The signs are everywhere. Houses and yards are adorned with twinkling lights and plastic snowmen. Stores festively display Christmas decorations and the latest must-have items of the season. Our mailboxes are bursting forth with invitations to gift exchanges, tasting parties, and other holiday festivities. At long last that magical season is upon us. But wait! It’s mid-November and there are still have fall leaves in the yard. I haven’t even planned my Thanksgiving meal yet? How did it get to be the Christmas season already?
That’s easy. The retailing powers that be long ago decided that the more shopping days in the Christmas (or as it in now known, “holiday”) season, the more people will shop. The lines that begin forming outside some large chain stores before the pumpkin pie is even off the Thanksgiving table, prove the retailers are right.
True, Christmas is not the only holiday to have been tweaked by corporations. After all, we live in a country that celebrates its veterans and great presidents by buying mattresses on sale and purchasing furniture and automobiles with no money down. We charge the malls in search of the perfect Easter dress and shower, not only our true love, but also our best friends, co-workers, and teachers with Valentine’s Day cards and candies.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t enjoy Christmas treats, shop, or purchase quality bedding at drastically reduced prices. I’m simply saying that as Christians, perhaps it would be more appropriate to look to the life of our savior and to the traditions of the Christian faith (rather than to corporate CEO’s and ad executives) as a guide for observing our holidays – at least our religious holidays.
Since the holiday season is the time when manufacturers and retailers do their best business, they have a vested interest in dictating exactly how we observe the moment in history when God became man. They want us to prepare for Holiest events by shopping and shopping and shopping and shopping and shopping! However, to truly prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of the Lord, let’s consider how people used to do this before they had the benefit of Wal Mart to help them.
Actually, we first need to get our minds around the concept of preparing our hearts and minds for the coming of the Lord. There has been a lot of hubbub in recent years about The War on Christmas, but actually the war has been on Advent. Our retailers don’t give two hoots about what we do December 25. They care about all the shopping days before it is actually Christmas. You see, what is now known as the Christmas season (the time somewhere between Halloween and the opening of the last gift) is actually called Advent.
Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Traditionally Advent was a time of preparations. Christians prepared themselves for Christ’s coming both as a baby in a manger and for His second coming at the end of time. Parties, gorging on fudge, shopping and watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” are not actually longstanding Christian customs. On the contrary, to prepare for the coming of Christ, Christians traditionally spent the days before Christmas in somber reflection. Advent is a time to reflect on one’s shortcomings and to cleanse oneself in preparation for Christ’s arrival both spiritually in our hearts at Christmas and literally at the end of time.
Let’s take a look at how our culture spends the days before Christmas and alternatively how we as Christians can reclaim the advent season for our families.
Christians have recently been offended by the trend among retailers to use the word “holiday” instead of Christmas. When you walk into your local chain store you will likely be greeted with, “Happy Holidays!” by an eager employee who has been instructed not to say, “Merry Christmas” to you lest you be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or some other religion and might be offended by his reference to a Christian holiday. Never mind the fact that the very word holiday is derived from the words “holy” and “day,” so the joke is really on them. Once retailers figure that out you will be greeted by the heart-warming phrase, “Happy Winter Shopping Season.”
While the practice of striking the word Christmas from the retail vocabulary might be new, when it comes to de-Christianizing Christmas, I’m afraid that horse has long been out of the barn. The fact that Christians are offended that their Best Buy clerk doesn’t wish them a merry Christmas is evidence of how deeply we connect the birth of our Lord with a new Playstation. In other words, why do we care what message Target or Toys R Us is sending the world about the season? As Christians, isn’t that our job?
It should be, but since we have spent the last several decades racing from store to store during advent in search of the perfect gift, we have forgotten how to proclaim Christ right at the very dawn of His arrival. We don’t really prepare for Christ. We prepare for presents, and then we are silly enough to be offended when the stores don’t proclaim Him for us.
Why don’t we just let them have their “Happy Holidays”? If the corporate heads decided it is not in their best interest to say “Christmas” then I would just as soon they didn’t. After all, Christmas does, in fact contain the word Christ. So let’s leave the saying of it to people who have reverence for His name.
Gift giving is a lovely tradition. I’m not suggesting we abandon it. I’m merely saying let’s let the big stores have their “Happy Winter Shopping Season”, and look at some ways we can continue giving Christmas gifts without spending Advent at the Mall.
