Between Advent and all of the preparations for Christmas, December becomes one of the busiest months of the year, especially for a parish staff. Some believe that all of the happenings and “to-dos” distract us from the true meaning of the season. But I think that the true meaning of Christmas is made even more real by the very experiences we sometimes take for granted or that might even seem like distractions. For example: Given the choice between watching a Christmas movie with all my cousins or taking time alone in prayer, I am hands down going to choose movie time. Even though prayer is an important part of spiritual preparation, time with family is a blessing and a reminder of how close to God we can be. The festivities we look forward to, the food we eat, and the family we see are experiences that help us fully realize an inward, spiritual celebration that builds with anticipation during Advent and that we celebrate on Christmas.
Festivities we look forward to
Nearly every year in early December, my family picks a Christmas tree way up north. Our joy hits a particular high when we see our Golden Retriever, Reese, bouncing and burrowing freely in the snow, helping us sniff out the perfect evergreen. On our way home, we grab a Tim Horton’s hot chocolate (a Canadian staple for road trips) and have the same conversation about how much colder it is at Rudolph’s Christmas Tree Farm than the previous year. While we decorate the tree, we listen to the same Joanie Bartels Christmas Magic cassette tape from the 80s. Some might be tempted to evaluate these traditions as not religiously themed, and therefore a potential distraction from the true meaning of Christmas. If we look deeper than just the tree, the snow, the music, and the decorations, what do we see? Excitement. Togetherness. Joy. Is this not the true meaning of Christmas?
Food we eat
I hear many families make turkey, but my Italian family prides itself in serving up a huge pan of lasagna, battered veal cutlets, Nonna’s classic minestrone soup, garlic rapini, and pretty much every kind of dessert. I fully admit that it feels just a little less like Christmas when we don’t have this meal. Does this mean that it is any less Christmas if I don’t eat lasagna? Absolutely not. But it does make me more grateful for the fact that I am able to feast in this way. More importantly, it helps me recognize my deeper spiritual hunger. Many of us have spiritual longings that are often unmet, leaving us feeling empty. The temporal food we eat can help us realize our spiritual hunger needs feeding too. God desires the best for us, including physical and spiritual nurturance, and Christmas is a time of feasting in both ways!
Family we see
To me, food and family go hand-in-hand. My family subconsciously uses mealtime to tell stories, catch up, and reminisce. For us, mealtime is quality time. My old roommate Erin’s favorite part of Christmas is washing dishes with her cousins. It’s a time for meaningful conversation. My friend Elizabeth tries to not take her parents and grandma for granted as they grow older and cope with health problems. She realizes that spending Christmas with her family is extremely important. Even if your family is distant or absent, there are abundant blessings and opportunities to gather with others during the season. If we are lucky enough to have family with us, we should look at this as a gift and enjoy their presence.
Faith we share
Leading up to Christmas, we light the candles on the Advent wreath to mark the time we use to prepare for the birth of Jesus. Lighting the wreath is a tradition that points to our patient participation of Christmas to come. We may take for granted that our faith tradition has a way of incorporating candlelight (representing the presence of God) with garland (eternal life) and each candle (peace, joy, love, and hope), to prepare us for the journey of Advent. Each sign and symbol in our faith tradition are rich with spiritual significance. My friend Shannon says something she takes for granted is the music of the season and the joy and celebration that come along with singing together. We sing about the Incarnation in the familiar Advent hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” translated from Hebrew meaning, “God among us.” This is our way of proclaiming and participating in the story of Christ’s birth.
The festivities, food, family, and faith we celebrate during Advent and Christmas are experiences rich with meaning, enacted to honor the joy, nourishment, belonging, and participation Christ wants for us. Festive dinners, twinkle lights, tree decorating, and family Christmas movie nights are precious moments of joy that connect us with a loving God during this beautiful Advent and Christmas season.