Celebrating liturgical traditions is no longer part of our shared culture—although shadows of it remain. This makes liturgical living far more difficult today than in yesteryear because setting our clocks by holy time is now decidedly counter-cultural. This becomes particularly apparent during the season of Advent.
Stores are decked out in holiday bling, Christmas music blares in every restaurant, and the hustle and bustle is in full swing all around us. Meanwhile, the Church is calling us to slow down and enter a season of reflection.. Marketers promote the gift-buying season leading up to December the 25th as the Twelve Days of Christmas, but traditionally those days of celebration don’t begin until Christmas Day and don’t end until Epiphany. When we’re supposed to just begin kicking up our heels, most of the world is already winding down the holiday, dragging their trees to the curb, and putting red and green M&Ms on the clearance aisle.
So what’s a Catholic to do? Especially if you are, like me, a convert and just beginning to embrace the liturgical year into your family traditions? How do we observe Advent faithfully when we live in a culture that doesn’t? When we’re obliged to attend parties and events during the quiet season of preparation? Or when extended family don’t share our faith and traditions clash?
I think the key to observing Advent is intentionality and charity.
First for intentionality, I think we have to remember that as Catholic families, we are responsible for being thoughtful about how we ought to live out our faith. We must be proactive about nurturing a family culture that centers around the Church and that includes how we observe the liturgical year. We can (and should) live differently during this Advent season than the shopping malls and television networks tell us we should. But it will take some thoughtful planning.
One way to save the celebrating for Christmas and maintain the tone of expectation during Advent is to avoid places that are already in full Christmas swing and avoid unnecessary holiday events.That might mean being more intentional about Christmas shopping before Advent, ordering online (you can still support small businesses through shops like etsy), or perhaps simplifying your gift-giving.
To nurture the quiet reflection of the season,carefully protect your family evenings. Instead of rushing around, choose to stay in when you can. Instead of going to see a Christmas movie, set up a family board game night. Really slow down to enjoy dinner conversation and connect with your loved ones. For extroverts like me, practicing stillness is a difficult discipline. I tend to go go go until I burnout. Stepping back during Advent helps me to fast from distraction and focus in a bit on my spiritual life and preparation for Christmas.
No need to be a Scrooge, but try to save the feasting for the feast. Culinary treats, parties, Christmas music, and movies will all be more cherished if they are saved for the right season. Perhaps eat fewer meals out and make some simple meals at home to remind yourself that Advent is a penitential season. Maybe wait to host that cookie exchange until after Christmas Day. It’s tricky to save the party until December the 25th because often even parish Christmas events happen during Advent (they do at my parish). If you can, start a new tradition like inviting friends over for carols on December 26th when the madness has died down.
But sometimes adhering to the Advent “rules” of waiting for Christmas to start the celebrating could damage our relationships, and that’s where things get tricky. Perhaps you always bake cookies with your grandma the week after Thanksgiving. Or your siblings always go Christmas shopping together the week before Christmas. You may have office parties you’re obliged to attend. Or your spouse simply can’t wait to listen to Christmas music once Thanksgiving is past.
Here’s where charity is crucial. While planning ahead can solve some of the challenges of observing a quiet Advent, we shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture of drawing nearer to Jesus–and sometimes that means breaking our Advent “rules” to love those around us.
So along with our intent to observe Advent faithfully, we should participate joyfully in the family traditions that are held dear by those we are called to love. Especially for converts whose families may be struggling with your new faith, extending grace and love and pursuing family traditions that are held in common can help nurture those relationships. It’s really special for our family to cut down a Christmas tree at the beginning of December with my husband’s parents and his sister’s family. We cherish the tradition. We set up our tree with lights to remind ourselves that Jesus, the Light of the World, is coming. We save trimming the tree at our home with ornaments for Christmas Day to help our children distinguish Christmastide from Advent. I think there are a thousand such ways families can participate in beloved traditions and also set apart Advent as a sacred time of preparation.
It’s a good idea to decide ahead of time what the non-negotiables are for your family and communicate them to extended family. For instance, if you’re a convert, you may need to explain to your extended family that you will be attending Christmas Mass at a certain time and when you’ll be available to join them to celebrate the holiday. Perhaps go to the midnight Mass so that you are free to participate in your extended family’s Christmas Day traditions.
So much of our Advent preparation happens in the quiet of our hearts. And the traditions of the season can help us enter in to this beautiful preparation for Christ’s birth. There are many ways to observe Advent that will feel contrary to the hustle and bustle of the culture around us, but with intentionality and thoughtfulness toward our loved ones, the discipline of observing Advent will make Christmas well-worth the wait.