Reason for the Season

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It feels special to me that the first Sunday of Advent has fallen on December 1, the same date on which we open the first window on our Advent calendar. When my kids were young, they would fight to be the one to open the little window and extract the toy that would hang on the Advent tree. Today at Mass, the Advent Wreath is blessed and the first candle lit. It is the start of a season of waiting in darkness for the Light of the World.

I love the month of December with its promise of Christmas. It’s true that the weather has turned cold, and there’s always the possibility of snow to slow things down. The trees are stripped bare, and nature looks stark and uninviting. Nighttime comes earlier and earlier as we head toward the winter solstice, and many nights I long to go to bed early, a bit of human hibernation.

During this season, I love to play George Winston’s aptly titled album December as I drive around doing Christmas errands or sit at the kitchen table addressing Christmas cards. The gentle piano music puts me in a meditative mood that is just right for the season of Advent.

Advent is about waiting: waiting for families to come together, waiting for healing strength, sometimes even waiting for a miracle. Contemplating the story of a poor and helpless infant being born in the dark of night, in the unsanitary conditions of a stable with a feeding trough for a bed: it’s hard to fathom the mystery of this tiny child being the salvation of the world.

It’s a joyful kind of waiting, though. Christmas is coming. Hope and love are its harbingers. The twinkling lights and jingle bells of the season break through the darkness and fill us with anticipation. Our spirits lift, and we pour out the excess on the people we encounter.

It’s easy to get lost in the pre-Christmas hustle and bustle. There is so much to do: gifts to buy and wrap, cookies to bake, travel arrangements to make, holiday meals to plan. Advent is designed to help us keep our hearts and minds on the reason for the season: the birth of the Christ child and what that means for our world.

In the stillness of the winter, we can listen to the promptings of the spirit and truly prepare ourselves to receive the greatest gift of all.

 

31 Days of Kindness

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47192929_2197798976919662_2821843979337728000_oShortly before December, my niece posted a Kindness Calendar on Facebook. Being a big fan of Advent calendars and the whole countdown to Christmas, I decided to give it a try. With traditional Advent calendars, you get something (a chocolate or small toy) each day of December. The Kindness Calendar asks a person to give something every day until Christmas. I printed out the calendar and taped it to my fridge. So began a transformational month that has given so much more meaning to the Christmas season for me.

Each day I have done my best to fulfill the task set for me by the calendar. It might be something simple like purchasing an extra bag of groceries for the local food pantry. It might be nonmaterial: a kind word, a positive note, a mental or emotional adjustment. Some of the activities had disappointing results. When given the task to smile at as many people as possible one day, I was forced to notice that not only do most people not smile back, most people don’t even make eye contact with one another during the course of the day.

Yet as the month has gone by, I have found my heart to be so much more open and expansive. Giving things away, whether physical or emotional, has made me treasure this season of goodwill so much more deeply and personally. After performing my “good deed” for the day, I felt so much happier and less stressed about the many things on my To Do list. The more I recognized others’ needs, the more abundantly blessed I felt.

Christmas is almost here. I’ve got most of the gifts wrapped and the cards sent. Soon all four of my kids will be in the house causing happy mayhem. And this year, I have a peaceful, contented heart with which to receive them.

It’s not surprising to me that the Kindness Calendar was created by an organization called Action for Happiness. Trite as it may sound, using the calendar has reminded me that it really is better to give than to receive. Giving of ourselves comes back to us in double measure.

May all of us experience Christmas joy by performing little acts of kindness on our way to the manger this year.

Be Prepared

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Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time of waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas. These words from Jesus in the Gospel struck me in a particular way: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” (Luke 21:34)

There’s not much chance I’ll succumb to carousing or drunkenness, but I have to admit that the anxieties of daily life often keep me up at night. Especially in the weeks before Christmas, I find myself lying awake ticking off my to-do lists in my head instead of getting much needed sleep. And all the busy-ness keeps me from focusing on what is truly important at Christmastime.

In the Church, Advent points not only to the arrival of a tiny baby in Bethlehem who will become the Savior of the world. It also points us to the end of our lives when we will be held to account for how we lived. How much did we love? How much did we give of ourselves to others? How much did we emulate the great sacrifice of Christ, who gave his very self for our salvation?

Even if you are not a religious person, it’s worthwhile to think about your impact on this planet and the people in it. Are you selfishly concerned only with your own gain to the exclusion or detriment of others? Are you so busy consuming that you fail to see the needs of your fellow human beings? Do you show kindness to others even when it’s difficult and inconvenient? How are you making the world a better place?

Advent invites us to consider our answers to these questions. As we prepare for the fun of the holidays – the family gatherings, parties, gift and cookie exchanges – can we take a little time each day to be reflective and consider how we might reach out to the poor, the lonely, the oppressed?