Of course the obvious way to shop less is to buy less. I know families who draw names, at least among the adults, for gift giving and set a fairly generous spending limit. Instead of each person stretching the budget to buy several people a token gift, everyone buys for only the person whose name he or she has drawn. With only one gift to buy, more thought goes into the gift, and it is often something of higher quality than a gift that is just one of many being purchased – more cashmere sweaters fewer sock that play jingle bells when you walk. This is truly a case of less is more.
Other families pattern their gift giving after the magi and give each child in the family three gifts. After all, if three gifts were enough for the Baby Jesus surely it is enough for a regular kid. One option is to give children one gift based on a need like a new coat or shoes. A second gift would be something the child has asked for, and the third gift a surprise.
Limiting our purchases, however is not the only way to keep from shopping the season of Advent away. I used to pity those poor type A folks who had all their Christmas shopping done by Thanksgiving. “Where’s the fun in that?” I thought. “They’re missing all the great hustle and bustle that makes Christmas so exciting.” They obviously knew something I didn’t. The goal of observing Advent is not to take the fun and excitement (or the presents) out of Christmas. With all the presents bought (and in the case of ultra type A folks, wrapped) and put away, we can spend the days before Christmas in holy reflection without the distraction marathon shopping.
Don’t think you can go four weeks without shopping? Consider shopping at small, local boutiques or Mom and Pop type stores. One year I vowed to stay out of the malls during the holiday season. I did all my shopping at the stores of our small town square. It was lovely. Rather that detracting from the spirit of Advent, this type of one on one interaction with members of my community added to it. In addition, I was free from all the frustration, exhaustion, and over-stimulation that come from attending the feeding frenzy taking place at the large chain stores. And best of all, I was supporting local families who in turn support our community. I still do as much of my shopping as I can right in here in my hometown. Shopping with local merchants who struggle to compete with the big stores is a wonderful way to keep the spirit of the season.
How and where we spend our money should always reflect our Christian values, but especially so during Advent. For this reason, if you can’t find what you need from a local merchant, purchasing gifts from charitable organizations is another great way to Christmas shop. Catalogs like The Work of Human Hands specialize in fair trade merchandise made by women living in poor areas of the world.
PARTIES AND FOOD
Let me assure you, no one loves a party more than I do. When I began to consider what it means to truly observe Advent and how our secular traditions detract from that I realized my annual Christmas party, held sometime in early December, had to go. Ouch!
The Christmas parties that most of us attend are held anytime from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve. They range from polite ladies’ teas to the obligatory office party – complete with a drunken Santa and an exchange of delightful gag gifs like hemorrhoid cream and Chia pets. Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus!
Fun though those seasonal festivities may be, they are akin to allowing a child to open her presents and blow out her candles three weeks before her birthday. It’s greedy and impatient. There is obvious value in delaying gratification for children as well as adults.
When we spend Advent in quiet reflection and abstain from parties and feasting, we do more than just prepare our hearts for the Lord. We prepare our senses. By denying ourselves the parties and all their trimmings we give our bodies as well as our spirits something to look forward to. We are created beings –mind, soul, and body. It is only natural that the heavenly joy we experience in our spirits be expressed in the very earthly activities of celebrating.
Feasting has long been an expression of joy and a way of celebrating life’s most special events. Why shouldn’t we celebrate the birth of our savior in the same way? In fact, the feasts that celebrate the life of Christ should put all our other feasting to shame.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Break out the good China and Grandma’s pecan pie recipe. If equating such earthly pleasures as fine table settings and pie with joy in the Lord seems crass, perhaps it is because that at the same time we have over commercialized Christmas, we have also over spiritualized Christmas. We tell ourselves that how we spend our time, money, and calories before Christmas doesnt’ matter. All that matters is what’s in our hearts. Yet isn’t what’s in our hearts often expressed through the material – what we wear, eat, buy, and do.
If things like gifts, fudge, champagne, cookies, and other trimmings of the season are a material way of expression our joy at the coming of the Lord (as well they should be), shouldn’t we wait until He comes? It seems rude to start the party before the guest of honor has arrived. Yes, I know He is always with us, but Christmas should be a time for celebrating Him in a special way. Instead we are like spoiled,impatient children who demand to open our presents long before our birthday,
HOW THEN DO WE PREPARE?
