In my opinion, you’re either an Advent person or a Lent person. Me? I’m an Advent person. First, the wait time is much shorter. And for a person who counts waiting in line among her top three most hated things (racism and sexism are the other two), that’s important. Second, and perhaps most important, no one gets betrayed by a close friend and crucified at the end of all that waiting. At the end of Advent, a baby is born. God enters the world and dwells among us as a human. Plus, there are so many cookies.
War on Christmas? Pshaw! Everywhere you look, from November through December, is a reminder of this Christian holiday. That used to bug me, but I no longer mind that everything shifts from Thanksgiving to Christmas weeks before the turkey even gets to the table.
I wasn’t always this way. For most of my adult life, I was pretty “bah humbug” about bells and red ribbon and yearly updates that would arrive all through the month of December. Like many others, I felt that it was too much pressure to do too many things and make too many people happy and, of course, spend too much money. The Christmasifying of everything from dish towels to toothbrushes signals just how commercialized the holiday gets—the real reason to worry about a so‑called war on Christmas.
But I no longer bemoan the consumerism that critics say sullies one of the church’s most sacred days. I do not sigh in exasperation when I see the Christmas decorations start creeping into store displays in late October. And I don’t grumble about the gift-giving practices in my and my husband’s families.
What happened? I just decided one year to not be a grump anymore. It wasn’t so much a “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach, but more of: “Hey, I think I’m going to take this other path.” That path was to fully embrace Advent.
Instead of complaining about, well, everything during the month of December, I embraced it. Selecting presents for the people whose names I’d drawn for gifts wouldn’t be the chore it had long been but an opportunity to delight in a family member’s own enjoyment as I imagined what they would be excited to open on Christmas. Instead of begrudgingly RSVPing to cookie exchanges and open houses, I chose to appreciate how many wonderful people I count as friends.
I even organized a special Christmas outing with some friends during which we enjoyed dinner together in a cozy Italian restaurant, followed by viewing Christmas windows and strolling through the Christkindlmarket in downtown Chicago. The food was terrible and the crowds impenetrable, but the ride home together on the train was one of sharing plans and simple togetherness—a rare treat in our busy lives.
I string way too many white lights around our apartment, adorning not only our tree (which, yes, we purchase the day after Thanksgiving for maximum enjoyment) but also windows, the staircase, the mantle. Not only is it pretty, it signals to my young son that we’re in a very special time of year. On cold December nights we have the glow of these lights to remind us of the cozy haven our home provides.
Before dinner each night, we dim all the lights and eat in the glow of the one, then two, then three and four candles of our Advent wreath, which we fashion on the first Sunday of Advent from the tree clippings from the yard of a member of our parish. This is one of my favorite parish traditions each year because it involves the whole family. The cost of the wreath forms, pins, and candles are offset by a donation basket that is passed around while children and grownups poke and prod cruciferous branches into wreathes.
Last year, before my family left for a two-day road trip to see my in-laws, we had dinner with some close friends. My friend Nadia prepared a dinner for our two families. Her meal was simple, nourishing, and warm. After dinner we gathered our children and sat in the living room by the fire and turned down the lights. We lit candles on their family’s Advent wreath and sang.
Then Steve, Nadia’s husband, opened a book he’d been reading to his two daughters throughout Advent called All Creation Waits. That night he read how hibernating foxes survive the winter by huddling close together. The foxes who’ve most fattened up help keep their skinnier brothers and sisters warm. They survive the cold winter months by sticking together.
I’ve thought about these images often in the past year, the foxes huddled, our two families gathered, and my own family eating dinner by candlelight. We were waiting for Christmas, for the arrival of God among us. Each night was filled with anticipation for the exciting holiday just around the corner. And yet, as we waited, we also had everything we needed—right there. The nights were long and dark, but we had light and warmth and one another.
We wait in joyful hope during Advent. But I think that as church people, we can sometimes be a little brooding about what it means to wait for a savior. We look around us and find everything at fault with the world: a consumerist culture hell-bent on getting the newest, shiniest, biggest stuff; tacky holiday decorations whose putrid glow obscures “the true meaning of Christmas.” Even books such as the one my friend Steve was reading to our children are marketed as an antidote to those who want to tune out the relentless buzz of the holiday season.
We want to do the right thing. We want to wait, but we forget to do so joyfully. And in this holier-than-thou righteous waiting for the “reason for the season,” we aren’t always particularly joyful.
Waiting in joyful hope doesn’t mean we ought to develop a myopia that only allows us to see the pretty twinkle lights and wrapped presents. It doesn’t mean we have to ignore criticisms of a culture driven by advertisements and marketing and branding.
But we could be less grumpy about it. Joyful even. After all, we’re waiting on the best miracle of all: God’s arrival in our midst, in the form of a human child.
This article also appears in the December 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 12, pages 18–21).