It is that time of year again when I feel like every weekend is becoming packed with end of year recitals, food, displays, food and parties. The traffic gets unbearable and the malls are overwhelming. Holidays loom temptingly in front of us all. I want you to stop for a minute and to wonder - Why do we do all this?
Why the parties, why the shopping, why the food?
If you have been tracking with me over the last few months since I started my blog, you will know that I love asking questions - lots of questions. It is not enough for me to do something just because everyone else is doing it, or because it has always been done that way. I have to know why we do things, and it has to be meaningful for me. I think there are lots of questions we need to ask about Christmas. For example why do we insist on using snow to decorate when it has no relevance to a southern hemisphere Christmas? I feel a sense of ownership over Christmas and that as a Christian it should be a spiritual time of year that grounds us and nurtures our faith. However it feels like our consumerist culture has hijacked it and created a monster out of it.
For some years I dealt with this tension by the rather effective practice of denial - my husband and I simply went on holiday the week before Christmas and avoided the whole thing. When my son, Chickpea joined our family that was no longer such a viable option, and I found myself asking two key questions:
What experiences and memories of Christmas do I want Chickpea to have?
What do I want Chickpea to understand and know about Christmas?
I realised that I wanted him to have fun, but fun that wasn't focussed on things (gifts) and what he would get. I also wanted him to understand the significance of Christmas for those who follow Jesus and to experience it as a spiritual time of year.
The next step was then to decide what I could do that achieved those goals.
When he was little it was easy as I could control what he was exposed to, and it was simple, I told him that we were celebrating Jesus birthday. As he has grown and as I have experimented each year, I have settled on observing Advent rather than celebrating Christmas. It enables me to separate myself from the secular interpretation of Christmas and helps my family and I focus on the biblical story in which our faith is rooted and nurtured. It helps me reject the secularisation and commercialisation of Christmas but still gives Chickpea enough fun and celebration that he doesn't feel like he is missing out.
Advent comes from the latin word meaning to come and it is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas and looking forward to his coming again. It wasn’t until the end of the 6th C that Christians started observing advent. Originally it was a prescribed period of preparation (including prayer and fasting) for celebrating Christ’s birth. For Christians and churches following the liturgical calendar (a guide to all the celebrations and seasons of the church year) it is the start of the new year.
So observing advent helps me reclaim this time of year as a central sacrament in a yearly rhythm that is focused on the life of Jesus.
Our Advent celebration
I do include lots of traditions in our advent celebration, I just make sure that we all understand why we are doing it and that it is meaningful for us. Advent usually starts on the last Sunday in November, and finishes on the 24th of December, which means that we get in a whole four weeks of fun and festivity, (not just the 25 days of December). It helps take the focus off one single overwhelming day and helps us be actively mindful, joyous and generous throughout the whole 4 weeks that lead up to Christmas.
We begin Advent by hanging our decorations and I usually use purple as a decorating colour which is a symbol of Jesus royalty. Last year we started a tradition of hosting a strawberries, ice-cream and decorating afternoon tea to celebrate the first day of Advent. We always have a nativity scene and usually the figures travel around the house to arrive at the stable by Christmas Eve, baby Jesus appears on Christmas morning. Some years I decorate with Chrismons which are symbols for the names of Jesus. I have also used a Jesse tree ( The Jesse Tree) to re-tell the biblical story of which Jesus is the fulfilment. This year I have ordered this Jesse Tree book by Ann Voskamp (Unwrapping the Greatest Gift) so I will be able to share my reflections on that as I use it. I always have an advent wreath with 5 candles, 4 violet (for penitence), 1 pink (for joy) 1 white (for Jesus purity), and we light a candle, read the bible story and say a prayer each morning.
I also make a large advent calendar, and I place in each bag or cup, a chocolate or treat, a bible reading, something to discuss and something to do. Sometimes the things to do are celebratory, like going to see the lego Christmas tree, sometimes they are outward focussed such as bake cookies for the neighbours. I love the generous Christmas challenge and reflections at Advent Wonder I have found them very helpful in taking a more outward approach to Advent and helping us think of ways to give to others.If you want ideas for observing Advent with your family Sacraparental has a great wealth of ideas here Getting Ready for Advent
This year I want to invite you into our Advent journey and will be sharing a reflection each week based on the traditional Carmelite advent themes of waiting, accepting, journeying and birthing.
I challenge you to think through these questions as we prepare for the start of advent on Sunday:
What experiences and memories of Christmas 2016 do I want to have?
What do I want to understand, know and express to others about a Jesus centred Christmas?
May you all be mindful, joyous and generous this Advent.