China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2007/Dec

Christmas and other holidays – or holy days?

In 2002, Christmas fell on a Wednesday. How could it dare do such a thing? One capitalist in the United States of America (US) was furious. He wrote to a newspaper, complaining that no one in his office did any work for two whole weeks. They all asked to take Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday as vacation days. He had to tell most of them “NO!” The staff who had to report to work came late on Monday and Thursday, and kept looking at the clock on Tuesday and Friday afternoons. That week’s productivity was ruined. The same thing happened the following week, since New Year’s Day also fell on a Wednesday. So the business executive suggested moving Christmas to the fourth Monday of December, between the 22nd and 28th, depending on the year, for the sake of greater efficiency. He asked all Churches to agree to such a reasonable request. But everyone ignored his letter.

Too many parties too soon

When is Christmas? December 25, of course. Of course? In Hong Kong, some large buildings on either side of the harbour turned on their “Season’s Greetings” lights on November 15. There was a sign for a Christmas party and fundraiser scheduled for November 25, not December 25, but November 25.

A major US magazine recently had a page on how, as soon as Halloween ends, all the ads are for Thanksgiving, and Christmas parties start immediately afterwards. The columnist observed that when every day is part of a holiday season, then no holiday is special. The human body was not designed for non-stop eating, as a full-length mirror can verify.

So the Church does not rush into Christmas joy. We approach December 25 with a rather low-key time, Advent, which is always less than one month long. The First Sunday of Advent can come only a few days earlier or later from one year to the next.

Traditionally, Christmas season began on Christmas Eve. Midnight Mass was the beginning of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Epiphany, January 6, had its distinct identity and customs, as is still the case in Latin countries. But from Spain to The Philippines, businesses jump the gun and start the season early to increase sales.

Chinese holidays

In China, the Golden Week holidays started in 1999. Three events spaced a few months apart: the Spring Festival, formerly called Chinese New Year, Labour Day, May 1, and National Day, October 1, were chosen as seven-day holidays. Tens of millions of people who work far from home need more than two or three free days to reunite with their families. Families living under one roof could use a week to explore their vast country. The media spoke glowingly of how these holidays would “expand domestic tourism,” and “promote internal consumption.” After every Golden Week, there were upbeat statistics reporting how much the economy had been stimulated, plus photos of smiling merchants.

From the start, the downside of Golden Week was the congestion at bus and train stations. There were more travellers than seats, even with extra trains and buses added. Ticket scalpers and pickpockets all agreed with the designation Golden Week. In only a few years, more people became rich enough to fly, so airplanes are now overbooked. The expanding middle class is buying automobiles, so China’s roads are seeing US-sized traffic jams. Scenic and historic destinations are covered with people and tourists have trouble finding accommodation.

Are people created for the economy, or the economy for the people? (cf. Mk. 2:27) The current arrangement is more stress than fun. Can anyone devise a more enjoyable way to vacation? There is talk of reducing the length of the three holidays and creating a few free days at the Mid-Autumn Festival, Dragon Boat and Ching Ming. Golden Weeks may be downsized and renamed before long in order to distribute the sea of travellers more evenly throughout the year. The issue involves more than smooth traffic flow. With increasing westernisation, many Chinese fear a loss of customs and tasty food specific to each of the traditional holidays of the year.

Jewish and Christian Sabbath

“Sabbath” comes from a Hebrew word for “cease” as in “to cease work.” Two reasons are given for keeping the Sabbath: after creating heaven and earth, the Lord rested on the seventh day (Ex. 20:11) and in memory of the days of oppression: “Your male and female slaves should rest as you do. For remember that you too were once slaves in Egypt” (Deut. 5:14-15).

Seventh Day Adventists insist that the day of rest must be Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and not Sunday. But it is not easy to find Sabbatarian Christians in China, since all registered Protestant Churches observe Sunday. The True Jesus Church has been banned for reasons other than the choice of Sabbath.

To explain the Sabbath to contemporary, overly busy Jews, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan compared it to taking “a trip to another world… To understand it, you must experience it.”

When Pope Benedict XVI visited Austria recently, he said in Vienna on September 9 that “Sunday has been transformed in our western societies into the weekend, into leisure time… Leisure time is certainly something good and necessary, especially amid the mad rush of the modern world… Yet if leisure time lacks an inner focus, an overall sense of direction, then ultimately it becomes wasted time that neither strengthens nor builds up.”

The Catechism on feasts and leisure

The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists neither tourism nor travel in its index. One reason for celebrating Sundays and holy days of obligation is to help us “grow in love of God and neighbour” (n. 2041). Fasting and abstinence do not stimulate the economy. Instead they reduce consumer spending. Yet these methods are preparations for celebrating the liturgical feasts, since they “help us acquire mastery over our instincts, and freedom of heart” (n. 2043). The Catechism quotes Heb. 10:25 “not to neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but to encourage one another” (n. 2178). An isolated Christian is a weak Christian.

People need time away from work. Relaxation gets a positive mention in the Catechism, but not every form of leisure qualifies. On Sundays and holy days, believers “are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of works of mercy and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body” (n. 2185). “In spite of economic constraints, public authorities should ensure citizens a time intended for rest and divine worship. Employers have a similar obligation towards their employees” (n. 2187).

Holidays are lonely days for many people: the widowed, divorced and those far from home because of school or work. For many, Christmas is their annual visit to a church. Some of them would come back the next Sunday; if only a regular church-goer greeted them and made them feel welcomed.

A constitutional right

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China says that citizens “have the right as well as the duty to work… Work is the glorious duty of every able-bodied citizen” (Art. 42). On the other hand, “Working people…have the right to rest. The state expands facilities for rest and recuperation of working people and prescribes working hours and vacations for workers and staff” (Art. 43). Yes, days of rest for workers, rather than exploitation, are in keeping with human dignity.

Inconvenient holy days

The Bible was written long before anyone lived by the clock and before anyone said “time is money.” Life was a gift from God and its rhythms were set by the sun, moon and seasons, and by the Sabbath; not by alarm clocks and transport schedules. Back then, fortune-tellers were the people who were most concerned, even obsessed, with the exact day and hour.

St. Luke is more interested in dating the public ministry of John the Baptist (Lk. 3:1-2) than the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. In the fourth century, the Church began to celebrate December 25 as Jesus’ birthday, not because of a new revelation, but to displace the Roman feast of the Unconquered Sun. As the days began ever so gradually to get longer, it was a good time for Christians to welcome the coming of Jesus, the true Light of the World (Jn. 1:9).

The date of Christmas is fixed and few people are bothered whichever day of the week it occurs. But Easter is a movable Christian holy day. The moon’s movement is complicated. Next year will see an extremely early Easter, March 23, while in 2011 it will come extremely late, April 24. Many business people and school administrators will grumble. Yet by keeping to the traditional calendar, the Church reminds the world that not everything in life should be standardised and routine. The idiosyncrasies of sacred time remind us that secular, commercialised time is not the most important time in the world, or in eternity.

No need for room at the inn?

Many readers of this column will soon head to the airport to fly overseas, while others will take a train or bus to China for Christmas. May you make your connection on time, without cancellation, so you will not have to search for a room in a motel. We do not have to imitate everything the Holy Family ever did or endured. China Bridge wishes all our readers a restful family reunion at Christmas, a pause from the hectic pace of work. May Christmas and January 1, the Feast of Mary, Mother of God, be not only holidays for you, but also holy days. Focus on the Word Made Flesh. Experience another world than the busy world of commerce and partying. Finally, Happy New Year!