First published in the Umatuna, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Agana, Guam, on 12/4/99.
“What are you giving up for Advent?” So rang the commanding voice of Sr. Mary Paul who presided over our 2nd grade class. The very question should tell you that this was quite a while ago (early 60’s actually). I can remember each Advent being instructed by this most holy nun to write down on a little piece of paper at least three things we were to give up for Advent. Then all the papers were collected and set upon the altar at the first school Mass of the Advent season.
I can remember that giving up things for Advent was taken very seriously and we would brag about our little sacrifices to our friends in the schoolyard. We were all very proud of our pubescent attempts at asceticism. But somewhere around 6th grade, when our teacher, Sr. Mary Ephraim became Sr. Rose (and eventually just Rose), the whole idea of giving up something for Advent was dismissed and it became fashionable to ask not what you will give up but what will you do for Advent.
I then recall that we no longer made individual commitments, but we decided to collectively do something as a class. Eventually our Advent resolutions evolved from little personal sacrifices offered secretly at the Altar to once a season class field trips to the local convalescent home, where, given our little sixth grade minds, we were moved more to jokes about the spooky looking old people than to any form of compassion.
By my high-school years (and I went to a Catholic high-school) the whole idea of giving up anything or even doing anything for Advent had disappeared. In Sunday sermons, the word “repent” was more and more replaced by the word “prepare” (a much nicer word), and instead of being marched off to confession on a Wednesday afternoon by Sr. Mary Paul, we were free to attend Fr. Chuck’s Reconciliation Service which was usually followed by a party and much food.
As I grew into adulthood Christmas Day became less and less meaningful, even a source of depression. I kept looking for the best music, the best liturgy. I tried Midnight Mass, early Christmas morning Mass. I rented videos and went to see movies about Christmas, restlessly seeking the elusive Christmas spirit. I started playing Christmas music in October. I bought magazines off supermarket racks that sold the secret of the Christmas spirit on their covers. I wore out “It’s a Wonderful Life” and partied many a night away at Christmas party after Christmas party. Still Christmas Day itself became more and more depressing and anti-climatic.
But this year is going to be different. Sr. Mary Paul had it right all along. There really is no Christmas without Advent. And there really is no Advent without repentance. And there is no repentance without giving something up, be it ever so small. The instructions for Advent are very plain in Scripture. What must one do to prepare the way of the Lord? “Repent!” (Mt.3:2).
The Baptist does not cry, “spend some quiet time reflecting on the meaning of the Lord’s coming in your life”. He does not cry “visit the local convalescent home or work in the soup kitchen” (though we should do these things). He cries “Repent!!!” And THEN show evidence of your repentance by producing “good fruit” (Mt.3:8) lest you be “cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt.3:10). Nothing nice here.
I looked in the thesaurus under “repentance” and here’s what I found: “sorrow”, “remorse”, “regret”, “contrition”, “penitence”, contriteness”, “compunction”. What struck me was that these words were describing my mood on Christmas Day. Why? Well, why shouldn’t they? I had been doing all the feel good stuff all through the season of repentance. I had reversed the seasons and I bet I’m not alone here.
By omitting or at least de-emphasizing repentance, signified most clearly by giving something up as Sr. Mary Paul had instructed, we have naively eviscerated the essence of Advent and we can now begin our Christmas Season as early as we like...and we do. So, though we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, light the candles on the Advent wreath, and listen to the usual exhortations from the pulpit eschewing materialism and the commercialization of Christmas, we cross ourselves, genuflect, then jump in our cars and head for the malls or the office Christmas party, just like everyone else.
I submit that we Catholics have no business acting like everyone else. I submit that as Catholics we do something radically Catholic for Advent, so radical that you will probably have the best Christmas ever. I submit that we give up something for Advent. I submit that for Advent we give up Christmas. That’s right. Read it again. Give up Christmas for Advent. Let’s put the Christmas back in Christmas by keeping it out of Advent.
I realize that most of us won’t be able to go cold turkey on this, so go ahead and setup the tree, but no decorations until Christmas Eve. String the lights on your house, but don’t turn them on til Christmas Eve. Bake the cookies, etc., but no eating until Christmas. As a matter of fact, the bare tree might be a good idea, a new tradition. We could call it the Advent tree. It will probably teach our children much about what Advent is.. I know you’ll still need to do the shopping, but keep the presents in the closet until Christmas Eve. You got the idea. There’s really nothing new about this. When reading those lovely old Christmas stories we are told that all the decorations and preparations happened on “the night before Christmas”, not the night after Thanksgiving.
And what about the Christmas parties? Don’t worry our Holy Mother Church in all her wisdom has amply provided plenty of party time. For the true Catholic liturgical Christmas Season actually starts with Christmas Day. It does not end with it. The Christmas Season extends all the way to the Sunday after January 6, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
January 6 of course is the Feast of the Epiphany, and more traditionally Catholics have celebrated Christmas up till then, the original 12 days of Christmas. It was we Catholics who came up with the 12 days of Christmas, not Bing Crosby. And why not give a gift every day for the full 12 days just as the song says. In some cultures, gifts are not even given until the Feast of the Epiphany. Now this makes a lot of sense. Not only is it the day celebrating the beginning of gift giving at Christmas (Gold, Frankincense, & myrrh), you’ll also find much better prices at the stores.
When I was a child my mother would not take the tree down until January 6. We could tell who the Protestants were in the neighborhood because their trees would be on the curb with the rest of the Christmas trash by December 26. We were so glad to be Catholic because we could keep our tree and its magic for an extra 12 days. Catholics really do have more fun.
But seriously, I believe that our Church in Her wisdom gave us 12 days of Christmas because this time splitting event which we celebrate on December 25 is too great for human nature to fathom in just one day each year. We need the whole Christmas Season to rejoice...and the WHOLE Advent Season to prepare for it. So what are you going to give up for Advent?
December 4, 1999