BreakPoint: Too Much Christmas, too Little Advent?

The Joy of Anticipation

Advent has been buried under a pile of twinkle lights, plastic reindeer, and the Grinch. Here’s why.

Once upon a time there was a little girl who wanted it to be Christmas every day of the year. A fairy granted her wish: every day, for a whole year, it would be Christmas Day.

And what that little girl learned in this funny story by William Dean Howells, is that you really can have too much of a good thing—way too much.

The little girl had a wonderful Christmas, filled with presents and turkey and plum pudding. And the next day, it was Christmas again! The gifts, the turkey dinner, and all the rest of it. After a few months, the little girl, seeing “those great ugly lumpy stockings dangling at the fireplace, and the disgusting presents . . . burst out crying.”

By then, writes Howells, “people didn’t carry presents around nicely any more. They flung them over the fence, or through the window.”

Joseph Bottum relates this amusing tale in his book, “The Christmas Plains,” drawing a parallel between the story and the way we celebrate Christmas today.

Even before Thanksgiving, Christmas songs blare from our radios; catalogs arrive even earlier. Department store Christmas trees often go up right after Halloween. After weeks of carols and cookies and parties, Bottum notes, Christmas “arrives as an afterthought: not the fulfillment, but only the end, of the long yule season…”

In effect, we are celebrating Christmas every day, just like the little girl in the story. And many of us get just as sick of this daily “Christmas” as she did, although we don’t fling gifts at people, I hope.

Now how on earth did this happen? Well, as Bottum notes, “every secularized holiday tends to lose, in public contexts, the meaning it holds in the religious calendar.”

Advent—the traditional lead-up to Christmas—has vanished, culturally speaking. Its disappearance has left “a hole, from Thanksgiving on, that can be filled only with fiercer, madder, and wilder attempts to anticipate Christmas,” Bottum writes.

Sadly, he’s right. If we want to celebrate Christmas properly—with “disciplined anticipation” as Bottum puts it–perhaps we need to cut back on all the secular celebrations (if we possibly can—they won’t go without a fight), and make the observance of the days of Advent front and center in our celebrations.

Advent “proclaims an advent—a time before, a looking forward—and it lacks meaning without Christmas” at the end of it, Bottum explains. Christmas, “in turn, lacks meaning without the penitential season of advent to go before it.”

This is why Advent celebrations, both at home and in churches, focus on scriptures that anticipate the coming of Christ.

In Micah, we read, “But you, O Bethlehem . . . from you SHALL come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel…”

And in Matthew, Joseph is told that Mary “WILL bear a son, and you SHALL call his name Jesus . . .”

Things like Advent calendars and crèches that remain empty until Christmas Eve “give a shape to the anticipation of the season,” says Bottum. And “a season of contrition and sacrifice prepares us to understand and feel something about just how great the gift is when at last the day itself arrives.”

Why not try an Advent devotional to guide you, such as ones by Tim Keller and John Piper? Or check out John Stonestreet’s “He Has Come” talks at the BreakPoint podcast. Make an Advent wreath with your children. And take time every evening to gather your family around, light the Advent candles, read the scriptures, pray, and sing some Christmas hymns that anticipate the coming of Christ.

And then when Christmas Day does arrive, we can greet it, not with a sense of relief that the Christmas “season” is almost over, but with joy for the great gift of Christ.

 

(This commentary originally aired December 7, 2016.)

 

Too Much Christmas, too Little Advent?: The Joy of Anticipation

Eric has presented some great suggestions to help re-focus us on the season of Advent. Click on the links below for resources to help in the observance of Advent and for teaching and reading materials during this special time of year.

 

Resources

The Christmas Plains
  • Joseph Bottum | Image Publisher | October 2012
The Dawning of Indestructible Joy: Daily Readings for Advent
  • John Piper | Crossway Publishing | August 2014
Hidden Christmas
  • Timothy Keller | Penguin Random Publishing| October 2016

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  • ah.1960

    Great article!

    The shepherds, after hearing the good news and seeing the baby in the manger, told everyone about what had happened. One question we might ask ourselves is “Who are we telling about the birth of Jesus this Christmas season?”

    Personally, I have been involved with the Samaritan’s Purse ministry Operation Christmas Child for a number of years. While the shoebox gifts people pack bring joy to children around the world, more importantly, the greater gift is the gospel message that goes with each shoebox, proclaiming the good news that “Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, has been born.”

    Each of us need to include this or a similar ministry as part of our Christmas celebration: one that gives gifts to others, but more importantly, one that explicitly, plainly, and directly gives to others the good news of the gospel that a Savior has been born in Bethlehem!

  • gladys1071

    So now we are criticizing Christmas? really? I like all of the Christmas songs and seasons, i love this time of year, and why should their be a “disciplined anticipation”?

    I think this article is uneccesary criticism that is not needed.

  • Ralph Wagenet

    A modest proposal for getting Christmas right (first posted on Facebook late 2015)…

    Every year we hear complaints about the commercialism of Christmas; how the noise of the holiday season threatens to drown out the message of the birth of Christ. Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, instead of being a time of solemn meditation on our need for a Savior and our longing for Christ’s coming, is now a time of parties, lights and presents that were once reserved for the twelve days following Christmas and leading up to Epiphany (the celebration of the magi bringing their gifts to Jesus). By the time Christ has actually come, our Christmas trees are wilted, our budgets are busted and everyone is too exhausted to remember why we were doing all this in the first place. So what do we do to get Christmas right?

    My modest proposal: Move the church’s celebration of Christ’s birth to Thanksgiving day. Advent would then be on the four Sundays prior to Thanksgiving, inaugurated on or around Halloween (when our need for a Savior becomes painfully obvious), and would be relatively undisturbed by the world’s commercialism. The eve of Christ’s birth would be celebrated the day before Thanksgiving and our Thanksgiving feast would be a celebration of the coming of the Savior. We could then buy our presents and Christmas tree on the days after we have commemorated Christ’s birth (Black Friday and the other commercial holidays) as an act of celebration of God’s gift of His son and give them to each other on St. Nicholas day (December 6th), a day which many European countries observe by giving presents to each other. We could also move Epiphany from January 6th to December 6th, so the giving of our presents would re-enact not only the generosity of St. Nicholas but also the giving of the gifts by the magi.

    This change (which would only be done by the church, who are the only ones who really care about Christ’s birth, anyhow) would put the Christmas parties and gift giving in December back in their proper place; as celebratory responses to the incarnation rather than being the distractions from the coming birth of Christ that they now are. The Christmas carols which we sing throughout December, announcing that “the Lord has come” would fit wonderfully into this schedule, since they would follow the day His birth is celebrated rather than anachronistically preceding the event as they now do. And those who have complained since time immemorial that Christmas occupies a pagan holiday (the winter solstice) would have nothing to complain about, since Thanksgiving is a day perfectly suited to the celebration of God’s gift to us.

    I know – it will never happen. But wouldn’t it be nice if it could?

    • gladys1071

      With all of the suffering and more important issues in people’s lives, i think how we celebrate Christmas is the least of our problems.