Christmas seems to creep into grocery stores, shopping malls, TV commercials, and radio stations earlier each year. As soon as Halloween is over (and sometimes even before), the aisles are full of red and green lights, discounted electronics, seasonal treats, and “bargain” prices. Despite this, I refuse to shop for gifts, put up a tree, or listen to holiday music before Thanksgiving. It’s always been that way—dinner before dessert, Thanksgiving before Christmas.
This year I spent Thanksgiving in Las Vegas, where my sister and I celebrated together, along with our respective boyfriends. The four of us spent all morning slicing and chopping and sautéing and baking, and then sat down to a meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie. (There was also baked brie with caramelized onions, marinated olives and sundry other delicious things thanks to so much culinary talent in such a small space). We lit a pumpkin-scented candle and went around the table sharing what we were particularly thankful for in the past year. Our meal was long and meaningful, with an honest dose of struggle shared along with joy. It was Thanksgiving as Thanksgiving ought to be.
And then—at the stroke of midnight—it wasn’t.
The pumpkin candle burned out and mistletoe was put in its place. Christmas music filled the room as we unpacked ornaments, snowflakes, a nativity set, and a tree. The next morning we flipped through ads, drank mint mocha coffee, discussed our wish lists, and talked about when we would be heading home for Christmas, when we would see each other again.
Initially it was all very exciting. I love Christmas. I always have. But somewhere between the shopping, the decorating, the dining, and the details the excitement turned to exhaustion. By the time I flew home Monday morning I was stressing out about what to buy for my niece, wondering when I would have time to put up my own Christmas decorations, and fearing that all the Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals had passed me by before I even knew I wanted them.
I thought back to the Advent services I attended growing up, many of which urged us to let go of the busyness of Christmas preparation in order to hold to a heart that awaited the coming Messiah. I had never understood how Christmas could be stressful. Now I do.
I did some thinking on the plane ride home—about Christmas and Advent and what it really means to celebrate a season. To celebrate is “to show happiness at an occurrence, mark an occasion, or perform a prescribed religious ceremony.” Certainly all of this happens in the weeks leading up to Christmas – we show happiness, play special music, and carry out annual rituals and traditions. Perhaps isn’t a question of if we’re celebrating so much as it is what we’re celebrating.
Maybe one of the reasons that we find it so difficult to quiet our hearts during Advent is that we’re already in the throws of celebrating Christmas. The season of Christmas doesn’t actually begin until December 25th. That’s the start of the season, not the end of it. The 20-odd days of Advent that lead up to Christmas aren’t set aside so that we can cram in as many seasonal parties and activities as possible, but so that we can prepare ourselves for the celebration that is yet to come. Much as Lent is a season during which we recognize our sinfulness and need for salvation, Advent too is a time of recognition, a time during which we recognize our desperate need for Immanuel – God with us – to actually be with us.
It is a season to excitedly anticipate, but it is also a time to quietly contemplate, to recognize our emptiness and to patiently wait to celebrate its completion. We humans aren’t very good at waiting. We don’t like the discomfort of unsatisfied desires – a condition that has given rise to countless new inventions that promise to “save you time” and “get you there faster.” In an instant-gratification society where you can get a meal in minutes and receive a text in mere seconds, the thought of waiting four weeks for Christmas seems interminable. But it is the act of waiting that makes the gratification rewarding. That is, if we’re waiting for the right thing.
In all of our getting ready for Christmas it can be challenging (and uncomfortable) to make space for Advent, to painstakingly carve out some quiet space, sit in it, and wait. But Advent ought to be celebrated as its own distinct season. We might do that by following a daily reading or pulling tabs off a chocolate-filled calendar; by turning off the radio and listening to the still space while driving to work in the morning; by going to a church, sitting in the pew, and reflecting on how we need God – not to help us with our Christmas shopping or to add more hours to our days – but to fill our hearts and redeem our lives. We can wait for the coming of Christ, long for the wholeness we need, and on Christmas we can better celebrate the satisfaction of that desire.