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Celebrating Advent at Christmastime

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It is difficult to avoid worn-out clichés and stereotypes during the holidays. I’m sure I’m not even the first writer to say so! Phrases like “hustle and bustle,” “over-commercialization,” and “the real meaning of Christmas” leap into my mind, unbidden, crowding out any original thoughts.

That’s the point of holidays, isn’t it? We mark the new year not because anything special happens then, but as a touchpoint, a time to gather our thoughts, mark a point in time, and make plans for the next twelve months. We could just as easily have picked August 16 or April 4 to do that. We celebrate birthdays as a way to tell each person that, no matter how much we ignored them or argued with them for the last twelve months, at least once a year we think of them enough to make a phone call or send a card. Falling into familiar patterns is what holidays are for, and much of the fun of getting married and beginning a family is combining a bit of each spouse’s holiday traditions into a new hybrid set of traditions.

Christmas has always been my wife’s favorite holiday, while I’ve favored Independence Day for reasons I can’t quite explain. Birthdays were never a big event in my family, while my wife celebrates them ruthlessly. Together, we’ve built traditions that will last until our children each pair off and adapt them to their own families.

One of the new traditions we’ve established is the celebration of Advent. It’s an old tradition in the Christian church, actually, stretching back to the fifth century or earlier, but it’s new to us. For us, Advent helps to satisfy many of the common complaints about the modern celebration of Christmas: we may still overspend on meaningless trifles for December 25, or exert too much energy pursuing things that won't matter by the new year, but with Advent we'll have at least four Sundays of slowing down, sitting down, and talking together about what is important to us as a family.

Advent begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, and lasts until Christmas Eve (The start date and duration is different for those in Eastern Orthodox churches). In 2008, the Advent Sundays are November 30, December 7, December 14, and December 21. In 2009, they'll be November 29, December 6, December 13, and December 20.

The word advent means “coming,” and that is what we consider during the Advent season. We light a series of candles in an Advent wreath, pray, read from the Bible, and talk about what we’re to consider each week. We start by remembering that God’s people once waited for the Messiah, whom we believe was born on Christmas Day. We, too, look forward to the advent of that same Messiah, whom we believe will one day return. We continue each week developing that theme, with different readings and different “assignments” for the week. There are excellent web resources for Advent, though we have also relied on a simple book called Family Nights for Advent and Christmas.

Setting aside some time on Sunday afternoons is easy for us. What’s more difficult is spending time together every night, but we try, with a daily chapter from Tabitha’s Travels. Of course, sometimes that means three chapters to make up for missed days!

Each year, Halloween seems to mark the point at which life shifts into a different gear. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hannukah or Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Day — it’ already so much! What room is there for yet another holiday this time of year?

Advent doesn’t require giving gifts, and doesn’t rely on any “things” other than a Bible and, optionally, candles and a wreath. Advent doesn’t depend on the stock market or your mortgage. Advent doesn’t require any changes to your other holiday traditions, other than setting aside a short time once a week. Still, we’ve found that taking that time, and changing our focus, even briefly, helps us to avoid some of the excesses of consumerism — but not all!

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  • The Advent years were tied to the Catholic years in our house, but I remember them even though I was still quite young. Fondly. When the fam shifted from Catholic to Protestant, Advent went with it. Because of that, I always tied one to the other and never looked back.

    I wrote a bit about my ambivalence towards the holidays today and how I wish it were different. i think it’s great that your family has discovered a way to combat a bit of that.

    I also love that your wife celebrates birthdays ruthlessly. That’s just funny. Well done, sir.

  • Josh, I think I might have been dimly aware of Advent — MAYBE — as a younger child, but dismissed it as a Roman Catholic thing. Turns out the modern trend of Advent was started by Martin Luther, though, and you don’t get any more Protestant than that!

    In any case, I remain thoroughly and whole-heartedly Protestant, and enjoy Advent heatedly.

    I think adverbs add spice to sentences, and “ruthlessly” is honestly the best way to describe her passion for birthdays. 🙂

  • As a kid I have fond memories of opening up the advent calendars one day at a time, especially if it was one of the kind that had a piece of chocolate behind every door…

  • Ah, advent calendars. Is that one of those things I was supposed to stop doing when I grew up? Oops!

  • Very, very nice Phillip. Thanks for the simple reminder of not only what’s coming, but what we have already and not just in December, but always.

    This inspires me to dig out a great book called How Far to Bethlehem by Norah Lofts. It’s out of print, but I was able to find one on the ‘net. I think I might start reading it to the kids at our Youth Ministry.