(This article appeared in the Restoration newsletter in a previous Advent season.)
I don’t remember the exact date but it was sometime in early November when the Halloween candy was still on clearance—that was the day I noticed the Christmas music playing as I waited in the check-out line at the grocery store. I was flabbergasted and sent a text-rant about Christmas creeping earlier and earlier each year to my unsuspecting husband.
In our home we keep Advent, which means that we wait to celebrate Christmas until Christmas Day. Decorations and nativity scenes don’t make an appearance until mid December, baking starts around the time school vacation begins, and we don’t play Christmas music until after the Christmas Eve service in the car on the way home.
These aren’t rules. They are just habits that make the Advent season about anticipating the coming of Jesus. I need time to breathe in the incredible mystery that God entered into our world, forever becoming one of us in the person of Jesus. I need space to ponder my own unworthiness to receive this incredible gift and prepare the way for the Lord to come and renew my heart. It’s the quiet reflective tone of Advent that makes Christmas feel so joyful and surprising, even after all these years.
I don’t hate Christmas carols. I truly love them and resist listening to them all season. So when a retailer is using songs that are meaningful to me in order to manipulate my purchasing decisions, I get irritated. Christmas carols in stores are meant to remind us that the shopping days before Christmas are dwindling. And I don’t want a retailer’s need to end their fourth quarter in the black to direct how I celebrate Christmas or keep Advent. So while I can’t by a gallon of milk without hearing Mariah Carey wailing “O Holy Night,” I won’t sing along until Christmas Eve.
If you had celebrated Christmas before the early 1800s you would have observed four weeks of Advent preparation that concluded with joyful worship at midnight on Christmas Eve. Worship continued on Christmas Day, beginning the twelve-day Christmas Feast celebrating the birth of Jesus. In the past, you might have sung Christmas carols throughout your town, dropping in to visit friends every night between Christmas Day and Epiphany on January 6. On Epiphany you might even exchange gifts, in honor of the gifts the wise men brought to Jesus. It was long and leisurely celebration of the birth of Jesus.
Today, we’ve lost Advent and manage to get our Epiphany squished in with our Christmas and top it off with a heaping helping of Santa Claus. We frantically rush to buy, decorate, bake, party, gift, and wrap it all up before Christmas Day. And rather than spending the actual Christmas season celebrating, we take our cues from retailers and pack up the Christmas decorations as the displays for New Year’s bubbly and Super Bowl appetizers take over the stores.
The frantic rush to fit everything in by Christmas Day is something you are free to ignore! Send your Christmas cards after Christmas, drag your tree to the curb in mid-January, and bake gingerbread on New Year’s Day. We are the Church and we live out the miraculous story of the Incarnation: while we were lost and living in darkness, longing for salvation, God heard our cry and became one of us, allowing us to come near to him and live in the light of his glory. That is our story to live and to tell. And we tell this story about Jesus on the Church Calendar and not a fiscal calendar.
Worshippers wonder why we don’t sing Christmas carols at Restoration during Advent and I understand the longing to rush ahead to the celebration. I play the role of the “Advent Grinch” in all of our worship planning meetings, insisting that we sing hymns of longing and waiting like “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” until the Christmas arrives. We just can’t sing the line “Yea, Lord we greet Thee, born this happy morning!” in November. But we do hold a special service of Lessons & Carols each year on the first Sunday after Christmas. We will sing and sign and sing Christmas carols after the radio stations are back to Top-40.
This Advent season I encourage you to fall out of step with the frantic drum beat of the stores and spectacular marathon of Christmas music and movies that start this weekend. You are free to live and tell the story of Jesus. Wait patiently for the Lord! And he will fill you with joy and wonder when Christmas comes and we celebrate that Jesus is truly God with us.