I want to wade into a topic that could be controversial in some of the circles I run in, but really shouldn’t be. It’s one of those issues that people who spend time in church sometimes argue about, and for the most part, it is not important. (That alone is a controversial thing to say.) The topic is Advent vs. Christmas.
Last month, as Advent approached, I lightheartedly said to a couple of friends, “I don’t like Advent. Advent is played.” Neither of the things I said in that sentence is true. I like Advent just fine, and it is not at all played. What I was really saying (without just saying it) is that I don’t like the “Advent police.”
The whole idea of “Advent police” flows from the concern some people have that Advent doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Advent is a chance to get quiet, get serious, and deeply contemplate what the dawning of God’s righteousness and justice might be like. It’s a chance to recognize that approaching dawn in our own time and place. It honors our grief that that dawn is still not here. The “Advent police” are set firmly against the commercialized festivities of December in dominant U.S. culture. Their concern is valid. Advent is healthy, and offers something to people that they desperately need.
But the passion of the “Advent police,” I think, is misplaced. Don’t play Christmas music, they say. Don’t hang lights. Wait until the twelve days of Christmas. Only blue colors, or purple. (There’s a sub-argument about blue vs. purple, too.) Some people have intense feelings about these things. But here are my reasons why I think we should all relax:
Many of us have been waiting and watching for the dawning of righteousness and justice for a long, long time now. People wait in hospital waiting rooms. They wait in ICE detention centers. They wait in assisted-living facilities. They wait in churches and schools and cancer clinics. They wait during their graveyard shifts, and in neonatal units. They wait for the veterinarian to come back and tell them what’s wrong. They wait for advocates to help them with their case. They wait for their children to come home, even when they know their children are gone forever. Now, I know: Advent is a good season for all of these people! Advent is in many ways the ideal season for the church to celebrate, because it joins us all with our neighbors who are waiting and watching, waiting and watching, waiting and watching. But… paradoxically, I think that might be one reason why people don’t wait for the end of Advent to turn on the lights and sing the songs. They’ve already been waiting for so, so long. Would humming a little carol really hurt?
Some of us keep Advent, but not rigidly so. I fall into this group. I love Christmas lights and unapologetically hang them as soon as the sun abandons us in the late afternoon, around December 1. I love the smell of evergreens in the house. And I love secular Christmas songs, the sadder and more melodramatic, the better. (What’s better than Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”?) I like Christmas cookies and Christmas movies. I like feeling festive in December. That said, I do keep Advent. There are certain Christmas songs I will not play or sing before sundown on December 24. My favorite, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” tops the list. (See? I like sad sacred music too. I deeply appreciate the melancholic, serious tone of Advent.) And I wait on the cheery red ribbons. (Deep red or maroon? Sure!)
How another person celebrates the holidays (or not) in December doesn’t matter. If Advent works for you, great! It works for me, too, though I know point 2 above makes me an Advent outlaw. For me, the urge to be an Advent enforcer edges uncomfortably close to the “War on Christmas” people, who bizarrely think that Christmas, and by extension, Christianity, is under fire in dominant U.S. culture. (Huh?!) Scrooge was wrong about many things, but he got one thing right: “Keep Christmas in your own way,” he said to his nephew, “and let me keep it in mine.” That’s fair.
Finally, I think Advent is a good time to reflect on what one should really be passionate about, which brings us full circle to the “dawning of righteousness and justice” stuff above. The lights in my window don’t blind me to the deeper stuff. They actually help. They are a sign of the “now, but also not yet” nature of God’s dawning. They shine in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome them…. but that darkness is deep. I might be blasting the Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong Christmas album, but that won’t mean I’ll forget about the darkness, or the people who walk more deeply in it than I ever have.
So, happy Advent! Or… happy holidays. I’m sure however I greet you, you’ll do what you need to do this month to welcome the dawning of light in these dark times.