Okay. We have cut out the malls, declined all the parties, and shunned all the fudge. Yipppeeee now we are in the right frame of mind to receive the Lord. “Please, Lord hurry up and return and put us out of our misery.” Actually, that is not exactly the proper frame of mind either. The point of advent is not to make ourselves so miserable that we pray for the end of time. Instead, when we give up some of our long standing secular traditions we must replace them with new ones that enable us to joyfully prepare for the coming of the Lord. Here are a few suggestions:
The Advent Wreath
The Advent wreath can be a great tool in anticipation for Christmas. The origins of the advent wreath are unknown, but Christians have used it for centuries to mark the days leading to the coming of Christ. Advent wreaths are made of various evergreens which symbolize everlasting life. Four candles are placed in the wreath – three purple and one rose and a new candle is lit each Sunday during Advent. The lighting of the candle is accompanied by prayer and a spiritual reading. To learn more about using an Advent wreaths read here or here.
These are another special way to observe Advent, but like most everything else related to Christmas, they range from the lovely to the absurd. Beware of the Disney Advent Calendar.
When I began to take Advent more seriously a big adjustment for me (aside from the party thing) was not putting up my Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. Like everything else our decorations should reflect the season, and advent is not yet Christmas. Still, it is a time set apart. Purple, the color of advent, represents humility, penance, and melancholy. During the days of advent when we should be humbly waiting on the Lord it is more appropriate to festoon our homes in purple rather than red and green. Hang your traditional Christmas greenery, but decorate it with purple ribbon.
I know what you are thinking. Aren’t we getting a little carried away if we think something silly like what colors we use really matters? I don’t know. Is it silly for a bride to wear white? If color doesn’t make a statement why don’t any brides ever where black? Would you consider wearing red to you grandmother’s funeral? Still, if the color of the ribbon we use seems a small thing, keep in mind that it will be in a stringing together of numerous these small gestures and observances that we will see our families, and hopefully our churches, begin to set themselves apart from the rest of the world.
Some families put up their tree early in the advent season, but only hang the lights (to represent the Light of the World) and save the festive decorations until closer to the arrival of the King. Other families wait until He is nearly here, sometime after the third week of advent, to put up the tree
One way I’ve compromised with my family (many of whom still want to put the tree up in early December) is to make a make many of our decorations (and gifts) together as a family during Advent. Last year we made beautiful Names of Jesus Ornaments.
However we choose to decorate, we must remember that we are decorating for the arrival of our King. If an earthy king or dignitary were to visit a place, his arrival would not be celebrated beforehand, nor would the decorations be in place weeks before his coming. If so, they would loose their specialness. People would forget they were for the king and begin to think they were for themselves.
Another alternative to an early Christmas tree is a Jesse Tree. We’ve never done one in our home, but it is a small tree with homemade (or store bought) ornaments that represent major stories of the Old Testament, which of course foreshadow the coming of Jesus.
Baking and cooking.
I love holiday baking, and observing advent doesn’t mean I have to give it up. In fact, time in the kitchen with my kids preparing special goodies, is a lovely Advent tradition. But it’s helpful to bake with a sense of anticipation in mind. We are preparing for something (Someone) special. So, our goodies should be prepared as gifts for others or frozen and saved until Christmas. Of course, we will taste along the way – again, I don’t want to torture my children during Advent. But we try not to gorge and make the baking all about us.
Santa or Saint Nicholas
You might be think that in an attempt to de-secularize the season we would abandon Santa. Not so. When our children we small we did downplay the flying reindeer and elves to a degree and tried to focus on Saint Nicholas., without taking too much away from the fun of believing in Santa. In addition to watching this cartoon, I always have the children leave their shoes out on December 6, the Feast of Saint Nicholas. He stops by after they’ve gone to bed and leaves some candy, and a note reminding them to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Celebrate All 12 Days of Christmas
In our culture we seem to be in nearly as big a hurry to end Christmas as we were to begin it. Many people take down their tree on Christmas Day – just before rushing back to the store for post-Christmas deals. But again, Christians have traditionally done things differently. In many countries The Feast of Christmas is kept until January 6, when they celebrate the Epiphany or coming of the Magi.
Foregoing non-stop partying (before Christmas) and only buying local and fair trade Christmas gifts are important outward signs that we are preparing for Christ, but they don’t amount to much if we don’t aren’t actually preparing our hearts. Of course we should be praying and reading scripture daily, but during Advent, it’s a good idea to focus our prayer and reading on His coming.
There are numerous books and devotionals dedicated to the season of Advent. One of my favorite devotional activities is the Spiritual Crip. This one is ideal for younger children (although it can be adapted for adults), but the idea is that each day, you prepare your heart to be a manger for the Baby Jesus.
This woman writes about shopping in her hometown. I’d like to write a similar post for my hometown.
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