You know how I know? Because I’m doing it wrong too. We all are.
Every year, people start complaining a little earlier about how Christmas starts earlier each year. I am one of those people; Christmas music and decorations should not begin before Thanksgiving. We should not mix our holidays, I believe. Why should I rush over one to get to the next? Particularly if, you know, I hate the next holiday. These past few weeks have easily been the busiest weeks of the year for me. I have barely had lunch breaks at work, and I’ve been clocking out in the evenings just to head to whatever Christmas circus event awaits me away from my job. It’s maddening, and it won’t let up until Christmas is over and gone, during which time I will have to scramble to get caught up. The music is everywhere. Seriously, it’s everywhere. Our neighbors across the street have a Christmas light display in their yard that plays music. It sounds like an ice cream truck parked in our yard and plays only the “Hallelujah” chorus and “Do You Hear What I Hear.” (Yes, I can f***ing hear it over the damn TV.) I watch our money stream out of our budget as we try to keep up with the gifts we need to buy everyone, including distant family members we see barely once a year. I go to holiday parties that are burdensome and decidedly unfun. I read How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the Grinch is my hero. If only I had the power to cancel Christmas. The only joy I feel is the joy that comes with imagining what my life will be like when Christmas is finally over.
In our culture, Christmas is a secular holiday. And frankly, I hate it.
But thankfully, Advent is not the same as the Christmas holiday season. Advent is an intentional period of waiting and preparing. Advent does not start until four Sundays before Christmas Day (which, as was the case this year, can be as late as a week after Thanksgiving weekend). I found out in seminary that Christmas carols like “Joy To the World” and “Silent Night” are not to be sung during Advent, but actually on Christmas Day through Epiphany. (I know, right? Who knew?) Advent says nothing about buying things. It says nothing about trees and lights. It says nothing about parties with silly “Dirty Santa” games. Advent is not about cheap, shiny things. It is the opposite of that.
Every year, I see and hear all kinds of people talk about “the reason for the season” and “keeping Christ in Christmas.” Less often do I see people actually doing this. And I’m just as equally to blame. My complete disdain for this time of year is proof that I’m just as caught up in the secular holiday as anyone else. I may hate it, but hate requires a lot of energy, and if I’m funneling my energy into railing against the secular holiday, then I’m legitimating it instead of investing my energy into the anticipation of Advent blessings.
Little Curly Fries has a peculiar play routine. Often when I take her into her room to play, she begins to pick every toy out of her toy basket and lay them methodically on the floor or in my hands. Then when every toy is out of the basket, she carefully replaces them, one by one. Then she repeats the process. The first time I noticed her doing this, I was puzzled. It seemed as if all she was doing was preparing to play, but never actually playing. Of course, it quickly became clear that the preparation was the play. For me to expect her to “play” with a toy in a particular way took away her own autonomy in initiating her own creative play. For her, there was a fun and joy in simply getting the toys out and putting them away, as if the anticipation of playing with the toys was more enjoyable than actually playing with them.
There is spiritual power in learning to enjoy the experience of waiting. We do this very poorly in our culture. We don’t like to wait. We want Christmas music playing in November, we want to open our presents, we want it now now now. But the spiritual message of Advent is to wait. We wait for Christ to be born; we wait for Christ to return. We’re always waiting. Hope is all about waiting, because we don’t hope for things we already have.
I can remember what it felt like to wait for our precious Curly Fries to be born. I remember Christmas of 2009: my spouse was three months pregnant and we were living in a tiny rental house while we waited to close on the house we were buying. It was cramped and drafty in that house, but I have such fond memories of living there. We were waiting. Waiting for a new home, for a new family, for a new life. I will never ever forget: my spouse sitting on the couch, which barely fit into the living room of this house; a two-foot Christmas tree, which was as big as this house could manage; I in the kitchen, cleaning up dinner; she calling out to me that she felt a kick, the first one. I’m glad we don’t live in that house anymore, but I treasure the experience of that year, because we knew how to truly wait. We were preparing for the coming joy of our child and the new life that would bring us. Yes, money was spent during this time; there were baby showers and parties and obligations. But the moments that had meaning, the moments I still cherish, are the moments when the two of us held each other and dreamed together and marveled at the tiny movements of this still-forming child.
This is Advent: holding one another and dreaming together. Playing in the preparation, getting the toys out of the box because the possibilities are greater in the imaginative moments of getting ready. I will admit I am bad at this, and maybe the fundamental reason I hate the secular Christmas season is because it reminds me of how hard Advent really is. I’d rather be grouchy about the stupid expectations of Christmas than to truly retreat from it into a posture of expectant hopefulness.
My sweet Jesus, how I need Advent. I need it as a human being, but I also need it as a parent. Our sweet Curly Fries is two-and-a-half now, and she’s already losing her innocent patience. When she wants something, she will demand it over and over, and punctuate her demands with a loud “NOW!” But still, sometimes when she plays, she loses herself in the experience of packing and unpacking her blocks. Or she keeps me from turning the pages of a book because she wants to stare at a picture. Or she savors a sucker for half an hour. Since we became parents, people have been telling us that it goes by fast. It most certainly does. But if there’s anything in my life that I’m able to slow down and relish, it is my child.
Christmas will come and (thankfully) go. It does every year, and I’ll survive this one. But Advent stays with us. Every day that I hold my child and dream for her, I keep the same hopeful preparation that Mary and Joseph kept for their own child, that the shepherds and angels and wise men celebrated in their own ways, that Christians have for centuries commemorated and observed. And today, in this insane culture of instant material possession, we need it more than ever. It is so hard, but I love that God wants us to stand against the rushing water and wait for the richness of possibilities. And I am trying – for Curly Fries, for Jesus, and for myself.