Well, the end of the year is nigh, and I’m simply overjoyed by the warm holiday spirit. Even though I can’t afford a tree, can’t really walk well, and have no extant close family, I’m full of joy at the radiant faces of children, the numerous photographs of holiday dinners, and the many wonderful songs that bring back happy memories. I cannot help but feel wonder at the many lavish GIFs and JPEGs of gorgeous skinny young people enjoying cocktails at elegant parties. Still, I might feel just a little sad at the horrid commercialization that plagues what is supposed to be a time for —well, whatever it is that all the Christmas specials (bar one) are hinting at. But that is soon forgotten, since it’s Christmas time!
No, it’s not that my SSI got cut by over $200 when my redetermination came up. Or that I don’t have a family or friends to celebrate with, especially. It’s that it’s just not Christmas.
Somehow, we’ve gotten into a weird pattern whereby we have to a) shop b) cook, bake and decorate, c) carry on normal business as usual and d) celebrate all at the same time. No wonder people feel let down come the afternoon of the day itself, when, after having eaten the Nth oversized meal, consumed the Nth cup of eggnog (glowwine, Tom & Jerry, “it” fashionable tipple) and witnessed various family dramas fueled with white sugar, alcohol and dashed hopes, the whole idea of the Most Wonderful Time of the Year seems like a bad joke.
It’s not hard to figure out why this is. Every year, the notion of what constitutes “The Holiday Season” gets more and more murky as every store vies to get in those Christmas dollars sooner than the next one. It’s strange to think, but up until the Seventies, the idea of slashing prices before Christmas was almost heretical — people were feeling emotionally blackmailed into spending money, the thought went, so everything was either full price or a little above what you’d pay during the year. Then, after Christmas, some places would keep up their decorations for the Twelve Days, some would not, but all the prices would plunge. Since we’re also celebrating Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, and Yule, there’s even more of a reason why it’s kind of unclear what is and is not “the Holidays”.
Helpful magazines, you know, the kind that have Christmas centerpieces for your kitchen island and a new “old family custom” every year (“Treat your kids to a Christmas Piñata!”, “Leave snowy footprints in the living room!”, “Set out cheese for the Christmas Mouse!”) always end up complicating things. Mind you, I lived once in a Swedish-American family where every room in the house had to have something Christmassy in it, and whose stock of decorations lived in a few boxes the size of a small apartment. We got everything up in two days of concentrated hard work, since a lot of it was erm, nonperishable. Now, if you don’t have sustainably sourced natural boughs, plus whatever mechanical/musical/joke/"cute" decor item ("Singin' Dancing Elvis Reindeer!" "Shelf Elf with moving eyes!") is IN this year, every single year, you lose your Brownie points.
At the same time, you hear all kinds of pleas for money for good works, “healthy”, “guilt-free”, alternatives for celebrating, and all kinds of ways to make public ideological statements to soothe your aching conscience that you’re, after all, doing the right thing. Remember the needy. Have an eco-friendly celebration. Consider a “virtual” gathering with far-flung relatives, by using Skype, to lessen your carbon footprint, and save on unrecyclable paper cards. No wonder people are left feeling confused.
The last act in this play is January, when you’re at least on paper, recovering and and repenting of your sins during the last month through resolutions (that don’t stick), Alcohol-free month, and the Daniel Fast, which is Lent for the NIV set.
There is another possibility, however, which allows for both pious peace of mind and orgies of joy, to wit: become an Advent keeper.
Now, I won’t pretend that switching is easy or fun. This is hard-core Christianity, and doesn’t lend itself to much in the way of cuteness. However, if you’d like to radically restart the season in your heart, if nothing else, this is the way to do it.
The themes of the Four Sundays of Advent are called the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell, marking both the end and the beginning of the liturgical year. (I told you this was hardcore.) You should fast, or do without, for these four weeks, just like Lent. It might seem to be a little counterintuitive, and even a bit morbid, to be obsessing about death and judgment at a time when modern logic tells you should be celebrating Joy, Peace, Love and Praise or some equivalent.
