How early do you start preparing for Advent? Not Christmas, but Advent, the time of preparation before Christmas. I got my first reminder with a text on September 26 this year. Before you put me up for sainthood, I have to confess that the text was not related to my spiritual development and inner beauty. It had everything to do with Brazilian body cream and outer beauty. The text was from a friend letting me know that online sales for Liberty of London Beauty Advent calendar would go live on November 7.
Advent, or more precisely, unique Advent calendars are more “in fashion” now than ever. We’re not just talking about a piece of chocolate or a peppermint behind each door. These are real grown-up treats. Liberty of London produces a huge box and each of its 24 windows opens to a different luxury beauty item, such as serums, toners, eyeshadows, and more. It sold out within days. You can find almost any version of the Advent calendar today and the marketing format does leave some of us scratching our heads, wondering what 24 samples of hand cream, socks, or bourbon has to do with preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Can celebrating with luxuries, even little ones, promote the Advent values of hope, love, joy, and peace?
In addition to being a lot of fun, the Advent calendars I have had in the past helped me through the season by keeping up the sense of longing and excitement over the pending arrival of Christmas. It is so easy to be swamped by the demands of the season with shopping, decorating, and making sure Christmas is special for everyone in the family. We can go overboard on extra religious practices, too, which can backfire. I remember having a breakdown one Sunday because I hadn’t remembered to move the three wisemen in my Nativity set, my Jesse tree was coming apart, and I couldn’t get the kids together for our Advent wreath home service while I almost set some festive garland on fire lighting the candles. It is really easy to lose any sense of excitement about Christmas day and view it as another obligation. I always saw the little luxuries in my Advent calendar as tangible reminders that God wants me to take care of myself, too, and they kept me looking forward to why we were doing all this — to celebrate Jesus. The calendars served as the ultimate positive reinforcement of Advent joy.
I had to examine my own justifications for Advent beauty calendars this year when, in a modern rite of passage for moms, I decided to transition my 12-year-old daughter from Elf on the Shelf to the Body Shop Advent calendar. This is not the first time I have faced the pull of the secular on a religious holiday with my kids. When we started the Elf on the Shelf tradition years ago, I wanted to show my children that religion can be woven into your everyday life and experiences. It is not a separate compartment, accessed only on Sundays, apart from the world at large. I also wanted us to have fun doing it. Just as I was able to “Catholic-up” our elves with pint-sized St. Juan Diego tilmas and the annual St. Nicholas shoe parade, I was confident I could get a little inner beauty in the beauty Advent calendar, too.
Inspiration came in a recent Walking With Purpose small group study that asked “How Does God Define Beauty?” The lesson asked us if we saw Saint Teresa of Calcutta, would we notice her inner beauty or ask, “When was the last time this woman exfoliated?” Both, maybe? I think we are definitely torn between the two ideas in our culture and we tend to see them as mutually exclusive. Worse, we sometimes allow the search for physical perfection to override our pursuit of inner beauty. Let’s face it, a new mascara is sometimes easier to obtain than kindness, compassion, gentleness, and fortitude. However, outward appearances can work with inner beauty to deliver a doubly strong message, as the iconic blue and white habit and much-photographed radiant smile of Saint Teresa showed us.
A sobering exercise in the same lesson asked us to look at our “Daily Outer Beauty Routine” and “Daily Inner Beauty Routine.” When looking at my daily routines for morning and evening, including time and money spent, I couldn’t come up with anything definite. Especially in this time of quarantine, my outer beauty routine was pretty much nonexistent, and my spiritual/inner beauty routine was only nominally better. Basically, it was the spiritual equivalent of a messy bun, a quick “for everyone on my prayer list. Amen” or an “Our Father” while falling asleep. As one of my neighbors used to say, “God don’t like ugly,” and I guess that goes for inside and out. We are tasked with taking care of what God has given us outside and inside, and Advent is a great time to work on this goal. Outward beauty alone won’t satisfy us, but both types of beauty working together should cause us to grow happiness and contentment.
In recent years, the concept of self-care has become a buzzword, and I think there is something to that. We all need to focus on ourselves at times and recharge if we are going to be able to give well to others. You need to put your own spiritual oxygen mask on first, so to speak. Looking at my daughter’s Advent calendar, there are a lot of opportunities for discussion, prayer and meditation. Seriously. For instance, several of the products are labeled as “milk and honey.” Hmmm, Land of Milk and Honey. I can work with that. It could spark a discussion of us searching for heaven and the importance of home. I also like the idea of bath gels washing us clean from sin, a reminder to make time or confession or engage in self-reflection. Hand, foot, and lip balm are almost a no-brainer: service, following the right path, and speaking with kindness. Bubble bath? A great symbol of the joy of the season, as well as a reminder to relax and not let your schedule get too crazy.
Approaching Advent beauty calendars in a different way can contribute as much to inner beauty as outer beauty. I agree with the ad copy of The Body Shop calendar, which says “We want to encourage people to enjoy these festive moments, rather than stressing about creating the perfect Christmas.” Another benefit: It’s nice to hear the word “Advent” out there in popular culture. What better way to keep the true meaning of Christmas on people’s minds? We have the opportunity to take back the word and the season. If you are looking for a way to truly get into the spirit of the season and bridge the divide between pop culture and eternal life, an Advent calendar could be a good way to start.