Every Christmas I’m conflicted. I love it…and I dread it. I’m not a Scrooge. But it is amazingly ironic and pitiful how easily my heart and soul can get wrapped up in the Christmas season for everything — except Christ.
I’ve been reflecting on several practical and specific ways together we could make Advent a meaningful experience – different from other Christmas seasons in years past.
1. Be aware of the dominant messages of our culture this time of year. It’s a healthy exercise to reflect on what our cultural norms are during the month of December. They can be really out of whack. A few suggestions: Catch yourself when you think (or say out loud) “Ooh, I want that…” Share the internal tension of consumerism with close friends or family. Question your personal motives aloud. Write down your expectations and ask the tough question of whether those expectations are healthy or not. Maybe consider memorizing Romans 12:1-2.
2. Avoid the mall if at all possible. I’m not the Grinch, I promise. There is something about malls and mall parking lots that have the potential to suck the life and joy out of our souls. It provides unruly stress, cultivates unhealthy expectations and increases inaccurate pressures we place on ourselves. We easily can be overwhelmed by the bombardment of messages we find in every store window. If you do need to go in, write down ahead of time what you are looking for and the price limit you are setting – and then take only that amount of cash with you into the mall, leaving the rest in your wallet or purse in the car (or better yet, at home).
3. Serve. Get out and serve someone. Psychologists have found that one of the best ways to help someone is to encourage them to serve others. But don’t simply serve out of guilt. Do it because it provides a great opportunity to live beyond yourself. In the process, it can help to cultivate a spirit of gratitude and selflessness.
4. Turn the TV off (or minimize the amount of time you spend in front of it). The Christmas movie specials on the tube are heart warming and fun, but its the commercials that can lure us in and send a compelling, but inaccurate message of what is normal. If you do watch a few Christmas movie specials, consider inviting friends and family over to join you, making it a relational event shared with others.
You may also want to try keeping the radio turned off as well. Nothing wrong with those Christmas songs (well…some of them are just awful but that’s for another time) but discipline yourself to create spaces of quiet and calm.
5. Choose to do less, not more. Make wise decisions regarding areas where you will choose to do less this year. This includes time, relationships and money (i.e. you don’t have to bake 12 dozen cookies like last year, you don’t have to attend every Christmas party that you are invited to, you don’t have to buy everyone a gift, you don’t have to send a Christmas card to every single person you know, etc). If you have a few quiet nights at home with little on the schedule it will free up time to spend time with the family or serve or simply reflect. If nothing else, refuse to do more than you did last year.
6. Join the conspiracy. Filling shoeboxes with toys is good, but consider something that requires a bit more commitment. Join with hundreds of other churches around the country in something called the Advent Conspiracy.
7. Read and study the classic Christmas hymns. Studying the rich lyrics of some of the traditional and well-known Christmas hymns (O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Joy to the World, Silent Night, etc) can be a very meaningful way to prepare. Because we know the words and sing them every year, its easy to put them on auto pilot. Take the time to ruminate over the words in extended times of quiet.
8. Participate in the daily Advent readings. It doesn’t take long. You can do it personally or get the entire family involved. Read them before leaving for work in the morning. Or read them together as a family before dinner or before bedtime.
9. Be generous in unique ways. Make gifts rather than buying them. Give presence, not presents. Give time and experiences instead of more stuff.
10. Listen. The Jesuit Community in England produces a fantastic podcast (one of my favorites) called Pray-As-You-Go. It’s a different daily reflective meditation for 8-10 minutes every day. These podcasts can be downloaded easily for free. Search for it in the podcast search bar on iTunes.
11. Remember the poor. In a bad economy, its the poor who feel its crippling effects more than anybody else. Don’t forget them this season.