Even in mid-November, we are already several weeks into the cultural trappings of Christmas.
The moment Halloween is over, TV ads and store displays switch to Christmas; Christmas music on the radio will follow soon and, by the time Thanksgiving is over, the world around us will be in full Christmas swing.
For those of us living by a liturgical calendar and seeking to prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of Jesus, being surrounded by Christmas celebrations before Advent even begins can be frustrating. Advent is a liturgical season that is very easily lost in the shuffle of overcrowded schedules and extra-large to-do lists.
Meant to be a time of stillness and openness to receiving the marvelous mystery of the word made flesh, it can easily become a time even more frantic and full than the rest of the year. While there may be no practical way to slow our schedules, there are ways to make space in our hearts, to be intentional about anticipation and preparation, and to increase the longing we feel for Christ to be born in our hearts.
Setting aside even 15 minutes a day for prayer is an important first step to making space in our hearts. Making an Advent-themed playlist, praying the St. Andrew Novena or finding ways to separate Advent decor from Christmas decor might also help make the space more tangible. But I think we can find even more unexpected allies this Advent.
While our frustrations with the early and commercialized version of Christmas are valid, I think there is good to be found here, too.
Regardless of how incomplete and watered down the cultural celebrations can feel, the reality remains that once a year the whole world joins us in the celebration of the coming in the flesh of our Savior. That is a simple fact worth being happy about. The celebrations of Christmas around us may even be able to help us in our personal celebrations of Advent. The Christmas lights and cozy atmosphere (the theologically rich Christmas lyrics suddenly playing on secular radio stations) and all the bells and whistles of Christmas can be a way of allowing our emotions to feel the full excitement for the coming joy of the birth of Christ.
I believe we can hold these things in tension: we can hold our excitement for the tangible joy of Christmas as a motivation to prepare our hearts for it. We also don’t have to be afraid to engage with things that are good. We are always celebrating our Incarnate Lord and there is nothing wrong with rejoicing in that.
I’ve heard some Catholic parents voice concerns about making gift-giving a part of their Christmas celebrations, worried that it will train their children to be more into the materialistic side of Christmas. As someone who was raised Catholic — but also raised with gifts every Christmas — in my experience, the practice of gifts did not distract me from what was important about Christmas. On the contrary, the atmosphere of gifts and excitement trained me to have that same joy and excitement for the whole Christmas season and for receiving the Christ Child in my heart. That training has served me well into my adult life. Every year when Christmas rolls around, I still feel an overabundance of delight in the season which leads me to my knees, rejoicing in the humanity of Jesus and the warmth of his love for us.
All of this is not to say that Christmas is a happy time for everyone. For people who are carrying heavy burdens — some of which might even be related to Christmas — the stress of the season can be the dominant experience, mitigated by none of the joy. I want to make it clear: that experience of Christmas is also valid. All the trappings and lights and celebrations of the season point to something true about the beauty of the incarnation. But what is also true about Christmas is that it marks the point at which God came down into the full weight of our messiness. He was born in the dead of winter, at the lowest point of poverty, with not even a temporary home to stay in. He came to this world to be poor, to suffer and ultimately to die — all for the love of us. If the dark mess of Bethlehem is what you are experiencing this year, take courage — that is precisely the place that Jesus chose to come to.
Whatever your personal set of struggles and joys may be this season, Christ was made flesh for you. And I think that we can make the celebrations of Christmas around us, incomplete as they may be, a sort of training wheels for opening our hearts more fully to Jesus and learning to take delight in the Christ Child.