Monday, December 19, 2011

Advent Enigma

Every year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we become bombarded with the trimmings of the "Christmas Season:" Christmas songs, Christmas parties, Christmas cookies, Christmas decorations, etc. This begins with the stores decorating for Christmas and piping Christmas music over their speakers beginning sometime in October--all under the label of putting customers in the "Christmas Spirit." To the average retail store, this "Christmas Spirit" is really just an excuse to hope that people will start thinking about Christmas much earlier, and so buy more gifts in this extended time of preparation.

Many people follow this lead and try to "get into the Christmas spirit" by listening to Christmas music, having Christmas parties, putting up Christmas decorations, etc. The unfortunate side-effect to that is the actual celebration of Christmas becomes an after-thought. I can remember being a boy and getting all excited for Christmas, listening to songs, wearing a santa hat, going to parties, etc., but when Christmas Day actually came, we excitedly opened presents, and then I was left with this feeling of "now what?" It seemed to me that all the songs sung of Christmas Day as this great occasion, but by the time that the clock struck noon, the excitement had already waned, save the fascination with whatever new toys I had received. Something about Christmas Day seemed a little empty, but I could never place it.

On the other hand, we have the Church, and Her seemingly antiquated approach of preparing for Christmas by holding off from any celebratory activity until the event itself, and then following through with a full season of celebration (what was previously the 12 days of Christmas and is now a variable length season). This is the 4th week of Advent--the final approach to the celebration of Christmas, yet when I go to Mass, I won't hear songs like Oh Come all Ye Faithful until Saturday evening. What I will hear is something more like O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Advent is a time of preparation and anticipation (building with it's Gaudete on the third--rose-colored--Sunday, and it's O antiphons of this week), but not yet a time of celebration.

The question I wrestle with every year is this: To what extent should my personal life be like the liturgy (no Christmas until Christmas), and how much it should be like the retail industry (Christmas begins in October and ends on Christmas morning)?

Msgr. Pope has written a great post about the Advent practices of previous generations of Catholics, and he aptly considered them giants (performing penance for 40 days in preparation for celebrating the Christmas season). Surely their feats were greater than mine (perhaps staving off the consumption of a few cookies until Christmas day has arrived). These ancient practices are fascinating, but I wonder how one could perform them today (or if one should not bother). How can one avoid every Christmas party that occurs before Christmas? (Should one do so?) How can one encourage others to delay their parties until the Christmas season has begun? What about those who will only be able to be home before Christmas? There are, indeed, many questions, but as the years pass, and I try to conform myself a little more to the liturgy, and each year, the celebration of Christmas Day and the Christmas Season continues to be more meaningful. I wonder how to balance being in the world (not being a snob to those who celebrate Christmas early) while trying not to be of the world (not falling to the commercialized over-celebration of Christmas before it actually gets here).

Amanda and I have implemented a few ways for us to have a spirit of Advent:

  • Making a Jesse Tree
  • Using an Advent Wreath at the dinner table with special prayers when lighting the candles
  • Trying to listen to anticipatory Christmas songs (I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas, I'll be home for Christmas, etc.) Advent songs, neutral winter songs (Let it Snow, etc.)

What do you think? How do you balance the Advent & Christmas seasons?

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