Let Advent Be Advent

Rushing into Christmas festivities weeks before the holiday can make us lose sight of this season of preparation.

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I was thirtysomething and an editor at a Catholic family magazine before I learned that the "Christmas season" began, well, on Christmas day-and not on the day after Thanksgiving.

Sure, I was aware of a dim reality called Advent, and I noticed the purple vestments and solemn hymns in church that preceded Christmas by about four weeks. But my perceptions had been skewed. I grew up spending Advent waiting for the arrival of Santa Claus and the parcels in his sleigh, then moved on to an adulthood of spending Advent nervously wondering what on earth to buy for Christmas presents for my various relatives and their children-and then putting off shopping as long as possible, until I ended up on Christmas Eve doing all my shopping for everyone at Barnes & Noble, where the staff will gift-wrap for you. And the dread that came with the prospect of family gatherings and their accompanying quarrels was enough to nullify any sense of Christmas joy. As for now-well, it doesn't help being single in New York City with two deceased parents and the faint, abiding fear of spending Christmas alone with a newspaper and a muffin at Chock Full O' Nuts.

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But every year I try one thing or other to try to recover the meaning of both seasons-Advent, which often starts in late November, and Christmas, which starts on December 25 and continues well past New Year's Day, only really wrapping up on February 2, the Feast of the Presentation. I'd like to share a few of these ideas, in the hope that they'll cast a little supernatural light amidst the flickering electric candles of the shopping season.

It's worth pointing out as we start that Advent is a penitential season. It was once a "little Lent," during which fasting was required on Wednesdays and Fridays and weddings could not usually be celebrated. I first learned this from an attractive lady friend who'd grown up in a hyper-pious family; I asked her out for a date during Advent, and she informed me she was giving up alcohol and parties during those weeks. I was stunned: What was the point? She would miss all the Christmas parties? She nodded sadly, agreeing. "It's funny how when Christmas really comes, all the parties will be over."

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