Yes, I know.  For most people, Christmas started around Thanksgiving and ended on December 25.  Many of the mega churches started holding their Christmas services weeks before Christmas Day.  But, for me (at least “officially” for all Episcopalians and others who celebrate a traditional “liturgical” year) Christmas is a season that begins on December 25 and continues through the evening of January 5 (The Epiphany is January 6, when the three “kings” come with presents for the baby Jesus).  So I’m really in the middle of my celebration of Christmas.

For me, it is a celebration of Christmas.  Mind you, I don’t have any problem, in a general setting, talking more generally about “the holiday season.”  Because many people around me are not Christians — some of them not even religious in any traditional sense.  And I think it’s fine that everyone has a seasonal celebration.  Mine is Christmas.  But my celebration is not lessened by others celebrating their own festivities.

There is, however, a good deal of sentimentality and set tradition in our seasonal celebrations, that I have at least mixed feelings about (let alone the season of commerce that sometimes really seems to be what we are celebrating).  Which is one reason that our liturgical calendar is helpful to me.  Usually the day after Christmas is St. Stephen’s Day.  But since that was a Sunday this year, St. Stephen’s Day was transferred to today.

Sam Portaro addresses this reality this way (in his book, Brightest and Best):

It is ironic that we should clothe this season in nostalgia and sentiment, the antidotes to change and the signs of our resistance to life’s challenges.  The manger accommodates our romance; the powerful days that follow bring us back with a terrifying jolt to the import of what we celebrate at Bethlehem.  The romantic relief of the nativity only prepares us for the breathtaking descent into Stephen’s death.

Stephen, of course, was our first Christian martyr, stoned to death for his witness to Jesus.  December 27 is St. John’s Day.  He’s the one apostle who is thought to have died of natural causes.  Late in his life, he is said (by Jerome, some 300 years later) to have had himself carried down to the assembly of the faithful and say, “My little children, love one another.”  When he was asked why he repeated this injunction, he said, “Because it is the word of the Lord, and if you keep it, you do enough.”

I was reminded of that while reading a sermon on St. Stephen by Fulgentius, Bishop of Ruspe [533] this morning.  He says:

Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King.  Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier. … Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed.  He brought … the gift of love, which was to bring us to share in his divinity.  And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven …  Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle …  His love for his neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him … to save them from punishment.

He goes on to talk about how Paul, who witnessed the martyrdom with approval, and Stephen can share heaven together without reproach because they are reconciled in love.  Not too sentimental.  As the song says, “Love came down on Christmas.”  Not a sappy, sentimental feeling of closeness.  But a sacrificial caring for the wellbeing of all people, lived out in Jesus’ life, and in the lives of his faithful followers.