"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Aspirations for Advent


As a part of the research for my dissertation, I've been reading a bit about Advent, focusing especially upon the penitential aspect. For the past decade or so, I have been the kind of person who likes to keep my Advent separate from my Christmas. Christmas is a beautiful season filled with joy, but Advent is a wonderful season of preparation for that season of Christmas. And, as Church traditions have long indicated, better preparation makes for better celebration...fast before the feast! The key Advent sacramentals in our household are of course, the Advent wreath and the ever-popular chocolate-filled Advent calendars. As the beginning of Advent is liturgically focused upon the coming of Christ at the end of time, we generally keep the  Nativity sets and Christmas tree for a little later in the season, e.g. when "O" antiphons start seven days before Christmas. The last thing I want is for my kids to be sick of Christmas (songs, decorations, foods) by the time it's actually Christmas.

We live in a country that has little appreciation for the season of Advent. The Christmas celebrations inch earlier each year. Moreover, the preparation for Christmas becomes more and more focused on gifts - which ones to give, which ones to get, and, of course, where to get the best deal.

I wish that I could say I'm immune to the materialism of Christmas. But since becoming a mom of a few children, I've realized something important. Like most great family celebrations, Mom has to make it happen. In other words, there is no Santa Claus. If I want my kids to have gifts on Christmas, I have to play a crucial role in that happening, whether it's suggesting gifts to family members or purchasing them myself.

Recently I felt defensive, and then convicted by an article from December of 1955 in the liturgical magazine Worship. Martin Hellriegel wrote the following:

"Unfortunately a money-mad and thoughtless world has greatly disturbed the holy quiet of this [Christmas] blessed vigil. A day that should be most restful has become most restless. So many people are more concerned about preparing stockings than preparing hearts. "This day you shall know that the Lord will come to save us, and tomorrow you shall see His glory." During Advent old and young, especially mothers, must be admonished to be "prudent virgins" with lamps of faith and love in readiness, so that when "the eternal gates are lifted up, the King of glory may enter in,"enter into our hearts and homes" (67-8).

As I said, my first reaction was defensive, as this is not the first male author I've heard make comments in this vein. He says "So many people are more concerned about preparing stockings than preparing hearts." And notice how the author emphasizes "especially mothers." Well guess what? If you don't prepare the stockings, then your kids don't have any stockings to open. And presumably, if your kids are going to have filled stockings on Christmas day, you [the mom] will have to fill them on Christmas vigil. I've sometimes felt that Advent is a season that can be spiritually enjoyed by men while women do all the work, including trying to come up with gifts for everyone in the extended family, as well as the immediate family. Here's my defensiveness: it's easy for the childless male to say we need to focus on the spiritual during Advent, and it's easier for him to do it since he has no responsibility in the practicalities of preparing a family home for Christmas.

But of course, in actuality, I agree with Hellriegel's sentiments. Advent is supposed to be about joyful anticipation, prayerful expectation, penitential preparation. It's not supposed to be about spending thousands of dollars on things we all don't really need anyway. So how does the mom who has to "make it happen" avoid letting Advent become a materially-focused few weeks of gift-shopping and deal-finding?

My initial answer to this has been to try to get my shopping (or at least, my shopping ideas) done before Advent even begins. I know it sounds strange, but I always have the idea it will help me appreciate Advent more supernaturally if I don't have to spend every spare moment searching online for Christmas gifts or wracking my brain for appropriate gifts for people or debating in my head the Christmas gift budget. But this approach has not been totally satisfying to me either, not only because it's difficult to accomplish, but because  frantic shopping doesn't seem like a good preparation for Advent!

So I have a few other answers to the question of how to "make Christmas happen" while still having an Advent that is, well, Advent!

1. Don't be defensive or lament the responsibility the role of "Mom" places upon your shoulders. It's not a good idea to say, "Well I could have a great Advent, if it weren't for the fact I have to come up with all these gift ideas and spend all my time shopping." This is setting up a false cross and then using it as an excuse for spiritual sloth. It's a challenge, but it's an opportunity.

