Christmas begins earlier every year. At some of the bigger retail stores (you know who you are, Wal-Mart), wreaths and garlands burst onto the shelves before the Halloween clearance racks are emptied. To be sure, such stores take a good deal of online ribbing for this; however, once the Thanksgiving table is cleared, very few people still complain about premature Christmas preparations. Before we’ve flipped our calendars to December, Christmas is everywhere and the whole Western world seems to join in a breathless sprint to the 25th.
I love Christmas, and I know I’m not alone in this…so I get it. The excitement of the season, perpetuated by ubiquitous music, lights, and evergreens, is contagious. And yet, when January 2nd rolls around, and everybody collapses beyond the imagined finish line, almost as if to say, “Whew, Jesus is born, now we can finally toss the tree and stow the manger scene and move on with our lives” — I can’t help thinking we’ve gotten it wrong somewhere.
Of course, for those who treat Christmas as a secular holiday, there’s no pressing reason not to embrace the frenzy and no reason to second-guess the exhaustion that follows the month of December. However, when those of us who cherish the Incarnation as the central focus of the season – indeed, its sine qua non – are completely fed up with Christmas by the 26th, we ought to take a few steps back and consider whether we have unwittingly let popular culture dictate our own approach to the season.
For many Protestant congregations, the church calendar is a thing of the past. Aside from Christmas Day, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, the seasons and days that comprised the church year for centuries have vanished from consciousness. Seasons such as Advent and Lent have fallen out of favor, perhaps because they smack of ritualism and focus on guilt instead of grace.
While I see why these things could become a concern, I find it much more concerning that a worldly, consumer-driven approach to Christmas has rushed in to replace Advent, and has permeated the church’s approach to the season. The Bible says quite a bit about self-examination and humbling oneself before God, and Advent is a special time for disciplining oneself in those areas. When we jump right into Christmas without reflecting on why we need a Messiah; without recalling the expectant years of prophesying His coming; without envisioning the anticipation that preceded Jesus’ arrival in a tiny stable in Bethlehem…we fill our time with a month-long glut of celebrations that leaves us tired of the whole thing by the time the first present is opened.
Most of us, of course, would have to hide under a rock all month if we decided to fully observe Advent by shunning every overtly Christmas-y activity until December 24th. There’s simply no getting around the fact that most Christmas festivities are over by the New Year (what’s Epiphany?), and it’s fun to immerse ourselves in the beauty of the season – while we have the chance. But it would behoove us to slow down wherever we can – not just because our hectic lives are making us crazy, but because, if we’ve made time to meditate on the mystery of Advent, we will be better prepared to greet Christmas Day with a sense of joyous anticipation instead of a feeling of relief that it’s almost over. As one author put it:
Nothing we can do earns us the gift of Christmas, any more than Lent earns us Easter. But a season of contrition and sacrifice prepares us to understand and feel something about just how great the gift is when at last the day itself arrives.
Like it or not, we all observe rituals — if not, Evangelical churches would have dispensed with Christmas altogether. So whether we choose to light a candle each week, read regularly from the Old Testament, or simply take more time throughout the month to pause and reflect on our great need for a Savior, we can prepare our hearts to rejoice anew at the wondrous mystery of Christ’s birth…not only on Christmas Day, but for many days after.