It is not yet Thanksgiving and all through the mall “season’s greetings” are plastered on store fronts and all…the siren call of PS3 fills me with dread, and the refrain “put Christ back in Christmas” echoes in my head.
Advent is a special time for Christians: time for reflection, prayer, and silent anticipation of the birth of our Savior. In reliving “the ancient expectancy of the Messiah” we renew our anticipation for the second coming of Christ. We contemplate the great and awesome gift of our salvation in the humble form of a tiny babe.
But this is not the world we live in! Instead, we are bombarded with shopping, to-do lists, parties, and last minute deadlines. So often we look forward to family gatherings, perhaps remembering idyllic Christmases of our youth. Reality looks quite different. There is the aunt who looks with disdain on your current job situation, the sister who always picks a fight with you, the parent who is never pleased, the drunk and argumentative uncle, or the friend who questions God’s existence and your faith. Psychologists report that many people become anxious and even depressed around the holiday season. How can this happen during a time that should be filled with joy, family, and friends?
In fact, that very phrase “a time that should be filled with joy…” is part of the problem. Most people have high expectations—sometimes even unrealistic ones—about this time of the year. We remember blissful Christmas seasons past, and want to recapture those precious moments. Sadness and even depression can occur when we experience an incongruity between what we think we ought to experience and our actual feelings. Stress, fatigue, unrealistic expectations, the emphasis on finding the “perfect” gifts, and pressures to please all of one’s family and friends can contribute to the “holiday blues,” according to the National Mental Health Association. The expectations surrounding family gatherings can also be highly stressful. Family misunderstandings or the lack of family or close friends can set off depression.
To add insult to injury, everyone expects you to be happy and have the right attitude! You might begin to berate yourself for feeling depressed at a time that is supposed to be joyful and peaceful. You are now not only depressed, but also a failure―a Scrooge among the rest of happy humanity.
In addition to these pitfalls, there is yet another “cross” for faithful Christians: the spiritual tension between the world and the real reason for the season. The world wants us to shop, party and celebrate…as Dave Matthews puts it, “Eat too much, drink too much, want too much, too much…” We Christians are called to be in the world, but not of it. We don’t want to be Scrooges, giving Christians a grumpy name, yet we don’t want to succumb to the lure of the superficial, either.
And sometimes, even those of us who are on the same side, find ourselves at odds with one another. There was the homily one year by an associate pastor who, wagging his finger at the congregation, exhorted us not to give in to commercialization of Christmas by decorating our houses with lights and Santas—especially not before Christmas. The pastor, meanwhile, decorated the church with lights the very next day.
I know some people who tell their small children right from the start that there is no Santa. The fear is that allowing your kids to believe in Santa will send the message that parents lie to their children about unseen powerful beings. Their children might grow up thinking that God is a myth, too, like Santa Claus. I personally think this places too little faith in the child’s power of reasoning as well as in their capacity for wonderment. I don’t think my kids ever fully believed in Santa, yet they wanted to. When my older children were long past the age of believing in Santa, they wouldn’t let me take away this magical fairy tale from their youngest siblings, who still were of the believing age. Besides, there is a real saint behind the Santa tradition, which we can point out. Furthermore, kids seem to be able to handle the distinction between temporary fairy tales for youngsters’ benefit and the Truth. Our world is not merely a rational, logical, fact-filled place. It is also a place of child-like wonder, beauty, fairy tales, and mystery. Some mysteries we will never understand until we reach heaven.
My kids always want to join me in decorating–big and early. We forge a compromise by trying not to be too garish about it. No inflatable Mickey Mouse Santa on the front lawn. No life-size reindeer and sleigh on the roof. Instead we deck the house with electric candles and white lights. Lights, after all, are symbolic of Christ, the light of the world. The custom of placing candles in the windows came to us from the Irish. During the persecution by the English, the Irish would leave their doors unlatched and candles burning in the windows, with the hope that an itinerant priest would find his way to their home, a safe haven in which to celebrate Mass. When they were pressed to explain this activity by the English, they told the story that the candles were meant to guide Mary and Joseph to their homes. The English felt this practice was innocuous and never discovered the true reason.
We also forge compromises among different temperaments. My husband is a reflective, quiet, melancholic who would be happy without attending a single Christmas party. I, on the other hand, always want to start playing Christmas music in November, put up the Christmas tree at the beginning of December, and have a Christmas party…in Advent. This led to melancholic Art’s reminder that the Christmas season does not technically begin until Christmas. Advent, he reminds us, is a time of reflection, silence, and even penance.
But surely, we can be allowed to joyfully anticipate Christ’s birth, I offered hopefully. We struck a compromise by having our “Advent Gathering” (sanguines can read party) on Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, when the vestments are rose-colored and the Church suspends its penitential practices to rejoice in the nearness of the Lord.
And, back to the point about stress. If we really try to live the spirit of Advent as the Church offers it—a time of contemplation of the mystery of Christ’s coming into the world, of repentance for our own sins, and preparation of our hearts to receive his saving presence—our stress can be somewhat mitigated. When we strive for that purity of intention which leads us to focus on our love for God and our neighbor (instead of running ourselves ragged trying to please everyone else, to buy the perfect gifts, or to have the perfect party), we will find inner peace and joy. The preparation of our homes, if lived with the deeper commitment to preparing our hearts for Christ, can draw us deeper into the mystery of the incarnation itself.
However, it is very important to note that temporary sadness or a sense of the “holiday blues” can sometimes become a more serious problem requiring attention. If someone is seriously depressed (as opposed to experiencing a temporary sadness), this requires professional help. If one breaks his arm, we refer him to a medical doctor; similarly, one who is clinically depressed requires professional treatment, and should not rely on spiritual remedies alone. We are not Christian Scientists or a similar cult that claims to rely on the power of prayer alone. While there very well can be a spiritual component to depression, it is prudent to seek professional help if you think your symptoms are more serious than a slight case of the blues, or are interfering with your day-to-day functioning. Experts tell us that you should immediately seek medical attention if you are experiencing crying spells, sleep problems, thoughts of death or suicide, or your depressed mood lasts longer than two weeks.
We struggle to be in the world, yet not of it, to live the spirit of Advent while not becoming Scrooges or burning ourselves out, to love those difficult relatives who threaten to ruin our holiday gatherings, and to keep our hearts focused on what really matters. The very struggle itself, the incongruity we experience, points to a mystery. It is the mystery of the incarnation, that completely unique event when God assumed a human nature. As a result, we live these not unimportant struggles with Christ, who showed us how, when he was born to a poor family, in a humble stable.
Why did God become man? He could have saved us any way he wanted; yet God chose to become flesh. “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin” (2 Cor 5:21). The word became flesh to save us, to reconcile us to the Father, to show us that we are loved, and how to love. Our humanity is raised up to a higher level in Christ, who is true God and true man. “Christ enables us to live in him all that he himself lived, and he lives it in us.”
May your Advent be a time of spiritual growth and may you have a blessed and merry Christmas!
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 524.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 521.