We are newly into Advent—though judging by stores’ decorations and merchandise, it already seems like the middle of Christmas. I find this season somewhat daunting. Despite the cheerful vibe, I can easily get stressed about all of it: the advertising, the events, the deadlines, the search for appropriate gifts.
Really, my family’s December traditions are pretty low-key. Our tiny tree always ends up looking a bit Charlie Brown-ish, and it gets decorated with an odd assortment of ornaments, many of them made by the kids when they were small. Each year, we hang the same tired wreath on our front door.
None of us mind that the decor is a bit shabby. We have other traditions that are more important to us. Before Advent, we roll beeswax candles, so that during December we can light candles most evenings at suppertime. We make gingerbread cookies. We open gifts on Christmas Eve, and share snacks for supper that evening. On Christmas morning, we open stockings that contain books, an orange, chocolate and a few other small items. Then we eat cinnamon rolls for breakfast before heading to church for a service of celebration.
However humble or grand traditions may be, we seem to gravitate towards them. Sometimes an activity becomes a tradition without our knowledge or awareness. Traditions are important because shared rituals can strengthen our sense of connection and family identity. Traditions can also offer a sense of comfort and security; in a world so full of uncertainties, it is reassuring when some things stay the same.
However, I’ve learned that expectations can complicate traditions. Sometimes we carry our own unrealistic expectations for what the season should be like. Other times, we may feel like expectations are unfairly imposed by others. It might be that we have different expectations than friends or family members. All the advertisements this time of year—on the radio, TV, e-mail, and Internet—communicate an expectation that more is better: more spending, more stuff, more experiences.
When I start feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to make Advent and Christmas special and meaningful, I ask my kids what they most anticipate about the season. I’m often surprised and relieved to hear their answers. More than anything else, it seems that they are looking for a specific atmosphere of coziness: warm cookies and hot chocolate; reading under a blanket on a cold evening; time together; music that wraps them in familiar, beloved melodies. That is reassuring for me (because we don’t need to buy a lot or even do a lot out of the house), but it is also challenging (because if I am stressed and overwhelmed, the cozy atmosphere is most assuredly not there!).
The traditions I most appreciate are ones that remind us of Christ. Our Christmas holiday traditions are not all linked to the story of Christ’s birth, nor do they need to be. But traditions can strengthen us spiritually if they help us remember who we are, and Whose we are; if they “shape our loves” as James K.A. Smith describes it in his book You Are What You Love. I find the church liturgical calendar rich for this reason. Both at church and at home, my family journeys through the weeks before Christmas with an Advent wreath, lighting a candle each of the four weeks leading up to Christmas.
Most of my feelings of being overwhelmed at this time of year stems from feeling pulled in too many directions. During Advent, I want traditions that are meaningful, and that help my family grow spiritually. I need to be intentional in saying “yes” to some things while saying “no” to many more things.
This year, I ordered an eBook called Slow + Sacred Advent to help my family view the Advent wreath from a new angle. Until I looked at the book last week, I did not realize that it was scheduled to start on Sunday, November 25—one week before Advent. I could have scrambled and tried to gather supplies (and my wits) to start only a day late, but we would have started out feeling frantic and rushed. Instead, I decided we would begin a week later, pursuing—in more ways than one—a simple, sane Advent season.
As you enter Advent, with your own particular blend of traditions, may you have the wisdom to know where to direct your energy and attention. There is meaning to be found, and opportunity for spiritual growth—even for the overwhelmed, the distracted, and the procrastinators!