Are we content to let time just slip by as we engage in thoughtless pursuits? Or can we strive to live more meaningful and intentional lives? One of these paths leads to the greatest fulfillment both in this life and the next. Today I commit myself to taking that path and approaching Christmas by being prepared – prepared to open my heart to others, prepared to give more than I receive, prepared to make a positive mark on the world God has so graciously granted to us.

 

Winter Solstice

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A few days ago, I arose at 4:30 in the morning. My head was spinning with holiday to-dos, and I just couldn’t sleep. At 6:45, I went up to my daughter’s room to wake her for school. But it was so incredibly dark in the hallway that I had to check the clock again to make sure I had the correct time.

As we approach the winter solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere, the darkness seems to envelop us. Night comes swiftly and lingers into our morning awakenings. We are approaching the day of shortest daylight and longest night.

Early cultures marked this winter solstice with festivals of light, such as the Scandinavian Jul, from which we derive the Christmas word “Yule.” It is no coincidence that Hanukkah and Christmas, two festivals of light, are celebrated around the time of the solstice.

We are a people afraid of darkness. At the holidays, this darkness can take the form not only of physical night, but of sadness, loneliness, and depression. Loss of loved ones feels more keen at this cold, dark time of the year. The holidays themselves, of course, can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. Hence my 4:30 am awakenings.

But for me, the winter solstice is a time for rejoicing. Not only is the great feast of Christmas around the corner, but the days will begin to lengthen again. In the midst of January’s sometimes bitter cold is the reality that the brilliant sun shines more often and lasts longer into our days. The New Year will give us new resolve and hope for a better life.

The whole season of Advent is one of waiting in darkness for the coming of the light of Christ. HuffPost writer Caroline Oakes sees the meaning of Advent enriched by the ancient pagan traditions surrounding the solstice. In them, she recognizes the Celtic culture for “its keen awareness of humanity’s deep, inner connections with the rhythms of the natural world.” (HuffPost, December 21, 2012)

So we wait in the darkness. In Oakes’ words, “This is Advent — when, as sleepers, we awaken to our own light of love, deep within us, waiting to be reborn again in the dark stables of our own souls.”

 

Countdown to Christmas

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On December 1, my kids would all jockey to be the first – that is, the first one to open a door on our Advent calendar. For me, December 1 begins the frenzied (for me), agonizing (for kids) countdown to Christmas.

Prior to Thanksgiving, I would admonish my children that they were not allowed to utter the “C” word until after we had stuffed ourselves with turkey and made our way home from Grandma’s house over the river and through the woods. But on December 1, I began to pull out all the stops.

Large red plastic boxes made their way up from the basement. Cookies dusted with red and green sugars appeared in the pantry while candy bowls got filled with peppermints and Hershey’s Kisses. The Christmas music I had refused to play prior to Thanksgiving now wafted regularly through our house.

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. There are so many good things associated with it: twinkling lights, cookies, gifts, and Santa Claus. People somehow seem more cheerful going about their business with the background sound of jingle bells. And the season of Advent gives us a whole month of delicious anticipation.

When my kids were young, they would spend hours on their Christmas lists. Sometimes their wants were quite simple. One year my son asked for underwear and a Santa hat. Sometimes their requests were grander: a Brio train set, a play kitchen, a bike. My daughter has still not forgiven Santa for not getting her the My Size Barbie she asked for at age 6.

But more memorable than the gifts my children longed for were the traditions we kept each December. One of them was rolling out and decorating sugar cookies, some of which we would save for Santa. Our kitchen would be a flour- and sprinkle- infused disaster area. My son would pile his cookie high with frosting and sprinkles and then happily demolish it in minutes, red and green festooning his adorable face. We also attempted, sometimes successfully, the ubiquitous gingerbread house. I would scour the holiday candy aisle at my local grocery store for the colorful hard candies I remembered from my own childhood Christmases. These we would use to decorate our little houses, trying to make them enticing enough for Hansel and Gretel.

Another tradition of ours was to pile in the car on a wintry evening and drive around looking at Christmas lights. I’d keep the car nice and toasty for my pajama-clad kids, and we’d pass by our favorite streets and particular houses that really did Christmas in grand style. Afterwards we’d stop at a nearby Dunkin Donuts for a donut and hot chocolate before returning home and getting everyone tucked into bed.

There were fun holiday specials to watch each December and a huge Christmas tree to decorate. We’d play one of Amy Grant’s wonderful Christmas albums, and the kids would reminisce as they unwrapped special ornaments given to them or made by them in Christmas seasons past. I can remember Decembers when I would run myself ragged trying to collect all the Disney ornaments offered in McDonald’s Happy Meals.

