When's the right time to start celebrating Christmas? Take the poll.
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.
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."
She was right-and had put her finger at the very heart of the problem. Indeed, the blizzard of shopping and premature celebration has turned the season of mounting expectation of the coming of Christ into something very different and rather sad. It brings to mind the description C.S. Lewis had for the Kingdom of Narnia while it lay beneath the spell of the White Witch. "Always winter, but never Christmas."
Without becoming as dour as some devout people I know-and let's face it, for most of us such a condition just isn't in the cards-I'd like to steal back a little of the old Advent spirit this year, in the hope of a straightforward emotional reward: a more significant Christmas.
A good start might be to reintroduce some element of fasting-if only to make up for the overindulgence that will inevitably occur later. To that end, I'm considering giving up meat on Fridays throughout Advent. Not much of a sacrifice, I know-especially since we're supposed to do that every Friday throughout the year, or else undertake "another act of charity or penance," according to an almost forgotten (but still official) decree of Pope Paul VI.
ut at least for Advent, I'm really going to do it. Perhaps I'll get into the habit and remember to honor the day of Christ's Passion during the rest of the year. (Probably not, but it's worth a try.) And I'm not going to wreck this micro-penance by going out for a nice dish of trout amandine or crawfish.
Veggie salads, fish sticks and eggs are going to serve as protein these four Advent Fridays. I'll try to remember the reason for my Advent penance-to remind myself of the darkness and desolation that covered our world before the coming of the Christ.
Since the whole point of preparing for the coming of Christ is to receive him, it makes sense to bring confession into the picture. Those of us who are out of the habit of regularly making use of this sacrament could render Advent penitential through-well, through Penance! How about dragging yourself (and a reluctant child or friend) to church each Saturday this Advent season? You might not think you need to go-in which case you almost certainly do. Keep in mind that Mother Teresa confessed once a week-because, she said, "I need to."
One old tradition that I hope to try this year is a special dinner for each Sunday of Advent. This makes a good occasion for buying a festive Advent wreath-one of the best traditions of that season that has managed to survive the premature Christmas hoopla. I'll look for real greenery for decoration, of course, and a nice set of candles, three purple and one pink. With a few friends or family members, I'll cook up a special Sunday feast, which we'll hold by the candlelight of the wreath. By lighting a single candle on the first Sunday of Advent, then adding another each week, we'll remind ourselves that the Light of Christ is beginning to dawn on the horizon. And we won't forget the prayers that go with the lighting of the candle, antique and lovely invocations of the Lord of Light amidst our darkness.
One Advent custom that I find both meaningful and convenient is to postpone putting up the Christmas tree and the decorations until just a few days before Christmas. Some families use a cumulative approach, adding a string of Christmas lights or a few decorations each Sunday of Advent but saving the really good stuff for Christmas Eve, a day that they divide between cooking and festively hanging lights everywhere. I can't think of a more vivid way to save up the Christmas joy for Christmas. Then, leave your decorations up a while-since you put them up late, you won't be tired of them. There's nothing more silly or sad than the sight of discarded Christmas trees lining the sidewalks on December 26. Instead, save up some festivity for all 12 days of Christmas. You might even choose to hold back 11 smaller gifts, so on each day until Epiphany you can experience the joy of giving someone a token of the season-thereby reminding yourself (and maybe the recipients, too) that Christmas continues. Indeed, if Christ is really present in our lives, it never has to end.