Why & how I appreciate Advent

(This post was originally published in 2013 and appears here with minor revisions.)

I look forward to Advent every year. I actually look forward to rummaging through the candle drawer for the little purple votives (and I know there’s a pink in there somewhere). I like putting a purple-beribboned wreath on the front door, even when it’s a premade bow from the craft store tacked on to artificial greens. I like the app that puts daily Advent readings onto my tablet.  Lest you think I’m burnishing a haloI hasten to assure you that I don’t have one. I’m just a very plain human being who knows a good thing when she sees one. And Advent is decidedly a Good Thing.

AdventCharlie Brown never worked retail

I was a kid when A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on TV way back when.  In the show, Charlie Brown bemoans what he knows is an over-commercialized season. I still love that show after all these years, even though I know that the kid obviously never had to work retail to support his family.

Have you ever worked in retail? You know, one of those businesses that depend on the last two months of the year for a third of the year’s revenue? The kind that makes you listen to Christmas holiday music on every shift beginning right after ThanksgivingVeteran’s Day Halloween? The kind where you work until close of business on December 24, whereupon you collapse and want to sleep for a week?

I have. It was hardly involuntary servitude. I had great bosses and coworkers and customers. It was a new small business, featuring chocolate and coffee, and we all had the exhilarating and well-founded feeling that each thing we did could mean the difference between staying open and going under. December had to be huge for us. We all pitched in and pitched hard. Thank you, December shoppers. You made sure my bosses could pay me. That job was a blessing…and it absolutely drained me. When I locked the shop door at 3 p.m. on my first Christmas Eve there, I was ready to keel over. I hadn’t had time to shop for my husband and kids. I hadn’t done any advance prep for the extended-family dinner I was supposed to have ready by 6. I wanted to go to Midnight Mass but had no idea how I’d be awake for it. (In fact, I can’t remember if I got there.)

I wasn’t ready for Christmas. I had dropped Advent.

Don’t blame the cash register

Here’s where I could blame Commercialized Holidays or Secular Christmas for my post-retail letdown. I would love to point a finger at outside forces whenever December gets overwhelming.

That would be nonsense.

No one can “do” Advent for me. No one owes me four weeks off from real life so I can be bright-eyed & chirpy at Midnight Mass. I’ve learned to treasure Advent not because it makes me feel good, but because if I am to celebrate the Incarnation, I want to do so with fresh reverence and joy each year. I can’t pick that up from someone else, although being amid fellow believers in Christ’s divinity during the season is a big help. Others can influence me, but they can’t choose for me. I choose to observe Advent.

Frankly, I have to make the choice, or else it ain’t happening. There’s work (by the way, have you hugged your local retail worker today?). There’s parenthood. I spent many years with my December calendar full of school concerts and projects. There are all the cultural gems that would be lovely the week after Christmas, except that everything seems to be jammed into the first three weeks of the month. Seriously – wouldn’t it be nice to see the local dance school put on excerpts from the Nutcracker after December 25? Why does the community Messiah singalong have to be over before December 10?

We live in a country and a culture where Christmas ends on December 25 instead of beginning there. I can whine about that, or I can concentrate on living the Advent season.

Cultural subversion

Undermine American Christmas culture. You know you want to. Wouldn’t be the first time you stood against the tide – not if you spend any time defending the value of human life from its beginning to its end. Compared to that, celebrating Advent is a piece of cake.

I just got off the phone with a friend who apologized for being unable to join me at a political event tomorrow. Her reason? She’s leading an Advent prayer group at her church. There’s a countercultural woman in action. God bless her. The political event will be poorer for her choice, while the community as a whole will be richer. That’s a net gain.

I will do all I can to affirm this unique and irreplaceable season. I’m preparing to celebrate the Nativity of Christ, for crying out loud. The Incarnation! Taking the time to let that sink in is perhaps Advent’s greatest imperative. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. If that fact doesn’t rock my world every time I contemplate it, I’m a spiritual orphan.

The blogosphere is full of Advent material, most of it provided by people far wiser than I. I’ll simply list a few things I do during the season. Whether they make you think, laugh, or just roll your eyes, I offer them for what they’re worth.

  • I look for good reading and good praying, which are inseparable as far as I’m concerned. Absolute bare-bones minimum, no matter how full the day, is five minutes morning and evening. On some December days, the calendar is so full that prayer tends to slide off the agenda. I keep handy The Essential Advent and Christmas Handbook from the Redemptorists. It includes Scripture readings, prayers, and suggestions for practical activities.
  • I look for a decent Advent calendar. I refuse to get one that’s Santa-themed, unless Santa is depicted kneeling in prayer in the snow. I think St. Nicholas might be with me on that one.
  • I have a bracelet made of braided parachute cord, in shades of purple and rose. I wear it to remind myself of the season, even in the midst of everyday activities. This will probably prevent me from getting any offers to model in Vogue, but I’ll cope.
  • When my parish offers an Advent program, I try to attend. At best, I learn something and I benefit from being amid my sisters and brothers in faith. At the very least, I devote an evening to a public observance of Advent, thus poking in the eye all the forces that made Charlie Brown sad.
  • We put Advent candles on my family’s dining table. It’s not an elegant display: the base is an old plate, a neglected wedding gift from decades ago. The candles are from the grocery store, and the holders are from the dollar store. It’s the Advent-candle equivalent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. All the more reason to love it.

So hello, Advent. Make yourself at home. I’ve missed you.