Advent: How Christmas Came To Be
I am a total geek for “how things work” or “how things started” stories. I love the little weird details behind stuff. So when I finally learned about the origins of Christmas and Advent practice I was fascinated. I’d heard about how the Christmas tree came to be and all that, but I’d never heard the actual start of the festival itself. So here goes.
Christmas is the festival that celebrates the birth of Christ (Jesus of Nazareth) in Christian tradition. But it actually developed pretty late (historically speaking). Christmas wasn’t celebrated until hundreds of years after the start of Christianity. Easter (the celebration of his resurrection) was celebrated right from the start, but Christmas didn’t come along until the movement had spread into Rome and other non-Jewish areas.
The Roman’s winter festival was called Saturnalia and celebrated… wait for it… the god Saturn. (You never would have guessed, right?) Saturnalia was quite the party, at least if you were rich. For the wealthy Romans we’re talking Hunger Games Capital level party here. Food, elaborate costumes, violent entertainment, and throwing up so you can eat more food. While poor people were starving. The followers of Jesus in Rome began fasting during the wild parties of Saturnalia in solidarity with the poor. Eventually that fast became Advent (Advent practice ironically started before Christmas existed). Then, in the aftermath of Saturnalia, while all the elite Romans were nursing one hell of a hangover, the Jesus followers threw their own party in a nose thumbing exercise.
And thus Christmas was born. (Pun intended.)
Advent practice is more than calendars
So it is slightly more than ironic that we now spend huge amounts of money ($1,000 per adult American on average) on Christmas every year, in Advent. (Tickles my sense of irony something fierce let me tell you!) While we all need a chance to kick back and enjoy ourselves ancient practice might just give us a chance to have our party, and have the peace we’re missing in our lives. The key to that, I suspect, is recapturing Advent.
Advent is after all more than opening up a calendar every day for a piece of chocolate, or a cute picture, or a little toy. Advent (as a religious season) is a time of preparation, contemplation, and quietness. Advent is a time particularly appropriate for making charitable donations, helping out in our communities, and putting the emphasis on serving others. Advent practice can be a pretty strong corrective to a month that’s spiraled more and more out of control.
Gently Falling Snow
I grew up in rural Michigan and one of my clearest memories is walking out of church on Christmas Eve after the midnight service. Everything was blanketed in a fresh new layer of snow. If you have ever been outside in the winter just after a new snow you know what I experienced. A nighttime snow creates the quietest, most peaceful landscape you can imagine. The snow silences everything. Even cars going by were just a whisper, the air was utterly still. The stars overhead were bright and sparkling and it felt like the whole world was holding it’s breath.
And that, for me, became my icon of Advent. Because when the sun rose the next day there would be 12 days of Christmas fun, presents and food and family visits. But in that moment when everything was quiet, and still and peaceful I was given a greater gift.
Why Meaning Matters
It used to be that our lives were infused with meaning through our religious tradition. When everyone was a member of the same tradition it was just assumed that the festivals and fasts that shaped our lives were shared by all. But we don’t live in that world anymore (which is not at all a bad thing) and so we have to work a little harder at infusing our lives with meaning.
Today, if you are not religious(or even if you are), it’s all too easy for every single holiday to simply become about whatever products are advertised online, on TV, and right into our email boxes.
Christmas can easily become just an excuse to spend too much money, drink too much, eat too much, and feel really bad about it later. In that sort of holiday there isn’t any meaning behind what we’re doing. We’re just going with the cultural flow because it’s easy, and it feels good at the time. But later? We might not be so happy later. And like our New Years resolutions we may say “I want to do different this year.” However, without meaning and values to anchor us that resolution is likely to last about as long as our New Year’s resolutions. (3 weeks is my record.)
Advent Activities & Tips
This is for you, if you want more peace in your celebration this year. If you want your Advent to go beyond commercialism, break out of unhealthy patterns and add meaning to your December, these activities are for you. Whether you are a Christian who has gotten a bit lost, or you celebrate a secular holiday, Advent practice has something to offer all of us.
Advent refers to the emergence of something new, and for religious Christians it reminds us that God is still bringing something new into the world, but that She wants our help and participation.
If you would like to add some of the peace, meaning, and the spiritual gifts of an Advent practice here are some suggestions.
- Slow Down. In the spirit of waiting set aside one day each week as a household “sabbath.” (I have written about Sabbath practice before and the health it can foster.) (This can also be a great way to combat holiday stress!)
- Give. Set aside a portion of what you normally spend on holiday gifts to buy food and gifts for a family in need. (Local food banks and churches often have “angel trees” for just this purpose.)
- Go Inside. Start your day with ten minutes of silent meditation, or do a meditation walk each day without music or your cell phone for distraction.
