Advent Longing and Christmas in America

advent and christmasIf you observe the church calendar in your church, or in your home, the coming season is one of the strangest and most difficult to navigate.

In America, Christmas season begins in full on Black Friday. Some radio station has had 24-hour Christmas playing since November 1, and even the one-holiday-at-a-time snobs will listen to it now. We’ll spend the next month wearing ugly Christmas sweaters, decorating Christmas trees, and going to more parties than we may have attended for the whole eleven months prior. By the time December 25 comes, we’ll have had so much sugar and spent so much money, that we’ll already be thinking about how we need to cut back (on the calories and the spending) come January.

Meanwhile, in the church, Advent season is beginning. It’s a season of longing, waiting, restraint. We’ll sing “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” remembering those believers who came before us, who longed for a Savior to come. And we’ll recognize that we still await a Savior, Christ who will return to restore a broken world. For us, Christmas season begins on December 25, just when the world around us is ready to put their Christmas trees on the curb. For us, Christmas songs begin just as they’re going off the radio. The babe goes in the manger, and we begin to sing, “O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!”

While the world around us has its most festive season––and a time often derided for its excesses––the church has one of its most subdued seasons.

For my family, the church’s Advent has been a good balance to the culture’s Christmas. We celebrate Christmas for the good opportunities to gather with family and friends. We wear Christmas sweaters, watch Elf, and decorate trees. But we’re also learning to celebrate Advent, in fact to let Advent be our primary season.

Rather than sharing about our own practice here, I want to share my friend Sarah Jackson’s story. Sarah has reflected on this more deeply, and made more change, than we have. When we met Sarah, she loved that holly jolly Christmas time more than anyone we knew. She usually had a June or July breakdown and had a solid week of “Christmas” (cookies, music, maybe even some decorating). But the church’s calendar has changed, and is changing, her practices. I hope her account is as helpful to you as it was to me…

From Sarah:

A shift took place a number of years ago for me––it was the Advent season of 2009. Before this year, I was the merriest of all the little elves at Christmastime. My family had numerous fond traditions around decorating, baking, tree trimming, gifting, etc. that I was happy to make my own. The months of November, December, and half of January were consistently the happiest months of the year for me––full of sparkle, music, surprises, parties, and general coziness.

But in December of 2009, I was mentored into the celebration of Advent by a woman named Julie Tennent. Her 4-week study opened my eyes to the themes of Advent that are similar to Lent: Waiting. Darkness. The climax of longing at its brink of despair, as it is about to give birth to an epiphany of unexpected Hope. December became mostly Advent, and Christmas became similar to Easter. The overall “coziness” of the cultural holiday was overshadowed by the earth-shattering memory of the one true God, as a real son, in a mother’s arms.

Since that year, I’ve been conflicted. Even sad. I want my old cozy! I want 24/7 holiday radio! and gingerbread pajamas! and Home Alone! I want a marshmallow world, and sugar cookies! I want reindeer lights! But I’m different now, and the meaning behind the tradition is different. I’m still figuring out what to do. We still have some cultural traditions that are cozy, but I admit my excitement about them isn’t the same as it used to be (and sometimes I get sad about that). Scaling back on some things has brought balance to our lives. I’m rarely stressed in December, now that I’m not shopping and baking and decorating as hyper-actively as I used to. But I also have a sense of missing out on the cultural merriment sometimes.

The reason I long to properly celebrate Advent is in order to fully appreciate the real Christmastide. But it’s December in America! It’s hard to fast at a cookie exchange, or to darken the house when the neighborhood is lit up, or to sit in reflective quiet while jingle bells are ringing. I am ready to shout CHRISTMASTIDE!!!!! from the rooftops on December 25, but Target is putting out its Valentine’s Day candy. Everyone is “over it” by the time the church is ready.

And yet… Advent is about cultivating longing. So as much as I can, and more every year, I will join the historic church by putting off comfort and joy until its proper time, to let the expectancy build for the best and truest celebration of Christmas (..and Epiphany…and Lent…and Easter…and Pentecost…)

4 thoughts on “Advent Longing and Christmas in America

  1. What a great post. Thanks Teddy and Sarah (& Julie Tennent) for the reminder of the significance of Advent.

    May I suggest a compromise? I’ve gotten into the habit of re-reading Dickens’ Christmas Carol each year. Sometimes I don’t read the whole thing, but often I do. It is truly a masterpiece, of course, but it also has the advantage of putting me in the mind of the best parts of our cultural celebrations, while pointing with some degree of precision to the true meaning of Advent and Christmastide. Dickens doesn’t get everything right, of course. He was enamored with the new spiritualism of the late 19th century. But you can read around some of that. It helps me, at least, focus on the meaning behind all this glitz, glamour, and superficiality.

    One more thought – this is my first Christmas without my father. Dad loved Christmas more than anyone I know, and my way of dealing with the loss is to pick up his mantle, and thoroughly enjoy Christmas for what it is – a time to reflect on the coming of Immanuel, and spend time with family and friends.
    Have a meaningful Advent, and then, a Merry Christmas. / Bill

    1. Thanks, Bill. I don’t think I’ve ever read Dickens’ Christmas Carol. This is a good prompt. I’m going to pick it up next week.

      Picking up your father’s mantle… that’s a great way to remember him and also celebrate the best of the season. I hope that comes with lots of good memories this year, especially.

      1. Yeah, another warning about Christmas Carol. The spiritualism of the 19th century is where the idea of ghosts came from (ghosts of past, present, and future Christmases); so there’s that. But underneath the whole story is an essential Christian message that is profound in its own right, once you read it in that light. Don’t expect too much from it, but just enough to make it a worthwhile read, even after 170 years.

  2. Will you follow this post up with how this is done practically? I’d love some examples of how a family makes Advent more prominent in their daily lives during the holiday season. Thanks! Tim

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