You know what Christmas looks like. There’s the busy malls, the colorful lights, the ubiquitous Santas. You know what it sounds like: jingle bells, jolly music, ho ho ho. You know what you’re supposed to do: attend parties, kiss under the mistletoe, go mad buying things no one needs. You know what it’s supposed to feel like: generosity, warm fuzziness, wonder, enchantment, and excitement. Christmas has the distinctive smell of pine needles and ham dinner. You know when it’s supposed to occur; November first is definitely too soon. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you know all about Christmas. Getting what you want is like Christmas to you.
You may think you know all about Christmas, but you may not realize that you’re missing a whole ‘nother holiday between Thanksgiving and December twenty-fifth. No, I don’t mean Black Friday. You’re missing Advent.
You think you know about Advent, do you? There’s the candles and the little paper houses where you open a new door every day. You’ve been there and done that; it’s not your thing. But, I bet you never thought about the true meaning of Advent, just like the true meaning of Christmas is often hidden under mounds of discarded wrapping paper.
Advent is about waiting.
Not just any waiting, mind you; it’s waiting for something you need. It’s waiting for something you need when everything around you seems to be going to hell. That’s some serious waiting.
It’s probably not an accident that Advent occurs in what, for the Northern Hemisphere, is the darkest time of the year. It’s not the coldest time of the year, but we’re not used to the cold yet. It’s when seasonal affective disorder just gets going. As far as seasons go, it sucks.
It’s no wonder that people rush into Christmas, or, for that matter, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Festivus. Anything is better than anxiously waiting in the dark and the cold, right when everything seems so bleak. Chase the dark away with strings of lights. Open your presents early. Break into the Egg Nog. Set the Yule Log ablaze and go see Santa.
But, no, I say. Practice waiting. Dwell in the dark and the cold. Observe not knowing whether anything will change.
Not every holiday is about fun and games. Memorial Day is also about sacrifices. On Martin Luther King Day, we acknowledge racism. There’s dead people on Halloween. On Pearl Harbor Day and 9/11, we remember loss. Yom Kippur is devoted to reviewing sins. On Sukkot, Jews pretend they’re homeless. Passover is awash in blood. Ramadan is a month of spiritual detox. I propose that we practice waiting because waiting, when done well, is important.
For one, to judge from behavior in grocery lines and traffic jams, lots of people need to get better at waiting. Maybe you’re one of them. Learn to be patient through intentional practice.
For two, when things finally arrive, they’re better when you’ve waited. Think of how foreplay improves sex.
Three, if you’re depressed, anxious, lonely, embattled, overlooked, passed over, taken for granted, or long-suffering, Advent is a holiday devoted to you. It’s your special time, sanctified for you. All your waiting is dignified, lifted up. and honored.
Finally, even if you are not depressed, anxious, shy, overlooked, passed over, taken for granted, or long-suffering, celebrating Advent helps you understand those that are. It helps you be more sensitive, more responsive, and less obnoxiously privileged.
How do you observe Advent? You can light candles and open little doors if you want, but I think there are more meaningful ways to observe it. In terms of the Christian calendar, you observe Advent by holding off on Christmas. Or, in other words, sitting with whatever feelings arise when you need something you haven’t gotten yet. These are important feelings that must be given their due.
Let me break it down a little more. Let’s say you’re a lonely person. You want to have a friend. Having a friend would be like Christmas to you. If you skipped the equivalent of Advent and went right to the equivalent of Christmas, you would call up everyone you knew and keep them on the phone longer than they wanted to talk. You would bend the ear of everyone you met and tell them your life story. You would put up with all kinds of abuse and demands just so you could say you have a friend. None of this would go well and you’ll end up more friendless than you were before.
If having a friend would be the equivalent of Christmas, then the equivalent of Advent would be not having a friend. Observe not having a friend. Celebrate it. I’m not saying you have to like it; I’m saying that not having a friend prepares you to have one.
Here are some things you can do while you’re waiting, to make your waiting more productive:
- Identify just what is important about your “Christmas”. What is important about friends? What do you need friends for? The only way to know is by being without.
- Get ready for your “Christmas”. You’re not going to find a friend sitting alone in your room, or if you have nothing to share, or if you are so needy, selfish, or crazy looking that you scare everyone away.
- Expect your “Christmas”. Don’t say that no one can possibly be your friend. Anticipate finding one. You only find what you are looking for.
That’s how you observe Advent. Identify, get ready, and expect. This makes your waiting worthwhile and it helps you better enjoy your Christmas.