By Sybil MacBeth
Author, The Season of the Nativity: Confessions of an Advent, Christmas and Epiphany Extremist
I cannot remember exactly when it happened, but I think it was in a large high-end mall in Cleveland, Ohio. Decked in a spectacular array of shiny foil, colorful ornaments, and thousands of lights, the mall was filled with focused holiday shoppers. My intent was to be one of them. It was early December and I had not purchased a single gift for anyone other than my two young sons. I joined the flow of people shopping their way from one end of the mall to the other. On my second or third pass with no packages to show for all of the walking, my nausea grew. I thought, “I can’t do this anymore.”
My path to becoming an Advent Extremist came not only from my incompetence as a Christmas shopper and gift giver but from my hunger for a more meaningful, less chaotic entrance into Christmas. After weeks of frantic shopping, decorating and baking, December 25th arrived with huge expectations and an enormous letdown. A choice loomed in front of me. I could rail against the culture and spend December being reactive and grumpy or I could choose a saner, meatier Advent for myself with time and practices for spiritual reflection and preparation.
Advent, the almost-four week liturgical season before Christmas, is an invitation to prepare for the birthday celebration of Jesus, of his first coming. Advent is also the time to ponder the Biblical predictions of Jesus’s second coming at the end of time. The preparatory weeks before Christmas are a juicy paradox of playful waiting for a great party and serious contemplation of death and final judgment.
Here are five ways to celebrate an Extreme Advent. They are both playful and serious, stressing the Advent themes of day-by-day waiting, watching, and preparing our hearts for Jesus. Since families are busy and Christmas preparations will sneak in, most of these activities can fit into small bytes of time. Individuals or families can do them alone or together.
1. Delay the appearance of the Christmas Tree. Wait as long as you can to put up a tree. December 15 might be a reasonable goal. This date might not seem very radical, but in my neighborhood, most trees are lit and decorated on Thanksgiving weekend. If your family protests the later date, try some other alternative tree decorations:
*Put the tree up early, but leave it bare. The undecorated tree is a visual clue of something unfinished, of something yet to come.
*Cover the tree with purple, blue, or white lights.
*Hang Advent words on the tree—words from Isaiah, Matthew, Luke—“prepare, wilderness, wait, darkness, repent, angel, conceive.…” Use strips of paper with clothespins or luggage tags with string or wire to attach them to the tree.
*Treat the tree as a giant Advent calendar. Each family member can add an ornament or two each day from November 30 until Christmas.
The later the tree is decorated, the less likely it is to end up on the curb on December 26.
2. Experience the expanding darkness of December.
*Talk about the contrasting Advent themes of light and darkness. Read Isaiah 60:2.
*Go into a dark closet or a basement. Spend a few minutes in the dark space alone or with family members. Have a minute of complete silence in the blackness. Hold the hand of small children. Ask family members what they notice in the darkness and the quiet. Turn on a flashlight or light a candle and notice again.
*Sing songs in the dark.
*Take a nighttime walk and look at the stars.
3. Create Advent calendars for each family member to use.
Advent calendars are not just for kids. A simple daily discipline for adults and children is to write and/or doodle in the spaces on a calendar. Use a store-bought calendar for November and December or create your own template by hand or on the computer.
*Use the calendar as a visual prayer list. Pray for a different person each day. Pray with words or just doodle as you are silent and offer the person into God’s care.
*Write an Advent word in the space. Think about what the word means and then be still and let it speak to you. Draw or doodle as you think and listen.
*Use a legal envelope for each day of Advent. Write the date on the envelope and invite each person in your family to write/draw/pray on the envelope. Collect loose change or dollar bills from each day and seal it in the envelope at night. At the end of Advent donate the money to a charity you choose as a family.
4. Make Advent visual.
* Flaunt purple (or the alternative Advent color, blue). Keep purple candles, lights, paper chains, and napkins within eyeshot. This is a clear reminder to you, your family, and your neighbors that this is still Advent and not Christmas.
* Create an Advent wall in your house or apartment. Take down pictures or paintings and clear a space for family hangings. Tape your progressive Advent calendars to the wall. Use sticky notes and write a daily Advent word to grow your vocabulary. Doodle prayers for people on the sticky notes. Download pictures of angels or Advent characters from the Internet and tape them to the wall.
*Designate a room or corner of a room as a quiet place. Provide meditation books, purple candles, pictures of the Annunciation, or appropriate picture books.
*Introduce children to the quiet place with an old-fashioned 3-minute egg timer. Challenge them to be completely silent as they watch the grains fall. Offer this as a fun rather than required activity. If you don’t have a visual timer, ask them to close their eyes or give them something to look at: some seasonal artwork, an Advent wreath, or a battery-operated candle.
* Learn a short Advent prayer to say over and over as an exercise in conscious breathing and “praying unceasingly.”
“Come, Lord Jesus, come.” “Light of the world, show me the way.”