For most Americans, the days between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day are a time to be with family, to be thankful for all we have, and to give whatever we can to those in need. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that! But it’s not news that Christmas has been secularized. For Christians, this season should be about so much more than what our culture offers us. Every year, I hear Christians bemoaning the secularization of Christmas—yet, the solution seems so simple.
If we want Christmas to be a religious holiday for our families, the way to get beyond the red and green M&Ms and the hustle and bustle is to take the time to prepare ourselves spiritually. To make Christmas mean something, we must observe the traditional season of Advent.
The Church has such a beautiful rhythm of celebrating the various seasons of the Christian story. The four weeks before Christmas (a little after Thanksgiving until December 25th) is the season of Advent.
Advent (not New Year’s) is the beginning of the Christian Year and it’s considered a ‘little Lent.’ It’s quiet. It’s somber. It’s full of waiting and hoping. Just as there can be no real celebration of the Resurrection without the pain of Good Friday, there can be no real Christmas without the expectation of Advent.
St. Charles Borromeo writes,
“Each year, as the Church recalls this mystery, she urges us to renew the memory of the great love God has shown us. This holy season teaches us that Christ’s coming was not only for the benefit of his contemporaries; his power has still to be communicated to us all…The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace.”
Isn’t that beautiful? But that kind of preparation doesn’t just happen to us. We have a part to play. We have to offer this time to ready our hearts for Our Lord. If you really commit to observing Advent, your December is going to look very different.
For most American families, by the evening of December 25th, we have been eating, buying, Christmas music-listening, gift-giving, gift-receiving, tree-trimming, and cookie-baking for over a month. We’re sick to death of it: Get the tree out by the road! Take the decorations down the day after Christmas! Turn that blasted music off!
If you observe Advent, before Christmas Day arrives you might not be tree-trimming and you might not be holiday-cheering. But, you will know every verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by heart and you’ll be itching to belt out “Joy to the World!” on Christmas morning.
You’ll be reflecting, reading, praying, and waiting. And it will be a sacrifice. What will it look like for your family? You might decide to forego all the Christmas parties that happen during Advent. You might avoid the malls, which blare Christmas music starting in October. You might decide to keep gifts super simple, so that you’re not doing any scrambling during the quiet of Advent and can, instead, focus on waiting for Jesus. The practicalities of how you decide to observe Advent will vary from family to family. But if you do set aside this time as a holy preparation, it’s a surefire thing that in comparison to the bustle around you, your family will look quite odd.
Before you label me as the modern Ebenezer Scrooge, let me tell you a secret: We don’t delay the merry-making because we hate the Christmas season: we observe Advent because we love Christmas.
If we observe the quiet Advent Season of expectation, then on Christmas Day, it will feel like CHRISTMAS! And it lasts for twelve days. It’s a Christmas-lover’s dream come true! We’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting. We’ve been lighting candles and watching the wax melt a little lower each night. We’ve been setting up a Jesse Tree and remembering God’s story of Redemption for the world and how the Incarnation is the point on which it all spins. The tree-trimming, the carol-singing, the feasting, the celebrating — there are twelve whole days of it! We wait and wait through the long days of Advent like a pregnant woman in her last month. Then, when we celebrate the joyous Birth of Our Lord, it’s time to kick up our heels! And we do. We really do.
As you contemplate what Advent will look like in your home, consider this inspiration from St. Charles Borromeo:
“Beloved, now is the acceptable time spoken of by the Spirit, the day of salvation, peace and reconciliation: the great season of Advent. This is the time eagerly awaited by the patriarchs and prophets, the time that holy Simeon rejoiced at last to see. This is the season that the Church has always celebrated with special solemnity. We too should always observe it with faith and love, offering praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and love he has shown us in this mystery.”