- Follow a Devotional. Chose a devotional book to guide you through December (my favorites will be listed at the bottom of this post!)
- Clear out and make room. Spend Advent decluttering you home and your heart to make space and room for newness. (Instructions found here!)
- Volunteer for a justice cause (equal pay, ending racism, welcoming immigrants, living wage, etc) you support. You might be surprised to discover that the “Kingdom of God” Christians are told to work for in Advent isn’t about an afterlife, and has nothing to do with being “raptured.” When Jesus talks about the “Kingdom of God” he’s talking about a society in which there is no difference between rich and poor, where women were not property, and where all people were treated with dignity as made in the image of God. That’s something I think we can all get behind, no matter our religion!
- Share the Love. Make a “blessing” jar with your family, brainstorms ways you can bless others and bring joy to other people throughout all of December. Then every day grab an item out of the jar and make it happen!
- Fast. You might think of fasting as abstaining from food, and in a holiday often given to excess that’s not a bad thought. But you could also fast this year from buying presents (do you or anyone you know really need more stuff?), drinking alcohol, or all sorts of unhealthy behaviors.
If you are a book person like me then having a devotional book to follow throughout the season can be very helpful. With that in mind I’ve chosen a few of my favorites below.
I’ve broken these down into two categories, those that are specifically Christian in nature and emphasize the religious aspect of the holiday and those that are less religious in nature (though since Christmas is a Christian holy day finding resources that are entirely secular is obviously difficult.)
From Holidays to Holy Days: A Benedictine Walk Through Advent.
One of my perennial favorites each year. I’m a sucker for monks. (Not in a weird way!) Maybe because I’ve known so many lovely ones. They tend to have a pretty good sense of human, and living in community with a group of other people will prepare you surprisingly well for helping other people live with their families, coworkers, and neighbors.
This is a gentle treatment of secular Christmas through the lens of a monk who doesn’t hate all those twinkly lights at all, he does however want us to go a little bit deeper.
Rooted in Hope by Elizabeth Foss
This one will be my Advent practice this year. I am frankly lousy at keeping up a consistent habit of devotional reading. I like my reading to involve space ships, explosions and quite possibly unicorns. Serious people rambling on about serious stuff is so hard for me. But I really like interactive books that allow me to get creative, to doodle and write, and generally contribute to the process. My spirituality is messy and this feels perfect for me. I mean it has a calendar, and places to doodle. It’s an organized (but totally frazzled) artists dream. Or maybe that’s just me, either way, if that’s you too join me in this one this year!
The Christmas Countdown: Creating 25 Days of New Advent Traditions for Families by Margie J. Harding
This is a fun one I suggest to families who are looking for a way to mark the Advent season with a little more depth than just popping open doors on an Advent calendar. First off, it’s gorgeous. The activities for families are actually enjoyable instead of maddening (there is no “add one piece of straw to the manger” stuff here folks, which means no itchy straw all over your damn house!)
You can easily use this one year after year.
Yule – A Celebration of Light and Warmth by Dorothy Morrison
If you celebrate Yule, or a less traditional Christmas this book has it all. A daily events calendar for the whole month of December, history, stories, recipes, pictures. It’s pretty much everything you would need to have a joyful midwinter festival from scratch. And it’s beautiful. I’m a sucker for beautiful books (who isn’t!) and this one certainly fits the bill.
Definitely something to buy in real paper and have to flip through every year as you prepare to celebrate light and warmth in the darkest time of the year!
Have a Cool Yule – How Survive (and Enjoy) the Mid-Winter Festival
I’ll admit it. I hate the name of this one. It’s so damn hip and trendy. But here’s the thing, it addresses real issues that non Christians have during December in a culture so dripping in Christmas (a Christian festival). And it does it without being angry and bitter at all. In fact it even addresses how to have a meaningful Christmas celebration with family and friends that celebrate such. Shocking, I know. 😉 I’ve heard good things about it, but have yet to manage to get my hands on a copy myself so if you have and you have a review please let us know in the comments below!
Yule: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for the Winter Solstice by Susan Pesznecker & Llewellyn
This offering is deeply rooted in modern pagan practice. It gives a great overview of what modern paganism is, the calendar of the year, the traditions and meanings behind solstice and then provides pretty much everything you’d need for quite the solstice celebration. From recipes, to rituals (something often lacking in these books) there’s something for every sort of pagan celebration. This is one book in a series that covers all the pagan festivals so if you like this one there are more to try. This one will not be helpful however if you are seeking a secular Mid-Winter celebration. Best for pagans looking to deepen their own practice.
That’s it for me folks, what are your recommendations for great resources for Advent, Christmas, Yule, or other midwinter festivals? Leave them in the comments below!