How I Learned to Stop Grousing and Love Christmas Music in Advent
Like most Anglicans in my demographic, I have gone through a snobbish phase. I have followed the dictum of many of us regarding Advent: “Save Advent for Advent! Christmas has its own season!” And its most relevant corollary: “No Christmas carols during Advent! There are lots of nice Advent carols to recover!”
I’ve put of Christmas decorating as long as possible. I’ve made much of lovely Advent observations such as St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucia’s Day, the Jesse Tree and its offshoots. I’ve avoided Christmas sections in stores, and playing too much Christmas music, and I’ve saved Christmas jammies for Christmas Eve.
There is nothing wrong with such practices, and indeed I love them still. The downside is that it takes preparation. Then you find yourself in the odd position of preparing for a season of preparation, then trying to observe the season while also preparing for the Christmas season. It’s a bit much, especially coming right on the heels of American Thanksgiving, which has come to be extra important to us as well.
This year I dropped it. I didn’t have the bandwidth. And I justified it with a new-to-me insight that feels like integration.
The secular Christmas season, I.e. the month of December, is fascinating to me. It’s obviously blatantly materialistic, and has a sentimentality that feels uneven in its legitimacy, but it’s also all about preparation and anticipation. There’s a great buildup to the exchange of presents, to the time with family, to the Blessed Day.
Assuming you celebrate it at all, whether you prepare for Christmas Day itself with secular or sacred traditions, the Day itself holds one common element: disappointment.
Kids know what I mean. Anne Kennedy once described it as discovering anew that the fulfillment of desire does not take away desire. Once the gifts are open and the cookies eaten, when we get what we’ve been looking forward to, we still feel incomplete. Not to say we don’t have fun, and the time with family and friends can be glorious. But in some ways, the season of celebration can be more difficult to sustain than the season of anticipation.
I’ve noticed this with Lent and Easter as well. The season of penitence feels more real, more resonant with my daily experience, than the celebration it prepares me for. Perhaps this is because I don’t prepare well enough; that’s likely. But I also think life on earth is more like Lent and Advent, and it feels such a relief to be allowed to express that in a world that expects me to just consume and be happy all the time.
But what makes Advent and Christmas different from Lent and Easter is that both Advent and Christmas are an anticipation. Advent anticipates Christmas and the second coming, and Christmas anticipates Lent and Easter. The Incarnation is a salvific event, but it’s the beginning of the salvation story. We look in the cradle and see the baby who will grow into the child who puzzles the temple rabbis, and the man who will work miracles and preach the Kingdom and die on the cross.
This year I wondered as I wandered through December. If it’s all looking forward, could it work backwards? Can the anticipation in the manger weave Advent into the secular observances of Christmas that are also an anticipation?
What this means practically is just that I have been, in my heart, observing Christian Christmas during the secular Christmas season, while making my secular and Christian Christmas preparations.
We put up our tree on December 3rd and put up our many nativity ornaments alongside the hanging pianos and baubles. We started telling the Christmas story with finger puppets on December 2 and the kids built a Duplo stable to display the puppets. My oldest is in a continual state of making decorations to further festoon our living room. We lit our advent candles in a red-and-green wreath and sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” We made cookies while listening to every kind of Christmas carol, and attended the school Christmas concert (for which this little town totally halted) which included all kinds of Christmas music. We watched The Christmas Carol as interpreted by Patrick Stewart, the Muppets, and Mr. Magoo. And for my Advent devotions, I’ve been reading a little book of Christmas sermons (by my former professor, Leander Harding).
Conversely, when Christmas arrives, I expect to keep expecting. I expect desire to remain, and I am trying to train that desire in a heavenly direction. I am a naturally materialistic person, and I expect to fight that tendency in myself all my life. But this year I feel better armed in that fight.
Maybe this will render my children completely confused. The line between syncretism and contextualization is a fuzzy one. I hope one effect, at least, is that they enjoy a Christmas season with slightly more relaxed parents, and be more willing to listen to the nuggets we drop about the reason for the season.