There’s a thread going on in a Facebook discussion group I belong to where people are discussing their feelings about Christmas…not just the predictable feelings of excitement and joy, but also the pain, the melancholy, the sense of loss that many people experience during the holiday season.
I can identify with both groups. For me, Christmas evokes a lot of wonderful memories. Memories about family and community. Sights and sounds and smells that were filled with wonder and delight.
But it also carries a sense of loss…or more accurately, maybe, a sense of what could be but isn’t yet.
An idealized time
As a kid growing up in the late 1960s and early 70s, the Norman Rockwell Christmas was pretty much my reality. It was an idealized time.
But then somewhere around my late 20s or early 30s I began to realize I had lost it. Somewhere the ideal had become caught up in the demands of adulthood.
It’s not that Christmas had lost its specialness…it was just that it seemed to come and go so fast that I wasn’t able to enjoy it.
Instead of being a season of anticipation and activities with friends and family, it had become a scramble to get everything done.
And then it was over.
I just needed it all to slow down.
Wandering in the wilderness
I often refer to my 20s and early 30s as the “wandering in the wilderness” phase of my spiritual life.
I hadn’t abandoned my “belief” in God, or a higher power, or supreme intelligence, or whatever term you want to use.
But I had almost thoroughly abandoned the idea of “church” as having any relevance in my life.
It wasn’t that I’d had any kind of bad experience in church (although I fully acknowledge that many, many people have). It was just that it had become inconsequential.
Stuck in the past.
None of it, for me, led to any kind of experience of transcendence.
It all seemed so manufactured, so mechanized.
Like we were trying to create something artificial that was already fully available to us in the reality of the natural world.
It felt more like escaping than embracing.
And even Christmas had succumbed to it.
Keeping the fire insurance paid up
During my “wandering in the wilderness” season, I became that most dreaded of all church-goers: the “CEO” (Christmas and Easter Only).
So by the time I wandered back into the church in my late 30s, well into the first phase of my spiritual deconstruction (although I didn’t realize that until much later), the only thing I had really hung onto in terms of religious life was the birth and resurrection of Jesus.
And to be really honest, I’m not even sure what it was about those things that I was holding onto, outside of some vague sense that maybe I needed to renew my fire insurance twice a year.
On some level, I think I hoped that Christmas might feel special again if I could get back to experiencing it as a season instead of a one-day work vacation. I thought that maybe Christmas seemed slower and more enjoyable as a kid because we had time off from school, which gave us more time to enjoy the whole thing.
And I thought that maybe if I could find a way to embrace the season of Advent, it would slow the whole thing down.
Of course, at the time, all Advent really meant to me was a four-week extension of Christmas when we got a piece of chocolate from a calendar every day and people lit candles on a wreath in church on Sundays.
I knew intellectually that it was the buildup to Christmas, but that was all it was. Just the weeks getting ready for the big event. The time we did all the shopping and baking and wrapping and planning.
It was a time to get ready for something else.
Which, of course, it is.
But it’s also more.
Don’t skip the prelude
Think about what it’s like when you’re getting ready for a big event…a wedding or the birth of a child or a vacation or some major life milestone.
The time you spend anticipating that event is a major part of the experience.
It’s not the experience itself, but it’s part of what makes the experience what it is.
It’s like the pregnancy before the birth.
That’s what Advent is.
Advent simply means “arrival.” But it’s not just the moment of arrival. It’s the season.
It includes the anticipation.
It’s not Christmas. But it’s part of what makes Christmas what it is.
And if we can have the presence to be present, and not just to look ahead to the one-day vacation, it can change everything.
It’s the time of having hope for the joy to come.
When I learned to embrace the time of preparation on its own terms and not just as some idealized 4-week extension of the holiday, I was finally able to slow down.
To live into the story being told in the prelude without jumping ahead to Chapter 1.
It took discovering Advent to make Christmas special again.
Hope for joy
Of course, that’s just my story. Borne out of my own experience.
I can’t pretend to impose it on anyone, especially if the holiday season holds some kind of trauma for you.
And maybe most especially if any of that trauma has come from Christians in general or the church in particular.
If Advent for you is little more than a time when you find yourself under siege in some crazy form of Christian culture wars, I’m sorry.
If you get yelled at for wishing someone happy holidays instead of explicitly acknowledging their particular Christian holiday, I’m sorry.
If you’re struggling with memories of loss or abuse or abandonment or pain while everyone around you is dancing and partying, I’m sorry.
But I hope somehow, in your own way, you can find something good to anticipate.
Maybe it’s not marked on the calendar.
But maybe there’s a thing you can begin to look forward to, a celebration you can foresee and plan for, and maybe you can be present in that time of anticipation and find some fulfillment.
Maybe you can find your own advent.
And maybe, in that season, you can find hope for joy.