The first question was simple: "Siri, when is Christmas?"
After the two-tone "BEED-EEP" chime, the voice of the Apple iPhone responded: "Christmas is on Tuesday, December 25, 2012. I hope I have the day off."
Then matters got complicated: "When is Advent?"
Siri searched her memory and said: "I didn't find any events about 'Ed Fant.'"
Trying again: "When is the Advent season?"
Siri cheerfully responded: "I am not aware of any events about 'advent season.'"
After several more "BEED-EEP" chimes the Apple cloud ultimately drew a blank when asked, "When does the Christmas season end?" Alas, Siri didn't understand the term "Christmas season."
That's understandable, since it's clear that millions of Americans are either confused about these questions or they disagree with answers rooted in centuries of Christian life, noted Jimmy Akin, senior apologist at Catholic Answers (Catholic.com).
The problem isn't just that the secular marketplace celebrates a different season -- "The Holidays" -- which runs from the shopping day previously known as Thanksgiving through Dec. 25, which itself precedes several days in which gifts are returned, leftovers consumed, trees discarded and decorations jammed into garages.
The problem, said Akin, is that many Christian institutions have surrendered and no longer observe the four quiet weeks of Advent (Latin for "toward the coming") and then the 12-day Christmas season, which begins with the Dec. 25 feast and continues through Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. The Advent and Christmas seasons have for centuries been celebrated in many different Christian traditions.
"There is just so much noise out there in the culture this time of year, so many signals clashing with the church's traditions," said Akin. "The key to all this is that our culture treats Christmas Day as the climax of a giant holiday season, not as the day that -- after the preparations of Advent -- kicks off the 12 days of Christmas."
The bottom line: Most Americans, believers and nonbelievers alike, "frontload" Christmas celebrations into the weeks before Christmas, trample Advent and then ignore the traditional season of Christmas. The question for church leaders is how to serve as winsome advocates for Christian traditions without adopting an "Advent Grinch" attitude -- the term used at the Occupy Advent website -- that turns off people seeking alternatives to the modern Christmas crush.
Some church leaders are convinced that it's time to throw in the towel, noted Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, in an online commentary about what he called "The Annual Advent Argument."
A traditionalist, he said, may proclaim, "Yeah, remember 50 years ago when we were kids? The tree would not go up until Christmas Eve; carols would never be heard till real close to Christmas; there were some added days of fast and abstinence during Advent; even Christmas Eve was a day of penance! Wasn't that better? We so looked forward to Christmas because we waited!"
Then somebody else will respond, "But there's nothing we can do about it! Society begins the Christmas season on Thanksgiving, and ends it on December 25. ... The Church is out of it and will just have to change."
Meanwhile, Catholic instructions for bishops continue to urge clergy -- on the crucial issue of decorations in Advent -- to proceed "in a moderate manner, as is consonant with the character of the season, without anticipating the full joy of Christmas." The same general rule applies to Christmas music.
"The question everyone asks," noted Akin, "is, 'Why don't we do Christmas songs in church during Advent?' The answer is pretty simple: 'Because it isn't Christmas yet.' ... And it's one thing to put up a tree, but it's something else to completely decorate it weeks before Christmas. It's one thing to put up your Christmas creche. It's something else to go ahead and put the baby Jesus in the manger."
The goal is for churches to take symbolic actions that help people reclaim the full Christmas season. The most important move most churches could make, he said, would be to put their Christmas parties, festivals, caroling events and other celebrations during the traditional 12 days of Christmas.
"It would be pretty radical to pull some of those frontloaded celebrations out of Advent and back into the Christmas season itself. If we did that it might get some people's attention," said Akin. "The point we need to make is this: Christmas belongs in Christmas."
Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.
Distributed by Universal Uclick for UFS.