I grew up in a non-liturgical Christian community. We used Advent Calendars and Advent Wreaths to keep Christ in Christmas, but there was not much understanding of Advent beyond that. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was the Christmas season. By December 26, Christmas was over.
As I grew into adulthood, I found the more liturgical and historical view of Advent and Christmas refreshing. During Advent we prepared for Christmas. Christmas began on Christmas and extended through at least Epiphany (the twelve days of Christmas) and possibly even until Candlemas (February 2).
But a good thing can be taken too far. Traditionalists began instructing that Christmas trees should not be up prior to Christmas Eve. Christmas songs should be absolutely avoided until Christmas Day. No Christmas shopping should take place during Advent.
One should not go to Christmas parties during Advent even if they are hosted by your dearest friends or your employer.
Perhaps this solemn view of Advent would work if these traditionalists made Christmas an absolute blowout. A very penitential Lent often leads to a most celebratory Easter. There is nothing more beautiful than the lights coming on after sitting in the darkness of the Easter Vigil Mass to see gorgeous Easter Lilies covering the altar. The problem that arose with a strict adherence to Advent was that everything became about Advent and Epiphany, with little attention on Christmas itself.
My children have been raised in this traditionalist mindset. During their entire lives, we limited the Christmas music prior to Christmas. We waited to put up our tree until Gaudete Sunday (the third Sunday of Advent). Our children even felt guilty about putting the tree up that early and would say, "I hope [our pastor] doesn't drive by our house and see our tree." At their parish school, they learned Advent songs for a Advent Lessons & Carols performance. They had no school Christmas parties. They waited and had Epiphany parties when they returned from break. Quite literally, they knew the words to O Come, O Come Emmanuel and We Three Kings of Orient Are and did not know O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World or Hark the Herald Angel Sings.
It was worse than that. The secular culture around them managed to teach them the words to Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer and Jingle Bells, but they knew no Christmas hymns. Somehow in preserving Advent, we had managed to take Christ out of Christmas. I began to refer to our parish as the place "where it is always Advent but never Christmas" (the reference to the White Witch's Narnia was of course intentional).
So how do we find a happy medium? For me, the answer went right back to my childhood. Each year, my mother read Madeleine L'Engle's Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas to us from a women's magazine that the story first appeared in. She had held on to her copy of the magazine for years until finally getting a copy of the picture book. To this day, she often reads the story to my children just after Thanksgiving.
Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas follows the Austin family shortly before the birth of their youngest child. The reader is told that the adults reflect on serious theological topics during Advent. As for the children they do one thing each day with their family to prepare for Christmas. They slowly decorate their house. They slowly prepare their holiday food. The children are practicing their Christmas pageant at their church. They sing Christmas carols. Advent is quiet. It is slow-paced. It is preparation for Christmas, but it does not ignore Christmas.
In my next post, I will be setting out how we are preparing for Christmas in our homeschooling. After years of our children not being exposed to enough Christmas carols, we will being doing a study of Christmas carols throughout Advent so they can sing them with gusto during Christmas. Our Christmas decorations will be going up slowly throughout Advent, but they will be going up during Advent in preparation for Christmas. We are using Christmas celebrations as a springboard to studying geography and cultures around the world.
So many wonderful cultural opportunities exist for families only during Advent. Performances of The Nutcracker and Messiah are almost exclusively during Advent. We will not be missing those performances out of some Cromwellian rejection of festivities. We will embrace the tools of Advent, such as the Jesse tree, Advent Calendars and Advent wreaths. But we will be careful not to go so overboard that our adherence to Advent leads to an overshadowing of Christmas.