Holy Time: Observing Advent Instead of Fighting Santa

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Every year I hear folks bemoaning the secularization of Christmas and how commercialism has overtaken what used to be a Christian holiday. I read news stories about which retail stores are promoting “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and which groups and organizations are boycotting those stores for choosing to greet their customers in one way or another.  People label it the “war on Christmas”—this battle between Santa and Jesus, a battle in which you can score points for your side by firmly replying “Merry CHRISTMAS” to the cashier who has been instructed to say “Happy Holidays” or vice versa.

I get it. Yes, I want to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, but I’m really not interested in “fighting” this war by shopping at this retailer instead of that retailer or by petitioning to ban the playing of “Santa Baby” in all public places. (Although someone should. Worst song ever, amirite?!)

The secularization of Christmas is not a new development. Even looking back decades at the portrayal of Christmas in It’s a Wonderful Life! (which, I admittedly adore), Christmas is more of a family and community holiday than a religious one. Go back further and we have A Christmas Carol. The message isn’t a bad one: having a spirit of giving, learning to love people over possessions, the tragic loneliness of greed, and a chance for redemption. I listen to Jim Dale read the audiobook every year and I cry like a baby. I can’t wait to share the Muppet Christmas Carol with my 3-year-old this year. So don’t peg me as a Dickens hater. I’m not. But, if I’m honest, it’s a lot of sentimental secular humanism and very little Christianity.

For most Americans, the holidays are a time to be with family, be thankful for all we have, and give whatever we can to those who need it. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that! And personally, I’m glad for a little distinction between our cultural celebration of holiday cheer and observing the Christmas season as a religious tradition.

I think there is such a simple solution if you really want Christmas to be a religious holiday for your family. Just observe the traditional seasons of the liturgical year. The Church has such a beautiful rhythm to celebrating the various seasons of the Christian story. The four weeks before Christmas (a little after Thanksgiving until December 25th) is the season of Advent.

Advent (not New Years) is the beginning of the Christian year and it’s considered a ‘little Lent.’ It’s quiet. It’s somber. It’s full of waiting and hoping. Just as there can be no real celebration of the Resurrection without the pain of Good Friday, there can be no real Christmas without the expectation of Advent.

St. Charles Borromeo writes, “Each year, as the Church recalls this mystery, she urges us to renew the memory of the great love God has shown us. This holy season teaches us that Christ’s coming was not only for the benefit of his contemporaries; his power has still to be communicated to us all…The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace.”

Isn’t that beautiful? But that kind of preparation doesn’t just happen as we snarf down red and green M&Ms. We have a part to play. We have to offer this time to ready our hearts for Our Lord. If you really commit to observing Advent, your December is going to look very different.

For most American families, by the evening of December 25th, they have been eating, buying, Christmas music listening, gift-giving, gift-receiving, tree trimming, and cookie baking for over a month. They’re sick to death of it. Get the tree out by the road! Take the decorations down the day after Christmas! Turn that blasted music off!

If you observe Advent, before Christmas arrives you might not be tree trimming, you might not be holiday cheering. You’ll know every verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by heart and you’ll be itching to belt out “Joy to the World!” You’ll be reflecting, reading, praying, waiting. And it will be a sacrifice. What will it look like for your family? You might decide to forego all the Christmas parties that happen during Advent. You might avoid the malls blaring Christmas music starting in October. You might decide to keep gifts super simple so that you’re not doing any scrambling during the quiet of Advent and can focus on waiting for Jesus. The practicalities of how you decide to observe Advent will vary from family to family. But if you do set aside this time as a holy preparation, it’s a surefire thing that in comparison to the bustle around you will look quite odd. (Lucky for us, with Chinese Cabbages growing all over our front yard and 21 chickens running about our urban homestead, we’re already the neighborhood weirdos.)

I’m really selling this Advent thing, aren’t I?! Before you label me as the modern Ebenezer Scrooge, let me tell you a secret. I LOVE Christmas. I love cutting down the tree and stringing the lights (Ok, fine, watching my husband string the lights). I get all teary-eyed and heart-warmy when I unwrap our ornaments and tell my kids stories about how we got each one. I giggle with glee when I get to play Sufjan’s Christmas tunes. I love dressing my kids up for Christmas Mass, reading them Christmas stories, and setting up the Nativity scene

Here’s the good news. If you observe Advent, on Christmas Day, it will feel like CHRISTMAS! And then you get to celebrate it for TWELVE DAYS. That twelve days of Christmas song was for real! It’s a liturgical season twelve days long. It’s a Christmas-lover’s dream come true! You’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting. You’ve been lighting candles and watching the wax melt a little lower each night. You’ve been setting up your Jesse Tree and remembering God’s story for the world and how the Incarnation is the point on which it all spins. The tree trimming, the carol singing, the feasting, the celebrating—twelve whole days of it! You wait and wait through the long days of Advent like a pregnant woman in her last month. Then when we celebrate the joyous birth of Our Lord it is time to kick up our heels! And we do. We really do.

