It’s Advent, as of last week, and, as usually directed in Advent sermons, I took a moment to pause and reflect. We are not regular church attendees but old habits die hard, especially when you’re not trying to rid yourself of them: I happen to like Advent.
Our holidays got off to a smooth start with Thanksgiving. We beat my basic criteria of, “No one died,” by quite a bit even though it involved me doing most of the cooking for eleven people. By all accounts it went very well. But, as most holidays are, it was a sprint to the finish, which left me not only tired but wondering, as Oprah and all the editors of women’s magazines do: how do you enjoy the holidays when they are such a project?
The obvious answer is that you make them less of a project. Reduce gift-giving, don’t decorate, attend fewer parties, skip family gatherings and book a hotel in Cabo instead. The thing is though, I like finding and giving gifts, decorating, throwing parties and making merry. I love Christmas.
So what else can be done so I don’t arrive at Christmas gasping for air and a glass of spiked egg nog?
Planning helps, and God and everyone who’s ever worked with me knows, I’m a planner. I’ve bought nearly all of our gifts already, and I’m wrapping them as they arrive so we can avoid the Christmas week blowout of express shipping charges and the Christmas Eve wrapping frenzy. Our tree is up and decorated as of last weekend. The outdoor lights are twinkling.
It’s good, the planning. The last-minute sprint has been removed (if I can define what “done” is and not just stretch out “almost done” till the 24th!), and we will definitely save some money on FedEx and panicked last-minute purchases. Plus, who doesn’t love checking things off a list? I am getting a sense of satisfaction from a job efficiently done. But I’m still feeling pretty frantic. It occurs to me that I may have accidentally just moved the stress forward on the calendar.
I know that clearing some space before the holiday to slow our momentum is a must. As with going on a beach holiday and screeching from 100 mph to 0 just at the edge of the sand, Christmas itself – one evening, one morning – will go by disappointingly quickly if you’ve been on line at UPS, worrying about your sister-in-law’s gift, and stuffing stockings until seconds before Christmas Eve dinner. We are not wired to shift gears from “frantic preparation” to “savoring the holiday” in the space of half an hour. Advent provides that space on the church calendar, and I think we’d do well to find it on our own schedules.
As I so often do, I have a theory. My theory is that the, “how,” not the, “what,” is the issue underlying holiday stress and the “what’s-the-point-itude” that occasionally creeps in as we rush through the weeks before Christmas, piling up packages and not cheer. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the journey, not the destination, matters most (especially when the destination is filled with fantastic Swedish carbohydrates and complicated ribbons), but yes, the journey deserves more of our focus and can be an enjoyable gradual climb to the peak where we enjoy the wonderful view rather than a gravely slide of increasing velocity that leaves us scraped up and exhausted at the bottom of the hill, back at our car, wondering why we went that way again.
Advent is about the “how,” it provides a stretch of time before Christmas to downshift gradually towards Christmas’ celebration so that we arrive intact and joyful. As the weather turns chilly and the air gets crisp, we’re supposed to slow down, have some cocoa and cinnamon toast, pause and consider. (OK, the toast isn’t in the gospels, but if they’d ever had my toast, they’d have put it in. Trust me: I make really good toast.) Advent is the season of reflection, anticipation and contemplation, a reminder to pause and think about the coming holiday.
Whatever your religious beliefs, the winter holidays mean something to you or you wouldn’t get all worked up about them. Whether it’s an opportunity to see friends, shower your sugar-addled child with gifts, celebrate the birth of your Savior, re-engage with family, or just show off your amazing ability not to electrocute yourself while installing a well-lit, over-fed elderly gentleman and his pet caribou on your roof, something is there at the core of your drive, and that’s worth thinking about so it rises to the top of your list.
Even if you consider the holidays a pain in the ass, Advent can be a time of constructive reflection, acceptance and planning. Own your desire to retreat from Aunt Ethel and her terrible fruitcake and plan a lovely, calm day at home with friends instead of booking through O’Hare with 4000 other people on Christmas Eve. Make the holidays your own. Once you accept that they aren’t your bag, you free up space to see what you do want rather than Grinch-ing it up and gnashing your teeth through another December.
Maybe the holidays are your thing but you’re just feeling low and lonely. It’s OK to be a little sad. Advent gives you some time to to acknowledge that and reach out in time to have some light in your window by Christmas. Ask for visits. Plan small outings. Take a short walk on a bright, chilly day. Find a Seattle’s Best Coffee and order the gingerbread latte: they’ll give you lots of whipped cream AND a tiny gingerbread man on top of it.
A couple of years ago, while planning a long-ish trip to New Zealand, we got some great “how” advice in amongst all the “whats”: find a quiet moment, think briefly about all the things you could do, and notice which three rise to the top. Not the Must Do things that everyone says are great: the three things you want to do the most, the ones you think you’ll enjoy, the ones you’ll regret not doing if you miss them. I chose swimming with dolphins, R. picked sailing through the fjords, and I can’t remember what the third thing was because the two we picked were so awesome. Literally awesome. They were the best things. THE BEST. Two of the most fun, most memorable, fantastic things we’ve ever done.
(Even if they hadn’t been the greatest things ever, it doesn’t matter: we knew wanted to do them and we did them. That in itself is a success. If they hadn’t turned out so well, it would have been good information for the next time we planned a trip as well as probably hilarious: fjord trips are pretty much limited to “majestic” or “Bob Saget in a dinghy” experiences, don’t you think?)
This is what I think Advent is for: finding a quiet moment to reflect on what matters to you in your holidays. Think small. Think specific. Think bright! Don’t judge them. It doesn’t matter: they’re yours. It’s your holiday too, not just your kids’ or Aunt Ethel’s. What matters to you? Be open to what some part of you already knows but which is hidden under a pile of candy cane boxes for Timmy’s class party. Prioritize those things. Put them on the list above finding the perfect #$(*&$#! Santa-shaped cake because last year’s fell to pieces and tasted like wet styrofoam.
Focus not just Christmas but the whole season on those. If you love being in touch, make Christmas phone calls throughout December when friends have more time to talk, not just on Christmas where it’s a three-minute chat before rushing off to the matinee showing of Sherlock Holmes (which is a super-great Christmas afternoon idea, by the way, thank you very much). If you love baking – actually love it, not must do it – book a Saturday with yourself and take your time doing it. If you like pleasing people with gifts, yeah sure, go shopping – but plan in it for a time when you can enjoy it and keep the volume to a level and cost that doesn’t stress you out, now or when your bills arrive in January. Or if that’s not working, think more broadly: make someone’s holiday by giving some of your amazing gifts to people in need like homeless kids, the gift-less, toy-less children, or lonely elderly people.
I know this is easier said than done. And checking boxes is a great, great thing. Trust me: I know. It’s just an Advent thought, a reminder that slowing down isn’t just an unrealistic principle that only people who can sit for hours with their legs crossed can manage. Step out of the tide for five minutes in the quiet before everyone else is up in the morning. This is your Advent, your Christmas, your time. What matters to you?