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My Complicated Relationship with Advent

My Complicated Relationship with Advent

Carol Browne

Cari Donaldson - published on 12/03/13

It seems like every other Catholic family in the world is doing special Advent activities with their kids. Me? I'm still digging out of Thanksgiving.

My house is a wreck. I’m a wreck. It’s been almost a week since Thanksgiving and we still haven’t recovered. I came downstairs this morning to find actual puddles of milk on the kitchen floor and a trail of cereal leading to the fireplace where a small child was hunched next to the flames, shirtless, and shoving handfuls of sugary carbs into his mouth as quickly as possible.

As I write this, I hear several other children upstairs, their footsteps so loud I wonder if I haven’t given birth to a posse of Frankenstein’s monsters. Ostensibly, they’re supposed to be cleaning their rooms and changing the linens on their beds, but judging by the screaming I think they’re murdering each other.

Piles of school books lay among the catastrophe of my desk, reminding me that there are lessons to be planned and math concepts to teach and papers to grade, and that Christmas break is a good three weeks away.

What stands between Christmas and me, just as it does every year, is Advent.

I have a complicated relationship with Advent. Growing up Presbyterian, the season was observed for one hour each Sunday, as each week’s candle was lit, and then extinguished as we went home to a house which had been fully decked out in Christmas finery since the day after Thanksgiving. I was in my thirties before I met people who “fasted from Christmas” and didn’t decorate their house during Advent.  The concept that Advent was meant to be a specific time with a specific purpose was a revelation.

As is human nature, I tried to overcorrect for wasted Advents of the past. One year we put up a tree, but didn’t decorate it. It was my intention to have the tree be a visual reminder of the barrenness of our hearts when Christ doesn’t dwell there, but what actually happened was that we got so caught up in other activities during Christmas that the tree never got decorated, and just sat in the corner, sadly collecting dust. So much for that metaphor.

Another year I tried to keep all Christmas music and movies out of the house until Christmas day, but after finding the kids sneaking in a desperate viewing of Nightmare Before Christmas, I knew somewhere my intentions to do specific things to obtain a holy Advent once again went wrong.

The past few weeks have been full of increasingly shrill advice on how to get the most out of Advent. Blogs abound with tips on making the domestic church align with the liturgical season, and nearly every suggestion makes me more panicked. One particularly earnest suggestion to have a “gradual Nativity scene” got an audible snort from me – we actually do have a gradual Nativity scene around here, but only because the three year old is notorious for swiping figures and stashing them under his bed to use in Lego creations.  

There seems to be an ominous tone to these Advent tips. “If you care about your children, you’ll properly celebrate Advent”. Pinterest can offer dozens of crafts to aid you, all so easy that only the laziest among us wouldn’t attempt a few. And a simple Google search will yield literally thousands of advent ideas for a crafty, activity-filled season.

It’s too much for me. Like I said, I’m still literally digging out from under the happy chaos of Thanksgiving. I haven’t even gotten a set of Advent candles yet, and frankly, contemplating taking six children into our nearest cramped, hot, Catholic bookstore to get some is not filling me with holy thoughts. I may drag myself out to the front yard, grab a large branch to hang out Jesse tree ornaments on, and wait as it inevitably gets knocked over twice a day for the next 20 days. Maybe. But even that seems too much right now.

What I really need right now is cleanliness. I need to set my inner and outer landscapes in order: throw out the clutter that’s piling up, scrub the stains, and bleach everything that can be bleached. In terms of my house, that means less crafts and less adorable, liturgically-appropriate activities, and more purging. In terms of my soul, it means less noise, less distraction, and more prayer, more listening, more waiting.

If I fill my Advent with crafts and activities, no matter how meaningful or focused on my children’s religious education they are, I’ve missed the point of the season by the very act of filling. Advent needs to be a time of emptying, of vacancy, and of waiting. It’s a time of clearing out everything from your life that is taking up the space the tiny Infant should hold, and that’s something not easily translated into tangible actions.

Maybe someday I will be the sort of person who doesn’t need the emergency preparation session every year before Christmas. Maybe someday I’ll be far enough on the road to heaven that I haven’t allowed clutter and junk and mess to build up in my life, reaching epic proportions right before the Nativity.  If that ever happens, maybe I will gather my children around the table for some daily Advent activities and crafts that help further the lessons. But I’m not there yet – not by a long shot.

So for now, I’ll keep slogging through Thanksgiving dishes, begging Christ to drop a bleach bomb on my soul, and maybe if I’m feeling really ambitious, I’ll teach the kids

, and they can do their own interpretive dance. 

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