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My Martha Stewart Advent that crashed and burned… again

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Colleen Duggan - published on 12/02/16

Sure, I accomplish everything I think we have to do as a family to prepare for Christmas, but are we better off?

I scrolled through Instagram last night before bed and was overwhelmed by the beautiful pictures of Advent wreaths posted by my Catholic mom friends. This was, of course, after I had perused an article penned by a veteran Catholic parent outlining all the meaningful traditions implemented in her home.

It happens to me every year. Sometime after a frantic search for my Advent wreath, I find myself comparing my efforts to form my family during Advent against another family’s efforts. (The internet makes comparisons like these so much easier nowadays.) And after I note the multiple ways the other family is winning at Catholic family life, I feel like a complete failure because… well, let me count the ways.

Here’s a Catholic mom confession: I have absolutely no clue where our Advent candles are. I vaguely remember burning them down to nubs last year but I also remember the toddler split a brand new purple pillar right in two. Did I throw the candles away? Did I hide them for safekeeping? I thought I bought pink and purple candles in bulk one Advent years ago, but who knows where those are now? Not me. And after two days of searching, I surrender. We have no Advent candles. I need to order more, which means the first week of Advent will be over before the Duggans’ Advent wreath will have purple and pink pillars.

There is something about the liturgical season of Advent that brings out all my latent Martha Stewart tendencies. It’s not enough, of course, that I desire to form my children during this most holy time, but I must do it from scratch and have handmade everything. Our culture measures success by things accomplished, and I find I have the same temptation: to measure my success as a Catholic parent based on what we do as a family. This is especially true during special liturgical seasons like Advent or Lent.

Daily Mass with all six kids three times a week? Check.

Handmade Jesse ornaments for the Jesse tree? Check.

Wrapped gifts in monogrammed stockings for Saint Nick’s feast day? Check.

Memorization and recitation of the O Antiphons? Check.

Homemade Christmas cookies to deliver to the poor? Check.

Homemade religious ornaments for the grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousin Bobby, four times removed? Check.

Entire library of Christmas books read and reviewed by December 24? Check.

Spanish celebration for Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadeloupe? Check.

Check. Check. Check. Lots of things we’re doing.

It’s important I drill into my children a love for God, of course. But, accomplishing activities cannot be my measuring stick for growing the faith in my loved ones, especially if my soul is frantic and frazzled while doing it.

With the influx of practical advice and articles on “Living Advent Well” on the Internet, it’s easy to get bogged down. There are so many good ideas that we can try to tackle too much. Just because it’s good doesn’t mean it’s God’s will for us. What starts as a good intention—nurturing Love for God in our children—morphs into a project I attack with vengeance—“We must celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas with authentic gold coins, children! We must have handmade everything, children! All for the love of God, children!”

I become like Martha, instead of cultivating a heart like Mary’s.

Just because I implement 10 out of 12 Advent activities I find on some website does not mean my kids are learning and loving Catholicism, especially if I’m yelling at them as we go. (This, I’m sure, has the opposite effect.) Nor does it mean I am growing, especially if I feel burdened during an already crazy time of year.  When the bluster of things to do, even religious ones, detract from the purpose of the season—which is to love Christ more, to rest in His peace—I’ve missed the point.

The best way to prepare my family for Christmas is to prepare my own heart first, and I don’t actually need an Advent wreath to do that. The wreath is a helpful tool but it’s just that: a tool—not an End. So one of my resolutions this Advent season is to take my eyes off my neighbor’s work (which is good and beautiful and inspiring) and keep them on Christ.

He will light my path, even if I can’t find my purple and pink candles.

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