Down the street where I live, Baby Jesus and Jack-o'-lanterns are next-door neighbors. Not far away, an inflated turkey bobbles its waddled neck in the breeze. Welcome to the November-December fusion I call the Holiday Blur, which can turn what the carol crooners call "the most wonderful time of the year" into a decidedly unsatisfying one.
Sure, you can blame the rank commercialism of the season, the lemmings' march into the retail fray that yields stuff nobody wants and a credit card balance nobody can afford. However, I think that's a symptom, not the syndrome.
The real issue, if you ask me, is that we bring on the holidays with too much, too soon. The end of November is not the cue for the Wise Men to take the stage. We need to pause, to reflect and prepare.
OMG! We need Advent.
In the liturgical calendar, Advent kicks off a new year, a time of preparation for Christmas, a spiritual house cleaning if you will. Of course, Christmas and all its greenery have been overlaid on pagan rituals that revolved around the Winter Solstice, when bonfires on the longest night coaxed the sun's return. Whatever their origins and meanings, these ancient traditions appeal to a longing that lies deep within us, for waiting and anticipating. The Holiday Blur, therefore, takes away exactly what we really want -- the expectation of what is to come.
In her beautiful book of rituals and celebration, To Dance with God, Gertrud Mueller Nelson observes, "It is Advent and we are a people, pregnant. Pregnant and waiting."
"For what?" you might ask. Indeed, that question goes to the heart of the season however you interpret that for yourself. Your wait may be a spiritual one that takes you along the path of a fabled Bethlehem star. Or it could be purely secular, a festive time of family and friends, culminating with the New Year. (If the religious meaning of Advent is lost on you, think of it as foreplay for the holiday climax.) Whatever the destination, an Advent of your own making can make the proverbial journey better. Otherwise, how can you know where you are going and why?
For me, Advent is the prescriptive pause that cures the Holiday Blur and quiets the incessant chorus of "more, better, bigger, brighter, faster..." Advent observed is the antidote to the belief that we'll feel more loved if we buy more, give more, do more, instead of being more present -- especially to ourselves.
Traditionally, the centerpiece of Advent is a simple evergreen wreath with four candles -- three purple and one pink -- to mark a four-week period of spiritual reflection and preparation, beginning on the Sunday closest to November 30 and extending until December 24. The hard-core won't even put up the tree or a single decoration until Christmas Eve.
Personally, I mete out my Christmas preparation, rather than rush into it. I don't do much advance shopping (sales get better as we approach the holidays) and I don't even put up outdoor lights until December (even though it would make more sense for the sake of my frozen, cramped fingers to do so earlier). And I don't pay a visit to the community center lot where a youth group sells trees until the second week of December. (Since Thanksgiving was early this year, I hope the leftovers aren't skimpy Charlie Brown trees, but I'll take my chances.)
I'm not getting smug and sanctimonious (honest!); for me, it's all about self-preservation during a time that can easily overwhelm and then flatten me with disappointment that the experience did not live to some holly-jolly fantasy. Nothing I've found quiets my mind and spirit more than the simplicity of a lit candle, whether surrounded by the greenery of an advent wreath or the crystal of a votive holder. A single light cuts through the fog of the Holiday Blur and the darkness of shortening days with too much to do. It is a meditative pause to breathe in a moment of peace and feel the anticipation of the time I enjoy for the simplest of reasons: my son home from college, and family and friends who will gather around my table for Christmas dinner.
This is Advent, enjoy the wait.