and he has a beard, all very solemn. It is a thrilling event for the children, who strongly believe in Sinterklaas, until their parents tell them that the story of Sinterklaas is not true or they hear that from other children who don’t believe anymore in him.

What bothers me is the following. In the past many Dutch people emigrated to the States and formed a colony in New Amsterdam (New York). They brought this custom of Sinterklaas to the States but the Americans corrupted the Dutch Sant Nikolaas into ‘Santa Claus’ and what is worse they associated this with the feast of Christmas. Again, the Americans brought this custom to the Philippines. Santa Claus has now become a clown, a caricature of the original St. Nicholas.

The practice of celebrating Christmas long before Christmas itself has become part of our culture but in fact it alienates us from our Christian Filipino culture. Of course, exchanging gifts during the Christmas Season is very meaningful also but to do that in the presence of a ‘Santa Claus’ while singing exotic Christmas carols like ‘I am dreaming of a while Christmas’ or ‘Rudolf the red-nose reindeer has a very shiny nose’ is senseless. The sad thing is that at Christmas itself the celebration is over. People are all tired; they still may go to Church on Christmas Eve, because it is a ‘day of obligation’.

When are we going to indigenize our Christmas celebration and make our Advent celebration relevant again?



Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on December 15, 2013.


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