"July," said my sister, Carolyn. And I was amazed. "This year we got our first Christmas catalogue in the mail in July," she said. It was from Lands’ End. Even though Carolyn was driving the car and I was sitting next to her, I knew without looking that we were rolling our eyes in unison over the ever-earlier incursion of Christmas marketing into the rest of the year. I shouldn’t have been surprised. A few months prior, I was in a taxicab with a friend when we passed the Disney store on Fifth Avenue, in whose windows Cinderella was already being decked out for December. "Are those Christmas windows?" said my astonished friend. "It’s not even Halloween!"
Like more than a few people, I find the Christmas season a blessing and, let’s be frank, a little bit of a curse. On the one hand, I love it (Christmas readings, Christmas carols, Christmas cheer). On the other hand, I lament that for many it has become an endurance test (Christmas shopping, Christmas stress, Christmas credit-card bills).
Especially for those with large families, it is a challenge to retain perspective. My sister married into a wonderfully large and generous family, which means not only lots of love but also lots of Christmas shopping. Fortunately, there’s the Internet. Last year, when I asked Carolyn how her Christmas shopping was going, she motioned as if to reach for a computer mouse. "Great!" she said cheerfully. "Click, click, click!"
Sometimes I think that instead of putting the "Christ" back in Christmas, we should just take him out. Maybe it’s time to admit that in the battle between the Christians and the marketers (replacing the lions in the modern arena), the marketers have won. Each year the retail season marches earlier into the fall (and now summer) with pressure on shoppers growing accordingly.
And the marketing campaigns just get crazier. This year you can see in magazines an ad for Sierra Mist Cranberry Splash, in which a soda bottle is jauntily decorated with a sprig of holly. The rest of the page is given over to a carol entitled "We Wish You a Merry Cranberry." ("And a Lemon-Lime new year. Lime tidings we bring, of Lemon we sing. Good tidings of Cranberry and a Lemon-Lime new year.") The infant Christ has been replaced with a small red berry.
There are also signs that the Christmas midnight Mass could one day be a fond memory. Midnight Masses are still treasured celebrations in Catholic parishes in this country. In many places they are celebrated at 7 p.m. so that younger children can participate. But recently a few parishes, with the best of intentions and in the hope of attracting more families, have scheduled the Midnight Mass in the late afternoonoften around 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve. "It’s fantastic!" a friend told me. Finally we can relax on Christmas and enjoy opening our gifts.
What’s a Christian to do? Well, maybe I’m not the right person to ask. Since I have a vow of poverty, I’m not expected to purchase lavish gifts, nor am I expected to send out thousands of Christmas cards, nor am I expected to wear the latest Christmas sweater or tie.
What’s more, I’m not raising children. If I were, my family would probably be first in the door for that 4 p.m. Mass!
But I think I have found an answer - Advent. Advent has not been taken over by Madison Avenue. At least not yet. There are no Advent catalogues arriving when it’s still 90 degrees outside. There are no Advent ads from soda companies. And you rarely hear someone carping about Advent stress (Gaudete Sunday gets more hectic every year!). No one needs to put Christ back into Advent, because nobody has tried to take him out.
During Advent the Gospel readings for both Sundays and weekdays are lovely; the theological emphasis on anticipation encourages a kind of contemplative patience; and the season is a natural one for reflection. In much of the country, even the weather cooperates: cold days and nights make prayer easier, I think.
So I try to store up consolation during the quiet days of Advent. And that consolation helps me to remember that even though Christmas can be stressful, at heart people are trying their best to be generous and loving. Complaints from friends stressed from shopping are signs of how much they want to show people that they love them. Cavils about travel are reminders that most of us are willing to go great distances to show our families we love them. And those early midnight Masses are ways loving parents and faithful pastors try to balance the nearly impossible demands of family life and prayer, and of parish life and the realities of the modern world. In these ways the consolations of Advent offer me perspective on the many blessings of Christmas.
So Happy Advent to all our readers and friends!