The reason is medieval logic. While the modern American “holiday cycle” is a) a gradual buildup of anticipatory marketing, b) wanton consumption, accompanied by agonizing pangs of guilt and depression, and c) repentance (through gym visits, ideological posturing and juice cleanses), the classic medieval cycle goes a) Purification, through prayer, preparation, and fasting, b)getting drunk and stuffed and giving stuff away, just because you can, and c) a gradual regression back into Ordinary Time, at which point you’re pretty glad to be rid of the whole thing. This jibes well with modern psychology: if you’ve shopped well at a grocery store, you might feel like adding a little candy while on line at the cash register. If you’ve managed to go some time without your particular ruin, you feel like splurging the next time you have it.
Lacking a medieval village, and probably not even a sympathetic church nearby, Advent can be anything from a full-bore delving into The Tree of Jesse to a dark celebration of all things Eternal to a gentle, New Age period of waiting and preparation. That said, there are a few milestones along the way.
Colors are on the cool side of the spectrum: muted blues and purples, black, and touches of hot pink or rose. Greens (bought without bows, and other decorations) and gradually decorated with miniature apples and pears, gold-tinted things, and the like. Put up all the other decorations (if you wish) a little at a time. Ditch that Advent Calendar which gets you one measly chocolate a day, and get one that decorates your tree!
On Christmas Eve, the forces of Death and Evil make one last stand, in the form of ghost stories (that’s the reason why “A Christmas Carol” is about ghosts, not angels). Muahahahaha. Watch your favorite “A Christmas Carol”, or try the BBC series Ghost Stories for Christmas. Tim Burton may be overplayed, but he fills the bill admirably.
Wake up and rejoice! It’s Christmas time! While everyone else is feeling down and rueful, you’re supercharged! Invite everybody to a party, go out in Christmas garb, treat yourself and others every single one of the Twelve Days!
You can see how this lends to creativity and considerable interpretation. You can play it pious, or simply “spiritual”. While other people are fretting over last-minute details for a party, you’re volunteering, or taking a late-fall hike, or doing yoga. While others are feeling guilty about every drop of eggnog and crumb of wheat-based canapé, you’re doing a detox, or reading a 17th century divine. While lesser mortals mope listening to minor-keyed 40’s pop (“White Christmas
”, “Have yourself a Merry…”, “I’ll be home for Christmas
”) or some deplorable moderninity like The Cat Carol
you’re listening to Norwegian Black Metal (Just don’t burn any churches…) and switching to full-bore Hallelujahs the second after midnight December 24.
Which is going to confuse everybody. Yes, it is truly subversive. Why you were so calm, so good, and now want to spend twelve days overeating and acting like you’re God’s own tot, and don’t feel at any way guilty at the end of all this, is going to upend everyone’s ideas of the season.
Disadvantages of being an Advent Keeper:
- You’ll completely confuse everyone who starts saying “Merry Christmas” in November. Smile nicely, and say, “not yet”. Same is true of “Happy New Year”, which should be tabooed until 12 midnight, 1 January. Then you greet everyone for the first time that year that way.
- The Office Christmas party is Out, unless you can somehow persuade the Social Committee that you aren’t spending the week “with the family”, and would rather spend it with workmates instead.
- You’ll have to try and tune out most media and advertising. Consider buying gifts throughout the year, when you have more time and less pressure. Cook ahead and don't cheat. Record all the Very Special Episodes, play them back during the Twelve Days.
- You’ll completely confuse people who start talking about resolutions the week before Christmas, since you’re already doing all that.
Advantages of being an Advent Keeper
- If the Dark Days make you mopey, you can mope. You have permission to mope all you want, because, instead of committing suicide, you’re going to be stopping moping at midnight December 24.You’re going to be a lot less stressed out. You’re going to be focussed on other people, then yourself, in due measure.
- You’ll find that celebrating is less wanton. Instead of rock ’n’ rolling every night, and partying every day (while pulling in a paycheck, preparing for The Event, and feeling vaguely guilty throughout the whole thing) you actually feel justified, taking that extra drink, having a little more than usual. After all, you lost x pounds, when you fasted two days a week, and went totally vegan in between! Plus, you're already used to wanting less. If you go to bed every night at seven, nine o' clock is going to feel like decadence.
- As alluded to before, you’re going to feel relieved, not let down, when it’s over. St. Distaff’s Day, for ladies, and Plough Day, for gentlemen, you’re going to feel almost as if you’re celebrating all over again, as you put party clothes into the closet, your decorating into storage, and finally get started on that minor repair that’s been nagging at you for a month, and finally eat something ordinary for a change. At least until Carnival...
- And you’re going to look forward to it again, next year.