Advent is probably my second favourite part of the liturgical year besides the Easter Triduum. Apparently I’m all about the anticipatory periods. We love drawing out suspense. Some people put up trees the day after Thanksgiving. Others put them up Christmas Eve. We take a full three weeks or so on The Tree: Tree cutting, a week with a bare tree, a week with only lights, and the final decorations going up Christmas Eve. Streeeeetch. Mary and Joseph make the long and winding journey from the bookshelves to the mantle while the bible story behind tiny calendar doors lengthens in the increasing light from advent candles. A slowly growing crowd of shepherds gathers around an empty stable. Streeeetch. Oh we are Advent specialists. But sometimes, in the quest for the perfect Advent, we forget that the whole point of the waiting is to improve the coming celebration.
Don’t celebrate Christmas early! Truly experience Advent! Don’t jump the gun! All great advice as far as it goes. But if you are going to be a family committed to Advent, to saving Christmas for Christmas, then you must celebrate Christmas for as long as it lasts too. It makes no sense to care more about not celebrating something early than about celebrating it properly when it arrives. Yet how often Advent anticipation explodes into the glorious frenzy of Christmas Day and quickly dissipates into the crumpled wrapping and after dinner dishes of Christmas night. Four weeks of waiting for 24 hours of merriment.
Celebrating Christmas during actual Christmas is hard for the same reason waiting until Christmas is hard. Just as the stores are full of Christmas décor months early and the carols pipe through the PA speakers by the end of November, they are long gone before Epiphany. So keeping Christmas becomes as counter cultural as the avoiding of it was a few weeks earlier. In fact, it is much harder, because just about anybody can not celebrate. All you have to do is nothing. Don’t put up decorations. Don’t turn on the wrong season of music. Done and done. Celebrating, especially for 12 whole days, takes a great deal of work!
This is exactly what Advent is all about. It’s a time of preparation for the coming of Christ. Like Advent, pregnancy is a time full of excitement and anticipation, and actual work. The baby things must be arranged. The house must be cleaned. It’s a good idea to stock the freezer with meals for those exhausting days ahead. Visits from friends and family should be arranged. Certainly it is not yet a time of celebration but of breathless hope. Still, the focus is not merely on the fact that the baby isn’t here yet. Rather, the focus is on the baby that is to come.
Advent time should be employed similarly. Do not simply avoid the coming holiday in favour of the current season. Use the current season to anticipate, to look forward. Practically speaking, pull out the calendar. How will you mark the Feast of Stephen? The Feast of the Holy Family? The Feast of the Holy Innocents? The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God? Epiphany? The list above does not even including the spare days in between. Coming up with ways to keep Christmas strong can be daunting! Here is my second annual list of ideas to keep on keeping Christmas:
- During Advent, pre bake so many Christmas goodies that you’ll be in stock for as much of Christmas as you can. If you like we have cookie thieves in the house, some of them adult sized, you may need another baking day mid Christmas but it is wonderful to have a huge stock of different homemade treats. Pack that freezer, stuff those cookie jars!
- Don’t just plan one great Christmas dinner. Imagine a whole two weeks of everyone’s favourite things. It won’t always be complex. Maybe one day you’ll let the kids have pancakes for dinner (or Kraft Macaroni, the horror!). Just let your food reflect your mood. Comfort, togetherness, plenty.
- Cheat a little on the Christmas carols during Advent. It’s not really cheating it’s called practice. Get ready to know a good hymn for the particular feasts coming up. Coventry Carol for the Holy Innocents. Good King Wenceslas for the Feast of Stephen/Boxing Day. Maybe work on one in family harmony!
- Leave up the children’s stockings and put a tiny surprise in them each day of the 12 for a little morning treat. We plan for this during the Christmas shopping. Sometimes it’s just a piece of chocolate or a homemade cookie, other times a coloring book or other small present.
- Boxing Day, as the 26th is known in Canada, used to be a day to donate the things you no longer needed because of your Christmas haul or your left over Christmas feast to the poor. (Think: Opening chapters of Little Women.) Sadly now it’s just a big shopping day to get even more stuff! Consider donating or volunteering with a homeless shelter or food drive.
- On the feast of the Holy Family plan a family outing to celebrate togetherness and the model the Holy Family should be to all families. (Wow that’s a lot of family in one sentence. My apologies)
- On the Feast of the Holy Innocents we will celebrate the gifts of our two children in heaven and their impact on our lives. We will have a small birthday and donate to a charity in their memory instead of giving gifts. Similarly it would be a good day to volunteer or donate to a prolife charity.
- Sing Veni Creator Spiritus on Jan 1st for an opportunity for Plenary Indulgence. This is also the Feast of Mary the Mother of God and a Holy Day of obligation.
- Any or all of these days are great opportunities to get to Mass more than the bare minimum. Make a special effort to get there at least once more than you need to.
- Host an Epiphany party. Maybe with a tree burning bonfire. (Remember you left that tree up the whole 12 days right?) Spread your Christmas joy to the world that seems to have already moved on. Follow this link for an Epiphany house blessing for the year. Many parishes provide blessed chalk for this purpose.
One last point, whether you do all sorts of things to make Christmas last, or not many at all, the most important thing is to keep the spirit alive in your hearts. Be kind, patient, giving to everyone in your life, especially those with whom you share a home. In fact, if an extravagant programme of Christmas cheer would result in ill temper, keep it simple. Love is the key to a truly lasting Christmas, one that you can carry forward into the rest of your year.