2. Part of making the most of the opportunity is firmly to fight the materialism of Christmas in America. With young children, this is easier than it seems. They aren't yet into the competitive nature of gifts, so they won't know that their peers are getting more gifts or more expensive gifts than theirs. They'll be happy with a little tin drum or a few additions to the dress-up clothes, so there's no reason to go overboard. (Oh, and use Advent as a great time to go through the toys and clear out that toybox to make room for more!)

3. The other part of making the most of the opportunity is to emphasize the spiritual aspect of Christmas. To quote Tomie DePaola, "Christmas has a magic of its own." The story of Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus is one that has infinite appeal to children. They can have hours of fun playing with a nativity set and they can get into the Christmas spirit by reading many wonderful Christmas books. Singing "O Come O Come Emmanuel" before dinner makes it exciting and special, as does shouting "Maranatha - come, Lord Jesus!" every morning before getting their Advent chocolate. Experiencing Advent with and through your children has a powerful way of making it real. And nothing better than having a baby to snuggle with on Christmas Eve!

4. Be organized. Keep a list of gifts and gift ideas, beginning as early in the year as you'd like. And instead of seeing the gift-giving aspect as a chore, try to view it as a way of preparing. As I said above, if you don't fill your kids' stockings, they won't have stockings to enjoy on Christmas. But you can do this in a prayerful way, as with buying and wrapping gifts. Pray for guidance in selecting gifts, and don't overthink them. Gifting is one of the five love languages, after all, so think of gifts in terms of love, and let the gift-giving be part of your spiritual preparation for Advent.

5. Keep the shopping under control. You may have to pay attention to your internet time and seek ways to regulate it, sometimes just by minding the time that you've spent online. You may have to be content with less-than-perfect gifts rather than making every evening a shopping excursion. Once you've purchased something for someone, cross it off the list and don't think about it again.

6. Counter the focus on materialism by increasing prayer and other spiritual practices. I was also convicted by this line from another Worship article, this time written in 1953: "Why do we steal so much of our precious time from prayer in favor of a restless activity?" (Ermin Vitry, December, 26). What a great question to reflect on during the season of Advent. Instead of restless activity, how about some extra spiritual reading, meditation on the infancy narratives from the gospel, or an extra Rosary? The liturgical readings for Advent are rich in content, so making a commitment to reflect on the daily Mass readings is also a great idea. Come up with a few aspirations you want to turn to during Advent. One of my favorites, again, is from Tomie DePaola, this time from The Clown of God - "For you sweet child, for you!" says the old clown as he juggles for the statue of the child Jesus in Mary's arms. Or, from the brieviary, "Come let us worship the Lord, the King who is to come" or "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the path of our God!"

7. In the penitential spirit of Advent, it might be a good idea to choose a voluntary mortification, much like we do in Lent. For the past couple of years I've given up sweets during Advent (excepting certain feast days, of course). Since sweets are one of my favorite parts of Christmas, I find that this small sacrifice greatly increases my desire for Christmas and aids me in focusing my preparation. Traditionally, Wednesdays and Fridays were days of abstinence from meat during Advent. This is another way to remind yourself that Advent is a special season of expectation.

8. Keep Dad involved. Again, no complaining, no bitterness, but rather open discussion and clear direction. In my experience, Mom's make it happen. But it doesn't have to be that way. Dads can come up with gift ideas, shop, wrap, stuff stockings, and watch the kids during Christmas cooking. Making Christmas happen is a Dad and Mom thing, a team sport. Plan ahead and communicate well about your plans and expectations.

9. Fight to keep the Christmas "specials" for Christmas. No eating those peppermint coated pretzels during Advent! Don't be baking sugar cookies every other day! And when the kids are asking about all the special foods, use it as an opportunity to talk about Advent and patience in waiting.

10. When you do get to Christmas, just celebrate! If your Advent hasn't lived up to your expectations, oh well! Try again next year! For now, just enjoy - Gloria, gloria, gloria!

Any other ideas out there?

1 comment:

Tim and Karin Bodony said...

Don't forget to bring cash when buying a Christmas tree at a "cut it yourself" place in semi-rural New Jersey. I learned that by reading this blog. Thanks!