Can I make a confession? When December rolls around I feel more than a twinge of panic. There’s so much to do. Somehow it all gets away from me and I spend the month playing catch-up. Decorations to unpack, presents to buy, cookies to bake, parties to attend. I’d like to say that I’m reveling in the wonder of the season, but mostly I’m trying to keep all my plates spinning.
The irony is that, traditionally, December was not a season of festivities but fasting; not running but reflecting; not parties but preparation. The season of Advent—those four weeks that precede Christmas day—were set aside by Christians to prepare our hearts and minds for the joyful holiday season to come.
The song says we “need a little Christmas”—but I need a lot of Advent.
Yet we modern folks often can’t just opt out of the December rush in favor of a more contemplative Advent. Our children are singing in the school programs. Our bosses invited us to the party. Our families is counting on us to do the shopping and create the traditions.
But adding Advent activities to our busy schedules will clearly not resolve this tension either. None of us need more to “do.”
If you’re looking for ways to infuse the practice of Advent into what you’re already doing this season, you’re not the only one. Here are a few ways to practice peacefully:
Acknowledge the darkness.
The days are short and the nights are long this time of year. There’s a reason we celebrate the light coming to the world in December. Though the calendar says “be of good cheer,” give yourself permission to acknowledge that there is darkness outside, as well as in the world and often in our own hearts. Give yourself time to reflect on your year and be honest with yourself and God if it’s been a tough one.
The crazy-wonderful news of Advent is that our promise as Christians is Jesus, the Light of the world, sacrificed His life for us while we were still lost in darkness. Light the candles around your house, or plug in the tree, and reflect on how powerful even the smallest light is. They don’t dispel the darkness, but they do wonderfully transform it. In the same way, acknowledge the traces of “light” you recognize in your life amidst the darkness.
Serving others is an important aspect of this seasons, but if you’re already stretched too thin, it doesn’t have to consume your schedule. If you have more money than time, consider buying a gift for a local gift drive. More time than money? Volunteer one afternoon at a local Christmas event, or stop by the neighbor’s house to say Merry Christmas. No time or money? Remember that all this work you’re doing for friends and family is a service to them. Pray for each person you’ll see this year before the holiday reunions. Serve them when they’re in the same living room as you, knowing it will likely be another calendar year before you see them again.
Invite a shut-in, a family who recently lost someone, or an immigrant or refugee to join you for the holiday feast. Adding a few more plates and chairs won’t be much extra work, and it might mean the world to the person you invite.
It’s hard to imagine fasting with all these cookies around and parties to attend! But the spirit of Advent can be observed in ways that simplify December life. Take a media fast for a few days (no TV for example, or Facebook). Or choose one day a week to prepare just a simple (but nutritious) dinner for your family, like rice and beans—and reflect on how much bounty we have.
Listen to Music.
December is already full of music. Occasionally choose an album that reflects on Advent (The Brilliance has a great one, and so does Ordinary Time). Music can create a haven of peace in a chaotic season.
When December 25 rolls around, celebrate. Our light has come into the world. Don’t rush to take the tree down by January 1, but consider just enjoying the quieter days that end the year by keeping it up for the full 12 days of Christmas.
Whatever you do, don’t let celebrating Advent add to your crazy December to-do list! By offering a slight change of focus, Advent just might save us from December panic this year.
Catherine McNiel writes about the creative and redemptive work of God in our real, ordinary lives. She is the author of 'Fearing Bravely: Risking Love for Our Neighbors, Strangers, and Enemies,' 'Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline' and 'All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God's Presence in His Messy, Abundant World.' Catherine studies theology while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden.