At some point I realized that Advent and Christmas really are not the same. Just like a person cannot celebrate Easter fully without participating in Lent, Christmas loses its real meaning without Advent and just becomes a season of unrealistic and overhyped expectations.
Advent is not about keeping “Christ” in Christmas, but trying to figure out how to get to new life through the darkness. Christ is not here yet, and we are on a dirty long road to a stable to find him.
When we are most frustrated, annoyed, and bummed out – then we are experiencing Advent. When our families start fighting, the toy we sought is sold out, the recipe for the cookies went wrong, and the Christmas lights falter, then and only then can we begin our journey to Bethlehem.
I, like many others, have years when I have struggled through the holiday season. My attempts to “be merry and bright” have been filled with loneliness and grief. In these years, Christmas finally arrives and goes by so quickly that I barely have time to register that we finally made it before I’m in the dreary middle of January. I’ve missed out on Christmas entirely.
This year, however, I find myself asking new questions about what it means to observe the season. What happens when we prepare for Christmas without the struggle? When December feels like we are “living the dream?” This holiday season I keep waiting for the bottom to drop out. I have not felt too much stress. My family has check marked off all the “fun holiday traditions,” and I even had time to get my carpets cleaned!
Did I miss Advent? My family is lighting the candles each night, marking off the calendars around our house, talking about the parts of the Christmas story. Did I miss it? Is it coming later?
… hmmm …
No. Just as we should not set “perfect” expectations for Christmas, there is also no “right” way to experience the Advent journey. We don’t live in a Hallmark movie where everything goes wrong right up until Christmas Eve and then comes together in a perfect ending. There is not even a “right” time to experience our Advent journey. We live in the real world, where sometimes things are good and sometimes they are not, and our joys and sorrows may not follow the church calendar.
Seasons of preparing, like Advent and Lent, are to remind us that other faithful people have had times of struggle. Our struggles may come in July and not March. Our tough journeys may come in November and not December. In the same way, our joys may come in early December and not wait until the 25th.
If we are truly waiting for a baby, we should know by now that babies don’t usually show up on their due dates. By limiting myself to fit the church calendar of emotions, I have limited my joy. Joy comes so rarely. Yes, I am still in Advent, but there can be joy in the journey, and I may dance on the road to Bethlehem singing a Christmas song a little early.
(This article also appears as a guest post at http://lecfamily.org/blog/2015/12/15/guest-post-advent-vs-christmas. Thanks, LECFamily!)
Rev. Olivia Bryan Updegrove serves as Minister of Family & Children's Ministries for Disciples Home Missions. Her latest project is a new book for children, Who is Jesus? which is a companion to What is God? Learn more at http://revoliviabryan.wix.com/whatisgodstories. You can also read her full bio on our staff page.