When my children were finally old enough to do more than cry and crawl, I began a family tradition many others have around the holidays: the advent calendar. The goal was to plan an activity of some kind—large or small—for every day leading up to Christmas. On the weekdays it was as simple as reading a Christmas book together. On the weekends, we would decorate the tree, or make a snowman (weather permitting), or wrap Christmas presents.
In most cases these activities were what needed to happen to prep for the rush and chaos of the holidays, and with two preschool-aged children in tow, prepping for anything was an all-consuming act. It didn’t matter to my kids that wrapping Christmas presents or baking Christmas cookies were line items on my list of holiday expectations that had to get done; they were on our advent calendar, and the anticipation, surprise, and excitement of getting to do them made every task magic.
Our culture loves the magic of this season. Before the last ghoul and glow-in-the-dark skeleton uttered their final “trick-or-treats,” stores were resurrecting snowy holiday displays and artificial trees. The week after Halloween, my daughter and I perused a craft store to the tune of “I hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too…” Black and orange were marked down 90 percent and were slowly being consumed by silver and gold. Cinnamon-infused pine cones barricaded the entryway, insisting you smell them before leaving.
Some folks say we’ve let the culture around us steal Christmas from Christians. “Keep Christ in Christmas!” we shout angrily at the economy while holding our shopping cart with both hands on Black Friday. And no, practically none of the activities we do this time of year appear in the Bible. But then again, practically none of the things we ever do today appear in the Bible. Nobody I know has to travel to his or her place of birth on the back of a donkey to be counted in a census, especially at nine months pregnant. There’s no tradition of singing carols, wrapping presents, building snowmen, decorating trees with tinsel, or baking cookies in the Bible. Also no iPods.
The world is trying to manufacture magic, and they’re doing a pretty good job of it, considering the bins of decorations, holiday lights, wrapping paper, and bows I have stored away in my basement. And I love all of it. I love the music, which I began to play on my computer at work a week before Thanksgiving because I am not a holiday exclusionist and see no reason why we can’t simultaneously give thanks and hope for the arrival of a Savior, except that the two holidays’ traditional color schemes clash. I love How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph and Frosty and ABC Family playing every cheesy holiday movie every night of the season. I love the crisp chill of the exterior washed away by the heat of the interior: warm fires, blankets, hot toddies and hot cocoa. I love the delight on my kids’ faces because I have carved out these few minutes each day for the month of December to focus solely on our family, when the rest of the year it’s mostly hustle and hurry and finish your homework and eat your dinner and take a bath and go to bed.
Because while not one of these activities appears in scripture, what does appear is love manifested in fullness. Joseph and Mary are visited by angels with messages of God’s favor, hope and challenge and mercy. When Mary enters her house, Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is filled with the Holy Spirit and trumpets the arrival of the mother of her Lord. From the fullness of her joy, Mary sings how her soul glorifies the Lord. In the time before the Christ child’s arrival, the unwed teenaged mother Mary spends three months of her pregnancy with her cousin, who is also pregnant. Elizabeth’s husband is filled with the Holy Spirit and sings of his own son’s future.
So for me it seems right that our time of advent, our time of anticipation, is full of this magic, filled with this delight, filled with this Holy Spirit of love and joy and togetherness. In a culture fractured by differing opinions, the distance of social media, and the dissonance of noise, we gather together to build this force field of joy. Advent is traditionally a season of anticipation and preparation—in the chaos of history, in the chaos of the personal and the universal, the weeks of advent are filled with longing for the fulfillment and arrival of the Messiah, Savior to redeem the brokenness.
In defiance of the darkness and grief in this world, advent for me is hope now, joy now, peace now, the incarnate Christ with us now, even as we hope and long for resolution and redemption.
As a bearer of the light of Christ’s love, I don’t need the trees, the Christmas cookies, and the lights. Even the Grinch knows love comes without boxes and packages and bows. But even the Grinch, filled with the revelation of the power of love, was moved into the spirit of generosity of presence—and presents. Filled with the revelation of love, his heart grows. As a bearer of the light of Christ’s love, I want this advent to be filled with the generosity of presence, made manifest in paper snowflakes, ice skates, and gingerbread dough.
Let’s embed this holiday season with our own brand of magic: Christ with us, Christ with us, Christ with us.