But the tradition that really helped us anticipate the coming of Christmas was the aforementioned Advent calendar. It was a wooden box with a green wooden tree on top. Each morning a different one of the kids took his or her turn opening the designated door and placing another ornament on the wooden tree. Before long, the tree was filled with decorations, and it was clear that Christmas was almost here.

We also had a Jesse tree, which is a religious Advent calendar with 25 ornaments depicting the Biblical origins of Christmas. Each evening after dinner, we would read the Scripture passage on the next ornament and place it on the Jesse tree, and it gave us a chance to talk about Jesus’s origins as a descendant of Abraham and of the great King David, Jesse’s youngest son. This tradition gave us a glimpse into the true meaning of our waiting and anticipating: the coming of Christ on Christmas.

My kids are mostly grown now, but we still enjoy our traditions: homemade cookies, a new ornament and pair of pajamas for each kid, a Honeybaked Ham dinner on Christmas Eve, gift giving, and, of course, Christmas Mass, when “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” turns into:

Behold,
I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all people.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born
who is Christ the Lord.
(Luke 2:10-11)

May your anticipation of Christmas be happy and  holy as you count down the days of December.

 

Advent Waiting

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When I was a child, the month of December seemed to stretch into eternity. Each day I would open a little window on my Advent calendar and count how many more I would have to wait through until Santa Claus came.

Even Christmas Day itself was unbearable. My mother insisted on feeding us breakfast, and my family all went to Christmas Mass before getting to run down into the basement where our presents would be spread around our Christmas tree. From youngest to oldest, eleven of us lined up waiting for the signal from Mom that we could open the door and go find our treasure.

Nowadays, I have Christmas anxiety in reverse. Will there be enough time to decorate the house, buy and wrap all the presents, send out the Christmas cards? As the days of December go by in a fast clip, that anxiety mounts.

Yet if I allow myself to stop and reflect, I am able to ponder what this waiting is really all about. In the cold, dark mornings and wintry nights, when all the world seems asleep, I think about a teenage girl, nine months pregnant, making a difficult and dangerous journey to her husband’s ancestral home. I think of the rough, unsterile conditions in which she gives birth to a miraculous child, a son that will save the world.

I also think about present day miracles that always seem to occur around Christmas time. People willingly depositing their cash into little red Salvation Army buckets. Strangers wishing each other good cheer. Carolers visiting nursing homes. Good souls spending Christmas Day feeding the homeless. Estranged family members reconnecting for the sake of peace on Earth.

Like many families this Christmas, mine has experienced its share of joys and sorrows this year – engagements, weddings, births, deaths, illness, financial distress. Like many others, we are waiting – hoping and praying for peace, healing, and joy.

Whatever your beliefs or faith tradition, I pray that you find peace and lasting happiness during this season of light.

Be Thankful – for Christmas

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Almost as common as the sight of store Christmas displays these days are the complaints about how retailers are rushing the season, how Thanksgiving is given short shrift, and how we should all slow down and enjoy the seasons as they unfold.

I agree with some of these sentiments, and I am especially appalled at how many stores and other businesses are open on Thanksgiving. I do believe that this least commercialized holiday of the year needs to be appreciated fully by all Americans.

I also find it a bit jarring when I go to the store and find Christmas decorations and candy going up right next to the Halloween clearance items. But I have to admit that it’s not all bad to get a jump on Christmas preparation. I myself have started my shopping in earnest as December 25 approaches, however distantly.

You see, I like to enjoy the Christmas holiday season. From the very first day of Advent, when we open the first window on our Advent calendar, I want to be in the sometimes festive, sometimes reflective mood of this waiting time leading up to Christmas. And getting prepared way in advance helps this along.

There is nothing so spirit-crushing as battling the last minute crowds at shopping malls or searching in vain for an extra string of Christmas tree lights in late December. Each day after Black Friday is one day closer to frenzy and mayhem as people ramp up their preparations for the biggest holiday of the year.

So as I make my shopping lists and start checking holiday items off my list in November, I feel a sense of joyful anticipation for all the fun I am going to have once Christmas is actually near. While others are out getting those last minute gifts or pints of egg nog, I will be in my kitchen listening to Christmas Sing Along With Mitch Miller and baking Christmas cookies with my kids.

I’m sure I won’t get everything done in time to avoid the lines and chaos completely. There is always the one gift that is hard to find or the person I inadvertently left off my list. But I will be able to approach these last minute errands with real Christmas cheer and a hot peppermint mocha, knowing that I had the foresight to plan ahead and get the lion’s share of my tasks completed long before I get sick of hearing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

So I say get out there, and get started. Pace yourself, and enjoy the holiday season.