I want to share with you soon about what our Advent looks like practically in a future post. For now I’ll leave you with a little more inspiration from St. Charles Borromeo:

Beloved, now is the acceptable time spoken of by the Spirit, the day of salvation, peace and reconciliation: the great season of Advent. This is the time eagerly awaited by the patriarchs and prophets, the time that holy Simeon rejoiced at last to see. This is the season that the Church has always celebrated with special solemnity. We too should always observe it with faith and love, offering praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and love he has shown us in this mystery. “



For reflections on Advent and practical ways to observe the season through food and traditions, check out our book: Feast! Real Food, Reflections, and Simple Living for the Christian Year.

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  1. Leslie says

    I have 4 kids who are now all young adults. When they were young, and the “gimmees” were getting so bad – my husband and I started celebrating the advent season and it definitely helped alot. We lived in New Orleans and my husband comes from a french tradition and he grew up with putting up the tree on Christmas Eve. What we did was not put up the tree until around the 2oth. Then we started with adding lots of advent activities and slowly adding Christmas decorations to the house. It really worked. They are now ages 17 – 23 and they love all our family traditions and really appreciate what they grew up with. I would tell people that it slows down the whole holiday season but most people are not willing to do this. I love advent and what a gift to give your children – the wonder of waiting, the thrill of expectation.

    • Haley says

      Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Leslie! I love hearing about other families’ Advent and Christmas traditions. My husband grew up in New Orleans and we love visiting (the food! help me! so good!). We usually go with my husband’s family to cut down a tree in mid December and then we wait to decorate it until Christmas Eve after Mass or on Christmas Day. It’s hard to slow down the season but I do think it’s worth it. And I don’t think the kids feel like they’re missing anything–they love it (especially have 12 days of Christmas!)

  2. says

    Love this! Our family isn’t Catholic, but I am hoping to celebrate Advent and Christmas this year according to the liturgical calendar. Usually by the 25th I’m ready to pass out and sleep until New Years. Really looking forward to your next Advent post!

    • Haley says

      Thank you, Makenzie! Please linkup with Little Holydays if you post about your Advent and Christmas traditions. You don’t have to be Catholic to link up your posts! I hope it’s a wonderful peaceful Advent of expectation for your family (I peeked at your blog and can’t get over how precious your daughter is. Congratulations. What a gift you must be to each other.)

  3. says

    Yes yes yes yes YES!!! Thank you so much for writing this. This is exactly what we do and it has brought Advent and Christmas to a whole new glorious level and it rocks.

    • Haley says

      Thanks, Mary! OK, so I hopped over to your blog and think we must be kindred spirits. If you post about Advent please linkup on Dec. 3rd! You can link up old or new posts.

  4. says

    This is beautiful, Haley! I’m still holding out hope for a balance between religious observation and celebrating family, but we will be doing an advent wreath this year (alongside our “12 days of Christmas” celebration, which takes place on the wrong side of Christmas…oops), and I’m really enjoying your thoughts on advent. Can’t wait to read your practical posts as well!

    • Haley says

      Thank you so much, Mandi! I think it’s our 3rd year doing an Advent wreath and I get as excited about it as 3-year-old Benjamin does. I’m still finalizing what our 12 Days of Christmas plans will be, but I’m looking forward to that, too. I just love this time of year. Oh! And I listened to one of the podcasts you and Tsh did for SM when I was folding laundry the other day. So fun!

  5. says

    I’ve really been trying to be more observant of the liturgical calendar so it feels more habitual by the time I get married and have children. This post has really confirmed that it’s a good thing to do, for family’s sake.

    Besides, what could be better than prolonging my favorite time of the year? 😀

  6. says

    I LOVE Advent! I’m so excited for it this year. You hit on a special reason for me: “You wait and wait through the long days of Advent like a pregnant woman in her last month. ” I am due to deliver our next little boy a few days before Christmas, so this is very real to me. Also, it drives me crazy that radio stations stop playing Christmas music on Christmas–some at 6pm! There are six more hours to the day, and another eleven days besides! Third and finally, I started making a 12-Days-of-Christmas calendar last year, just like our Advent calendar to bring the message home for our boys. I’ll have to finish it this year!

