When my kids were young, my December calendar was filled with holiday-themed to-do’s: :
- Get tree. Decorate tree.
- Make or purchase new yearly ornaments for kids.
- Purchase Advent calendar.
- Make sure candles are purchased for menorah. Celebrate by retelling Chanukah story, making potato pancakes, lighting candles and praying each night.
- Attend multiple rehearsals for kids’ Christmas program.
- Schedule nursing home to carol with home school group.
- Shop, shop, and shop some more for holiday gifts.
- Supervise making gifts by kids for grandparents.
- Mail gifts to relatives living out of the area.
- Create Christmas letter or card; stamp, address, and mail to about 80 people on list.
- Attend children’s program at church.
- Bake quick breads, wrap, bring to neighbors’ homes.
- Purchase and wrap Angel Tree gifts.
- Write blessing letters to read to Bill and the kids on Christmas eve.
- Wrap presents.
- Plan and prepare meals for Christmas Eve (usually hors d’oeuvres) and big meal for Bill’s family. Make enough so there’s plenty to share with a friend and her family when we gather with them the day after Christmas.
Except for the addition of Chanukah (which actually was a pretty low-key celebration in comparison to the rest of the month), this list was standard for most families I knew. In fact, some friends had far more complicated holiday schedules if there was a divorce in the family or business obligations added a couple of rounds of office parties or adult gatherings to the mix.
Because I didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas, the frantic pace I saw my Christian friends keeping during December told me this is what it looked like to celebrate the birth of the Messiah.
I heard again and again “Jesus is the reason for the season”, but to be honest, I struggled to find him in most of the December revelry. I’m an extrovert, but there was something about all the relentless merry-making that didn’t always feel very authentic to me.
More than a decade ago, a friend invited me to attend a two-day Advent-themed silent retreat at a Catholic retreat center. About 40 women were in attendance. There were a few scheduled points where the group gathered to hear Scripture or a brief devotional teaching, but most of the time (including meals) was given to individual silent reflection.
That silent retreat gave me a taste of what I really longed for in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I didn’t need more activity, food, stuff, parties, obligations, or deadlines. I needed less. After that retreat, I learned that Advent had for centuries been a time for fasting and spiritual preparation that led to Christmas feasting and celebration of the gift of the Son. Our modern experience of wall-to-wall busyness in December is out of sync with church history. I noted in Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith:
There will always be December holiday parties and Christmas programs to fill our schedules. But as often as possible, when a new event or obligation pops up and tries to muscle its way into my date book, I ask myself if there’s any way I can postpone it until after December 25. I’ve penciled in days to take retreat time during this season as well. Advent may be the most countercultural thing we can do during December.
Now that my kids are grown and flown, my December schedule is far less frenzied. An empty calendar does not automatically translate into a meaningful practice of solitude and silence. (In fact, it may be an invitation into grief or wallowing in unhealthy nostalgia for days gone by.)
The practice of simplicity for me during Advent means two things at this stage of my life. First, I try to be intentional about meditating on Scripture. It can be a verse or two drawn from an Advent devotional booklet or seasonal online reading plan. But the point is to simply sit with Scripture, rather than focusing on commentary written about the verse(s). I have for the last several years created an online Advent calendar that reminds me of the “open the door and read a verse” paper Advent calendars we once used when our kids were young. You’re welcome to follow along here.
My second Advent practice is to seek to find small ways to make someone’s life a little easier during a busy season. Simplicity can be contagious! Some things I’ve done include giving up my place in line to the person behind me at the post office or buying a cup of coffee for the person in line behind me at the drive through. These aren’t huge things, and that’s the point for me. Though these are great habits to hold all year long, I am intentional about trying to make someone else’s day simpler and brighter during Advent.
I’m learning that doing less in December makes room for what matters most – being present to God and others, and waiting with purpose for the One who reveals himself to us as Immanuel, God with us.