One of my favorite seasons of the year is Advent, a season celebrated by a number of Christian denominations. Like any other first world person, I mark the passing of time via the calendar year. I appreciate all four seasons, spring, summer, fall, and winter. However, as a Christian, I also mark time through the liturgical and spiritual seasons that the Christian faith lifts up. For us the year begins early, about a month before the calendar year changes, or four Sundays before Christmas. Advent is a four week long season leading up to the feast of the incarnation, the birth of Jesus, the celebration of God birthed into human flesh, Christ’s mass. Advent is a season of anticipation, reflection, waiting, expectation. Advent is a season of darkness, of short days and long nights.
In contrast to the season of Advent, many Americans are busy preparing for Christmas. Houses are decorated in lights and trees and ornaments. Traffic is heavy on the streets as people scramble to shop and purchase gifts at the best price possible.
Advent was not part of my childhood faith experience. Christmas was, however, and so my family practiced a month long preparation for the big day of feasting and gift opening. Christmas was magical for my mother, as if all the problems of our lives were suspended for the season in anticipation of the perfect Christmas morning. My memories are filled with the smell of cookies and fruit bread baking. My brothers and I drifted to sleep as records played Christmas music on our old HiFi. I still remember an old Columbia record with songs sung by Doris Day, and Mitch Miller. Songs like “Suzy snowflake” sung by Rosemary Clooney, a favorite of mine because I had an aunt named Suzie, or, “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus” in the distinctive voice of Jimmy Boyd. But there was also a record of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing all the classics. To this day traditional Christmas hymns cause tears to well up in my eyes. This is for me a season of nostalgia and hope, of mystery and anticipation.
When I first joined the Episcopal Church in the late 1980’s I learned about Advent. The emphasis then was on simplicity. We were encouraged to not put up lights or the tree or listen to Christmas music until Christmas Eve. We were to be more austere and practice Advent as an alternative to the culture of festive partying and indulgence. My children were little, then, and the desire to share the traditions of my childhood were stronger than the tradition my new church. Still, I tried to do both, but ended up feeling a bit like a bad Christian. We put up a freshly cut Christmas tree and made an event out of decorating it, with hot chocolate and cookies to celebrate. I shopped and wrapped, and baked, and listened to Christmas music. I also spent time trying to focus on what it means to live in a season of anticipation, to wait, and to hope. However, I really wasn’t sure what I was waiting for or hoping for. Waiting for the birth of the Christ child was literal for me, even as an adult. It was Christmas Eve and a family meal. It was presents on Christmas morning and a long day with family, eating and opening more gifts. It was overly tired children who couldn’t sleep and usually got sick. It was hard to practice Advent when the waiting meant anticipating a day of gift opening and lavish meals on Christmas Day. It was hard to practice Advent when the hope was for getting and giving the perfect gift.
Practicing Advent is a process that one learns to appreciate over time. No doubt my appreciation deepened after my husband and I spent a couple of year’s underemployed and all of our traditions had to be reexamined. During that time we couldn’t afford a Christmas tree so we put up an old, tiny, artificial table top tree we acquired from my mother in law’s large stash of decorations. We bought a gift of an animal from Heifer International and shared that gift with all of our extended family and friends. One flock of chickens gifted in thanksgiving for the many people who blessed our lives. We gave our kids small gifts purchased from points accumulated from using our bank card. We scraped together a meal and did our best to enjoy the day and one another. All we really had at that time was hope. Or, rather, all we had was the hope for hope. Hope that a new year would bring new life and less struggle. New life and less anxiety. New life and less fear.
So now Advent is for me a season of appreciation. I spend less money over all. I don’t really care about the gift giving or the gift receiving. I care more about taking time to appreciate life, appreciate the season of long dark nights, appreciate cold and snow, and appreciate my family and friends. I give thanks for being employed at a place I love, doing work I love. I give thanks for the simple things in life. I have come to understand, truly, what it means to find new life. I have come to understand that anticipating the incarnation, the presence of God in one’s life is not magical nor is it abstract, nor does it require an austere practice of denial. Anticipating the Incarnation can be done just as well with a house fully decorated and with all the trappings of American society in December. Practicing Advent is an interior event. Practicing Advent is about how I am inside my being, my intentionality as I shop, as I bake, as I listen to Christmas music, as I sit in the glow of the lights on my Christmas tree.