For as long as I can remember, I have been plagued by my annual “Christmas dream”. It usually comes in the summer, but it is definitely a Christmas dream. Details vary from year to year, but the plot is the same: I have awakened on December 24 to find that no preparations have been made for Christmas. I’ve purchased no gifts, baked no cookies, have no tree to decorate. And then this dream —from which I always awakened sweaty, disheveled and gasping for breath—details how I go about trying to pack an Advent’s worth of preparations into one day. Any of us who are charged with preparing the family home for the celebration of Christmas knows that what I am describing is more aptly called a ‘nightmare.’
Advent, the time in which we prepare our hearts for the celebration of the coming of our Lord as the Word made flesh to dwell among us, is also the time we must divert some of our attention to the worldly preparations for this event. It is a challenge to keep our hearts and souls in Advent while our minds must be occupied with the mundane details of preparation for our days of celebration. Because we can’t wake up on December 24 and pull it all together. This is the way it is, and I think most of us handle this spiritual dichotomy well.
This year, though, I’ve noticed that so much of society’s sense of holiday celebrations has been condensed that it is hard to even see what holiday we are headed toward. I have an intense sense that we are in the midst of HallowThanksgivingChristmaspalooza.
Left over Halloween candy is still in the stores, pushed to the side by the early arrival of candy canes and peppermint bark. The lowly turkey, which was once the center of most November decorations has been pushed aside. Thanksgiving, the holiday which was ‘standardized’ by President Lincoln as a national day for a united country to show its gratitude for its abundant blessings, has now been subsumed into the explosive build up to Christmas. And just what is this Christmas that is being thrown in our faces beginning November 1? Doesn’t it make one think of Lucy Van Pelt’s jaded explanation in A Charlie Brown Christmas? “Look, Charlie, let's face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.” After all these years, I am beginning to feel Lucy’s cynicism.
Thanksgiving, from its Puritan roots, is now a day for all to think about how blessed we are. And it can be a day off, on which we gather with family, have a big leisurely meal, and luxuriate in more football than any mind could absorb. But if we are to pay heed to the media, the real day we should be excited about is something called “Black Friday”. No one can quibble with the fact that there is a day on which merchants find that their ledgers are finally moving into the black. And, especially in a rather wobbly economy, I would have say that I am happy for them. But, in my antiquated imagination, this is not a really a holiday.
Commerce, in and of itself, is not bad. We need things—clothes, food, appliances and all kinds of minutiae—and we usually have to buy most of this. This is commerce, and it is a necessity and is good. So I can’t say that I am anti-commerce or anti-commercialism. But when commerce itself moves the customs of society we are on shaky ground.
We can take or leave much of our personal participation in the commercial aspects of Christmas. Yes, I buy most of the gifts that I give. My homemade gifts have a rather sketchy history, proving that I have tried and not been particularly successful in my attempts. (The holy card magnets I made for my coworkers are still leaving a trail of glitter through our offices some years after the fact.) And, of course I can understand why there are Christmas items in the craft store in July; December 17 is not the day to start the gift of an intricate needlepoint ornament. This, too, is a point I make from personal experience.
But the cognitive dissonance that comes from leaving church on All Saints Day and seeing Christmas decorations is nerve jangling. We move through the liturgical year and keep the feasts of the Church; we try to participate in the civic holidays, such as Thanksgiving. And we attempt to do all this in the proper time. Somewhere along the line, it is this sense of proper time that has been lost. Whether it is 24-hour Christmas music stations which begin their programming at midnight on October 31 or the Christmas lights on my neighbors houses when I still have a wreath of autumn leaves on my front door - the dissonance is unnerving.
Time certainly feels different in middle-age than it does as a child. I have a definite sense of time slipping away. When I was young, the days of Advent felt endless. Now, those twenty-four days do not seem like enough time to make the necessary preparations. I am not ashamed to say that I start making some Christmas gift purchases in the summer; if I see something appropriate and I happen to have the money, buying it and stowing it away is a good idea. But that works for me in the sense that it is almost ‘buying’ me time in Advent.
My desire at this point is block out all of the Black Friday and Christmas chaos swirling around me. Not only is there the need to keep Christ in Christmas, but to keep Christmas at Christmas. To keep Christmas as the twelve days from December 25 to the feast of the Epiphany - not from November 1 to December 26, when the stores open for the post-Christmas sales.
May we all have a Happy Thanksgiving, and a prayerful commemoration of the Solemnity of Christ the King. And, then, in good time, begin the blessed longing and anticipation of Advent.