“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” proclaims the familiar song. That is surely an apt observation: it’s been looking a lot like Christmas since before Hallowe’en. Are you willing to do an easy experiment? Every time you think of it today, take a moment to look around and allow the sights and sounds of the season to come to the forefront of your awareness. What do you see and hear? Any of the following?
• Frantic, frazzled shoppers searching for the “perfect” gift for each person on their lists.
• People rushing to decorate their homes, send Christmas cards and letters, and get pre-holiday baking and cooking done in time.
• Loudspeakers in the mall, the grocery store, the bank, the restaurant, and any other place of business you can think of playing Christmas carols and songs.
• Lights, glitter, tinsel, boughs, bows and still more lights on stores, homes, street lights, even cars and buses.
• Promotions for an endless listing of Christmas plays, concerts, programs, and displays, to be crammed into holiday calendars already packed with office parties, church functions and family get-togethers.
To sum it all up, too much of everything – noise, activity, spending, consumption – squeezed into too little time and stretching thin too few resources, including time and energy. That’s a recipe for lethal levels of stress.
Now compare what you see when you look around with the nature of the season of Advent as originally intended: a time for personal preparation in silence, reflection, repentance, and almsgiving. Can you imagine anything more opposite? We’ve gotten to a place so far removed from the meaning of the season it’s hard to imagine how we’ll ever be able to get back. True, it takes courage to counter the culture of commercial Christmas, but even small changes in the right direction can have a big impact.
Where to start? Anywhere you can! A few ideas:
• Turn down or turn off the sounds of Christmas by turning off your car radio or TV. Avoid Christmas music until Christmas actually arrives. Instead, spend some time in quiet places in your house, at work, or at a place of worship.
• Set aside time for reading, reflection and meditation. Choose books, articles, or Scripture passages about the meaning of the festival of Christ’s birth: God coming to share life with us on earth.
• Wait to decorate your tree and home until just before Christmas. Schedule the parties and gatherings that you host during the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 – January 6) or later in January.
• Make time to volunteer with charitable organizations and/or donate to causes that provide for the needy during the Advent season. You can combine gift-giving and almsgiving by making donations in honor of your family members and friends.
If you can only make one change in your Advent practice this year, start with silence. Remember that the prophet Elijah at Mount Horeb could not hear God’s voice in a great wind, an earthquake, or a fire, but finally heard God speak through the sound of sheer silence (see 1 Kings 19:11-13)**. Replacing some of the holiday clamor with silence makes space for the Spirit who speaks in silence. It will also make a difference in your holiday observance that you will notice and appreciate, and may inspire friends and family members to make changes too.
Questions for Reflection
1. When and where can you set aside time and find a place for reading and quiet reflection? (HINT: The span of time need not be lengthy, and the best space may not be in your home.)
2. What one activity in your holiday schedule can you modify, reschedule or eliminate to reduce stress and create space for personal preparation? (HINT: Changes in family structure often necessitate modifying long-standing traditions, such as when an adult child marries and the in-laws’ holiday plans need to be incorporated. These are opportunities to simplify the season.)
* Organizations such as Heifer International and Episcopal Relief and Development pool modest gifts to make larger scale investments that improve health and self-sufficiency in Third World communities. Donating to such organizations is a good way to reset the tone of the season and offer a good example for younger people, and take care of some of the stress of gift-giving at the same time.
** He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”