A Light in the Cold: One Northerner's liturgical prejudice

As a campus minister who works with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, I have met some wonderfully witty young people, who have a succinct way of summarizing the lessons I give to prepare them to become Catholics. One student, after hearing me speak about the Second Coming of Christ and the unknown “day and hour,” captured the idea of preparedness from her academic perspective: “You can’t cram for the Second Coming!” Well said.

More recently I was teaching the season of Advent and stated quite frankly my own prejudice in favor of spending Advent and Christmas in northern climates. A law student nodded and proposed a sports metaphor: “Right,” he said, “they should not have hockey in Tampa.” Well, yes. He understood my point of view.

I suspect that my prejudice in favor of winter as the proper setting for Advent goes back to my childhood. When my friends and I sang Advent hymns and lit the candles of the Advent wreath, the season and its rituals were still new to us, connected with all the other manifestations, religious and secular, of the season. The early darkness and cold of winter afternoons created the right atmosphere for looking longingly at sleds in the frosted Hamilton Hardware Store window, well decorated with Christmas lights. And going home in the early dark after ice skating on the frozen baseball diamond was made easier by the enticement of the fragrant Christmas tree, still unencumbered by gifts, waiting to be lit in the dark living room. It even seemed that as I looked forward to Santa’s arrival, being “nice” instead of “naughty” was less difficult in winter.

In winter there is an attraction to light and warmth; we take time to listen to the stories of loved ones and friends. In the cold of a northern Advent, the image of an infant in the chill touches our hearts. Even the crèche animals conspire to protect him from the night air.

The theology of the liturgical season suits winter. The community gathers; we stand together to sing the longing of centuries: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” We hear the words of the prophet: “Comfort my people, ” a cry that loses some of its urgency in brighter, warmer weather. We light candles, an additional one each week as the darkness lengthens; and with the first hint that natural light is returning—one or two minutes more in the afternoon—we welcome the Light from Light, lumen de lumine, as we sing in “Adeste Fidelis.” We celebrate the coming of one who entered into our human condition, as uncomfortable as that can be at times, showing us a path out of our darkness.

As people age, the cold and the dark of December may seem less welcoming, but if you flee from them, you may find yourself in an unsettling position: celebrating Advent in weather better suited to Easter. One year I spent Thanksgiving and the first week of Advent with my sister and brother-in-law at their home in Florida. Their practice is to attend Saturday afternoon Mass. We entered the parish church just as the entrance procession began and the organist struck the first notes of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” My body registered the incongruity of hearing that quintessential Advent hymn as I stood in summer clothing in a sun-lit church. My first impulse was to fear for the organist’s job. Why would she play an Advent hymn in the middle of spring? My confusion soon ended when I realized that this was, indeed, Advent, but Advent in Florida. Still, it just didn’t seem right. It lacked the emotional tone that winter contributes to the season.

I am sure that those who live in a warm climate in December find many fruitful ways to celebrate the Advent season. Still, I cling to my own prejudice: Advent feels incomplete without the cold and the dark, the hymns and the hopes. It is to this world that the Word came and continues to come, bringing the light and the warmth of God’s love.

4 years 4 months ago
I agree with you indeed, but have often wondered what it is like to celebrate Christmas (and Advent) in the Southern Hemisphere, where Christmas comes in the summer.  Have they evolved their own Advent hymns which get away from our northern (and I imagine originally Euro-centric) emphasis on the connection between Advent's light and the dark of winter?  
Paul Feeley
4 years 4 months ago
Having lived in the Amazon jungle, you understand the Liturgocal year is prepared for north of the equator!!
4 years 4 months ago
Thank you for your reflections on Christmas in the North. I have often wondered what it would be like to celebrate with our Missionaries in South America where the seasons are reversed. I wish someone from the southern hemisphere would send us a reflection: what is it really like to celebrate the liturgical year down there ? - Peace!
4 years 4 months ago
I also feel that the weather-cold, dark-affects Ådvent liturgy in a positive way.  I don't think singing Advent hymns in bright sunshine
would be as effective.  Even though we don't have snow yet, the cold
and dark (Saturday mass) add much to the Advent feeling.  
Cody Serra
4 years 4 months ago
I saw and lived my first white and cold Christmas when I came to the States in my 30's.
It is interesting how we perceive the goodness of the season according to our own life experiences.

The carol song from New Zeland posted above by Anne Carey, reflects the sentiment of my younger years.

Now, I have learned to love in the cold, to rest my soul in the snowy Nativity, and imagine so many different things about Baby Jesus born in the cold... Mine early one was always warm...

Sometimes we forget the influence that climate and culture have on our own journey on this earth and on our reflections on the mysteries of God.

Blessed be the birth of Jesus wherever he chooses to be.
William Bowden
4 years 4 months ago

Thank you Mary for sharing, and my prayer now is; Thank you Father for sending us the Warmth and the Light, Your Son, our Saviour into our world (North or South) who needs Him so!With Hopeful expectation,Bill from New England :)

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Bill Nye's gags are every bit as goofy as they were in the ’90s. But his new show on Netflix is weighed down by a condescending attitude.
Eric Sundrup, S.J.April 25, 2017
A rally hosted by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont for a Nebraska Democrat prompted a flurry of questions about the party's pro-choice orthodoxy.
Michael O'LoughlinApril 24, 2017
Omaha Democratic mayoral candidate Heath Mello waves to supporters at a rally on April 20.  (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
The expulsion of pro-life candidates may doom the Democrats to minority status.
Robert David SullivanApril 24, 2017
Miroslava Breach Velducea. Photo courtesy of Patricia Mayorga.
Four attacks on reporters in such a short timespan have shocked Mexico, already a country press freedom organizations say is one the most dangerous in the Western Hemisphere for journalists.
Jan-Albert HootsenApril 24, 2017