I am so glad that Advent is a season. I used to feel crushed by the stresses of the Christmas Day that always seemed to suddenly come upon me no matter how early I started my shopping (which I did in August). I don’t know why or how I took it on, exactly, but at some point in college I unconsciously decided that I had to make Christmas magical for everyone in my family. I spent hundreds of dollars I couldn’t afford on gifts, I made complicated lists, shopped ’til I dropped, and had Christmas anxiety dreams all year ’round. In my dreams I had forgotten to shop in time, or had failed to buy gifts for just one member of the family, or had forgotten to wrap them by Christmas morning. These dreams would cause me to awake in a heart-pounding sweat. They were sad. Now I understand them as parental dreams, that is, the dreams of a young woman who was taking on a parental role due to the death of her father in her teen years. I interpret them as the dreams of a young adult who felt desperate to restore a sense of life’s abundance and blessedness to her family.
They were the dreams of paradise lost. I really did awake every Christmas morning of my childhood with a sense of true enchantment to a transformed world — a world of beauty, twinkling lights, solemn hush, evergreen fragrance and stockings overflowing with treasure. All the best spirit of our family shone on those Christmas mornings.
Now I am a minister and the childhood magic is partially gone. It was a pagan magic, a spell woven by the spirits of our house, Jack Frost nipping around outside and painting everything silver, and the animators at Rankin-Bass. The tree had a distinct personality and our golden retriever Pippin bumbled around with an irresistible velvety-headed sweetness. I believed the legend that all animals could speak at midnight on Christmas Eve because Pippin always looked as though she was on the verge of making some doggie remark.
I will always be susceptible to pagan enchantments and thrill to experience them, but they are no longer a Christmas morning phenomenon for me. They are the backdrop to the larger cosmic drama my soul feels being played out through the whole season of Advent: the incarnational mystery of God’s birth into the world in human form.
Words and phrases from the Christmas carols start to whisper to me this time of year, words like hush and weary world rejoices and emanuel and heilege Nacht. I love the cheeky anti-consumerism church campaign “It’s Not Your Birthday,” (and also here) that gives me permission to stay out of the malls, where all the extra lights and louder-than-usual music (I’m not imagining that, am I? They really do crank up the Mariah Carey over-souling version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” don’t they?) gives me high blood pressure and visual/aural overload. My sister and I always call Yankee Candle “Yankee Headache” – I can’t even walk by one of their shops without feeling neurologically threatened.
It’s a quiet time. A quiet, womb-like, a gently sparkling frosty time, when I love to stand at the edge of the woods with my beagle in the cold mornings and listen to the horses next door stomp and whinny across the thin, freezing air. Max stands still, alert, considering. Sometimes he sits his little rump on the ground and bays back to them just to show moral support. “Hello, it’s cold! We’re alive, too! Hello!”
For God so loved the world that we get to be here, we get to exist as these fascinating mechanisms of DNA and muscle and chemicals and hair follicles and we get to be self-aware while we’re doing it. We get to care about it, and want to stay alive doing it. We don’t have to wake up and hunt for our food and fall asleep and wake up again and get killed and eaten the next day.
Advent is deep and interior and candlelit. It is looking up from a book and listening to the dog and cat breathe in their sleep. It is baking in a quiet kitchen and watching dough rise, and standing with floury hands on my aproned hips observing the purplish light outside that portends snow. It is siting with my feet on a wooden cricket in the pew of a New England meetinghouse listening to a choir sing carols, looking at the backs of beloved heads and missing those that are missing and who used to be there.
At Advent I am tired from the hectic pace of the autumn and I can rest in the knowledge that God is descending like a dove into the world, pouring out like living water, emanating, imminent, and abundant.
I know that God doesn’t need a timeline to be present in the world. I know that the Christ child did not come to us in Santa’s sleigh pulled by Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer and that Kris Kringle didn’t put his wedding presents to Jessica under the evergreen trees at the North Pole, thus beginning the tradition. I know that God doesn’t need sacred stories to explain why and how divine love is made manifest among and within us, but we do.
Tomorrow I will put the candles in the windows and get out the music.