Christmas approaches and the preparations for the holiday seem to consume what little free time people have in their already busy daily schedules. Fitting in Christmas shopping – online or in the stores – baking, decorating, attending parties, concerts, and other festive events can become exhausting, so that, by the time we get to Christmas Day, it can often feel anti-climactic. What’s left – a New Year’s celebration?
In our Catholic Church we celebrate the season of Advent – a somewhat counter-cultural celebration. I say, “somewhat” because it is intended to be a joyful time of “anticipation” and waiting for Christmas. So the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are meant to be a time to focus on the meaning of the Nativity story as it relates to God’s plan for salvation. This focus brings a very different energy to mind, one that requires additional effort beyond our regular daily responsibilities, but one that is expended inwardly through thought and prayer rather than outwardly in all of the prescribed Christmas activities that fill our calendars. That is not to say that we cannot be attuned to the message of Advent while honoring many of our Christmas traditions that we enjoy.
One activity I particularly enjoy is playing and singing Christmas carols. In my quick on-line research, I discovered that Christmas caroling in public did not become popular until the late 19th century. Before that time, local town leaders led official carol singers called “Waits.” The name was derived from the fact that they only sang on Christmas Eve, which was know as “watchnight” or “waitnight,” in anticipation of the birth of Jesus and the celebration on Christmas Day.
The excitement and anticipation of Christmas was certainly celebrated centuries ago; however, the activities that occurred during the period of preparation were considerably less frenetic and more reflective, much in the way the Advent season of the Church still calls us to be.
How do we accomplish both – keeping Advent and preparing for Christmas? I suppose like most things, it is about balance – knowing when to make time for reflection and prayer, knowing to make time to help collect gifts for children and food for families in need, knowing when to stop “surfing the net” or walking the malls for bargains, knowing how to celebrate with family and friends at Christmas gatherings, student concerts, and outings that include a visit with Santa Claus. I believe that all of these traditions – religious and secular – celebrate “hope” and the goodness of humanity in the face of so much violence and misunderstanding. Just reading the top 50 stories of the year produced by CNN saddens me to think what would happen if all of the energy that fuels conflict were diverted to empathetic listening and understanding. So are we being superficial in preparing for Christmas as usual when our world is filled with so much hurt and brokenness? I believe, that, if in preparing ourselves for Christmas, we include personal prayer and reflection with all the other traditions of the season, we become people of hope who can then share that hope with others in an effort to improve our world one person at a time. So I plan not to wait until Christmas Eve to sing a Christmas carol, but I do want to make time to reflect on the real meaning of the Christmas event. And that is my prayer for all of you this Christmas: may you and your family experience the real meaning of Christmas, providing you with the faith, hope, and love you need to make the world a better place one person at a time.