I suppose it’s a commonplace now to be dismayed by how early Christmas merchandise arrives in stores, but it bugs me nevertheless. Especially now that I have a preschool-age child who notices everything. It’s annoying to have to explain that yes, Halloween was yesterday, and yes that’s a Christmas wreath hanging in the window at the grocery store. But no, it’s not Christmas. It’s not even close.
As annoyed as I get, though, every time we pass a Christmas display in the first week of November, I am grateful for this: those retailers trying to wring as much shopping out of me as possible are actually prompting the opposite. The egregious commercial indulgence of a two-month-long Christmas season has elicited, in our family, a sustained attempt to celebrate Advent. Each time I explain to my daughter that no, it’s not Christmas yet gives me a valuable moment to teach her about waiting — waiting for Jesus, for our longed-for redemption, for his coming again in glory. So, um, thank you, Target?
Advent is such a beautifully rich season in the life of the church. It’s the season where we mark time, where we are most aware of our state as waiting pilgrims in transit between the old and the new. In the scripture lessons in the Book of Common Prayer (the liturgical resource for my own tradition), we wait with Israel for the Messiah and are reminded of our own need for the Savior. We wait with Christians who have passed before us, and with the whole pilgrim Church, for the resurrection and renewal of our bodies and minds. And as we mark time until the celebration of Jesus’ birth, we eagerly await and prepare ourselves for his Second Coming in glory.
Did you know that Advent is actually a fasting season in the life of the Church? After Lent, it’s the second great fast of the church year. How fitting for a waiting people, though it’s a challenge in 21st century America: to spend December like the vigilant virgins preparing for the Bridegroom, so that when Christmas comes (and Christ himself, someday) we are ready to receive him with joy! In fact, that’s my real objection to the American retail construction of Christmas. The celebrating happens without the waiting and preparation, and so it becomes an empty and frequently joyless exercise. Fasting in December may seem counterintuitive and Scrooge-y, but in fact it enables us to embrace the celebration of Christmas with genuine rejoicing.
So what will this look like in our family? Well, in the upcoming weeks, Haley and I are going to have some reviews of some Advent and Christmas books – and if you’re new to marking Advent as anything more than the get-ready-for-Christmas marathon, simply reading and talking about waiting for Jesus is a great way to start. I plan on reading one book in particular – The Jesse Tree – with my daughter, and discussing how Jesus is the One Israel and the world have been waiting for ever since Eden.
We’re also going to be fasting as a family, and if you’ve never tried this with small children, I encourage you to give it a shot. We keep it fairly simple: we’ll be fasting from sweets during Advent, and then celebrating during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany with baking and treats. After dinner, in place of dessert, we’ll light an Advent candle and have some special songs and prayers. It’s a simple way to set aside this season as special, as different, as a time of waiting. And my prayer is that it will prepare us – and your family as well – to meet Christ with joy!