Saturday, November 24, 2012

Exchanging anticlimax for hope

"Anticlimactic."  My fourth-grade teacher used this word to answer a question I posed, with some urgency, when I was ten years old. "What do you call it," I had asked, "when you look forward to something with all your heart, and then it isn't as good as you imagined?"

I asked this question with reference to Christmas. As a child, I would have told you that Christmas was my favorite time of year, but really, I loved everything about Christmas except the actual calendar days deemed "the holiday season." Beginning in July, I would count down the days until December 25, and from the age of six until I was ten or eleven, I recorded multi-hour Christmas "radio" programs on cassette tapes. I pored over children's biographies of Saint Nicholas, read about Christmas customs in foreign lands, and memorized the lyric to every carol I could find. However, the actual observance of Christmas rarely satisfied my hopes for the holiday. I often felt that the Christmas I imagined--a world of starlight and midnight journeys and strange friends--existed in a realm of time that eluded my December 25 countdown. A similar feeling hit me in college, when I realized that I only used the word "home" to designate elsewheres--places I was not.

My Yuletide discontent is hardly unique, but it lies behind the practical decision I decided to share with you all tonight. I have decided, for the first time in my life, not to decorate a Christmas tree.

Oh, it will go up eventually, but I am forestalling my typical Thanksgiving-is-over-let's-have-Christmas customs. Thanksgiving came unusually early this year, so early that the Sunday following is not even the first Sunday in Advent according to the liturgical year. Even if Thanksgiving were later, however, I would be waiting to put up my tree for the sake of experiencing Advent.

For several years I have been trying to understand what Advent means, and how observing it might enrich our celebration of Christmas by curtailing the annual surfeit of trees-lights-films-and-fa-la-la.
No tree yet.

A Baptist born and bred, I first heard of Advent in high school, when I discovered Plough Publishing's semi-annual reader. They published readings from writers throughout Christian history who delved into Advent as a time of expectation and repentance--two essential conditions for joy. (The best of these reading were later published in Plough's wonderful anthology Watch for the Light). It was not until last year, however, that I realized how precious this season of consecrated waiting could be (read those reflections here). I was waiting for job news, waiting to finish my dissertation, waiting to see what vision I might rightfully build for the next season of my life.

This year, I am happy in a wonderful job, finished with my dissertation, and, most days, waiting for nothing more urgent than a letter from a friend. Nevertheless, I am praying for ways to be intentional in my celebration of Advent. Delaying the appearance of my Christmas tree might seem like a small act of defiance, but my hope for this little sacrifice is strong.

I enjoyed the privilege of growing up without Daylight Savings Time (thanks, Indiana), and even after ten years I still despise being jolted from one season to the next with the time changes. I miss the gradual descent of the sun toward the winter solstice, and the slow lengthening of days throughout the spring. In the same way, I do not wish to fling myself from one holiday to another. I still have spiced pork and maple pie from Thanksgiving to enjoy. The pear trees are more intensely vermillion this week than last -- why must I hurry into mass-produced visions of a Currier & Ives December?

And so my window displays no tree -- not yet. I will deck my halls, but slowly, and with care. Next Sunday the Advent wreath will come out, and perhaps I will cut a sprig of holly from the bush outside my office. Then the crèche (but the magi must stay across the room until Epiphany). Then the music: first "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," with triumphant carols waiting just a little longer.

When I watch for Advent in this way, resisting rushed and reckless merriment, Christmas no long disappoints my visions. Rather, attending to Advent reminds me that every day of our terrestrial calendars--including December 25--is part of the universe's long winter, and that all creation still moans, waiting for its full redemption.

Are you from a religious tradition that observes Advent? What, if anything, do you do to make the weeks preceding Christmas a time of repentance and expectation?


  1. I too erected no Christmas tree this weekend and it did have something to do with humbug. I wish the Grinch had successfully stolen Christmas. Actually he did. Seuss's ending is pure fantasy. No loot-no celebration!

    I did not do the tree though mainly in a (vain I know) attempt to honor Advent. I' m not sure we can do much with Advent in our society but I have started celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas snd pretty much letting the rest of the "Christmas" stuff be yhe secular mess it is. This has some potential i think.

  2. I love advent, its a wonderful season of preparation. As a Catholic, advent has always been a huge part of tradition from when I was really little. One tradition was every Sunday my family would gather around the advent wreath and sing "O Come, O Come Emanuel" with some other prayers before lighting the candle. Also we would set up the nativity, but we would not add Jesus to the nativity until Christmas Eve. My church gives us a daily devotional for the season, which is nice, and for advent all the area Catholic churches have a reconciliation service.

  3. The church I grew up in always had an Advent wreath and a special part of the service to light the wreath each week. This year, I have my very own Advent wreath, Advent readings, and Advent playlists/Christmas playlists on youtube. I grew up with and have my own advent calendar, to celebrate the anticipation of Christmas.