With the start of the Advent season comes the classic debate: when to start listening to Christmas music. I really respect those who stick to Advent music until December 25 and then indulge in Christmas music for the entirety of the season. However, I am definitely one who starts playing it while cooking for Thanksgiving dinner. My reasoning is that Christmas music seems to be a distinctive feature of a cultural “holiday atmosphere” that marks the month of preparation leading up to Christmas and usually ends fairly promptly around December 26th.
However, Catholic Society’s motto this year is “contra mundum”—against the world. Am I allowing myself to be sucked into the culture of “the holidays” and losing sight of the true Holy Day? Am I forgetting that Advent is a season of preparation for the feast and not the feast itself? Am I ignoring the fact that Advent is a penitential season?
I think that forgetfulness is a danger, but I think that there are ways to preserve both a “holiday spirit” throughout the month of December and to consciously and intentionally use those first three weeks to prepare for the coming of our Savior on Christmas day. In thinking about this, I find it helpful to identify what is so enticing about the “holiday atmosphere.” Two things come to my mind: 1) joy: everyone seems to be in a good mood and 2) generosity: the attention, even in secular preparations for Christmas, is on giving—even at the malls the focus of those preparing for Christmas is directed outward.
These two qualities may provide a bridge between the two apparently distinct secular and religious worlds. I remember hearing once that a penitential season can be a time to focus on the development of a specific virtue. If I find myself drawn to the holiday atmosphere, then I can recognize the joy and generosity that draws me toward it and ask myself where I need to grow in the realm of either of those virtues. Then I can develop a concrete method of how to spend Advent to be more joyful and generous so that I can welcome my Savior on Christmas day filled with joy at His birth and ready to offer my whole self to Him in thanksgiving for His Incarnation and gift of self to me.
Those are nice ideas, but, practically, what would that look like? Perhaps I could choose one of the Gospels to read through and meditate on throughout Advent. I think that gratitude is closely tied to joy. By growing in an understanding and knowledge of Christ’s earthly life, I will be filled with a greater love for Him and will be eager to draw close to Him on Christmas day (and every day of my life). Perhaps I can make a practice of writing down one thing that I am grateful for at the close of each day, recognizing all that He has already given me and remembering to thank Him for it. Especially when I think that I’ve had a bad day, this could help me to better see all the good things in my life and will help me grow in gratitude.
Generosity can be a challenge—especially as a college student, what do I have to give? Time and encouragement come first to my mind. Perhaps each Sunday in Advent I could write a small note of encouragement for a friend, just to let them know that I love them. I can be present and available to listen. I could find time to volunteer. However, the most important way that I can think of to grow in generosity is prayer. I can grow in generosity this Advent by choosing one person in my life whom I know needs prayer, or whom I struggle to love, and I can offer one Hail Mary for them every day. Such an act seems very small, but this one act of love toward someone else, this gift of my time, this gift of my energy can help me grow in generosity. Furthermore, it will help me to fix my eyes on Mary and her Son and prepare me to welcome Him on Christmas day. Prayer can anchor us in the “reason for the season” and remind us that Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas, but it is compatible with joining the celebration of joy, generosity, and love that is “in the air” all through December.