    • Haley says

      Being pregnant during Advent is really special! I’m still brainstorming what we’ll do for each of the 12 days. Exciting!

  7. Magdalene S. says

    When we converted to orthodox Christianity two years ago, our families thought lent was a little strange, but Advent really pushes them out of shape. Not only do we fast during this crazy season of sugar, but we actually go to Church Christmas morning.
    This year I made a huge advent calender with slips of paper in pockets for our three year old in an effort to get him to think about the cycle of the year and to build the excitemnt around Christmas as a religious holiday of giving. Today he had to give one of his board books to a baby at Church, tomorrow we will make muffins. Next week: ornaments fot the birds and pet treats to the SPCA who collects pet food donations for poor seniors. So far he has been totally excited about whatever the day calls for, even if it means giving away his stuff. I am so gratefull for a post like this one that acknowledges the deep and terrible irony of being mad about the “war on Christmas” without taking the time to make any Christ centerd changes in ones life.

    • Haley says

      I love going to Mass on Christmas Day! It’s not a tradition I grew up with but now it seems strange not to go. And I love your Advent ideas. We always make peanut butter birdfeeders out of pine cones this time of year and I’d love to tie it into our Advent traditions!

  8. says

    Advent is a completely new concept to me. I’ve heard the word before and I knew it related to Christmas somehow, but I have never really known what it is until my husband and I went to RCIA class last week and someone asked a question about it. Now that I know, I have been researching advent and different traditions, etc. I’m looking forward to your post about what advent looks like in your home just to see how real people experience the season of advent and get ideas for how we might do the same. The more I learn about the liturgical year the more I love it. So many things to celebrate and learn about. I imagine going through the year and teaching these things to children must be an incredible experience. 🙂

  9. Miriam says

    Dear Haley,
    I agree with you once more! I LOVE Christmas and I LOVE Advent. As I child, it was always my favourite time of the year: we would have the Advent calendar and the Advent wreath; we would light each one of its four candles every Sunday before Christmas; my father would preach about it at church and read to us about how people celebrated it around the world at home; we would read the Holy story in the Bible, praise Him with carols and pray together, anticipating Christmas. In particular, I remember all the music and laughter, as well as the quietude and reflection: it was all joy and peace in preparation for Christmas (with the occasional fight with my younger brother: we were kids after all! :)). It was also great to unite the best of both worlds: Australian and Spanish traditions. My dad passed away when I was only 12, but I still remember those days as some of my happiest and I have inherited his passion for this celebration. For me Advent/Christmas is still a time that unites the message of Hope, the coming of the Saviour, with a time to be thankful for all our blessings, especially our loved ones.
    So thank you for reminding me in the midst of my hectic life of the need to enjoy this time of peace and prayer. And I like the thought that we will be celebrating it at the same time on both sides of the Atlantic, together with people from all around the world: it gives new strength to the idea of Christian communion.
    I look forward to future posts on this topic!

  10. Alina says

    I stumbled on your blog through Pintrest (I think it was the “books I want to read to my daughter so that she won’t grow up to be like that girl from Twilight” post), and absolutely love it! Your taste in literature, your appreciation of liturgical tradition, the fact that you guys have bunch of chickens running around – all of it is so wonderful! I am expecting twins for my first set of babies, and am so thankful to find someone with so much grace, insight, and common spirit to learn from. And this particular post says things that are true, and good, and right to do. I am very much looking forward to your Little Holydays project!
    And speaking of Advent – have you found a good family devotional book to read for the season of Advent? We have “Waiting for the Light,” but it would be nice to have some other resource.

    • Haley says

      Hi Alina! Thanks for stopping by 🙂 Congratulations on your twins! How wonderful! I also have “Watch for the Light” and I really enjoy most of the little chapters. Honestly, I don’t have another favorite resource yet since that was last year’s go-to and none of my kids were ready to sit still and listen to a devotional. I just ordered Jotham’s Journey–a children’s storybook about a fictional little boy and Advent. We’ll see how that takes off. We really should have some kind of Advent resource round-up! I know that Thomas Merton has written about Advent and there’s a new book “The Little Way of Advent” I think it’s called about St. Therese and Advent that I want to get my hands on.


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