Seeking simplicity at Christmastime

Our Christmas tree is going up this weekend, but we won’t be decorating it.  All of our autumn decor will come down, but we won’t be replacing it with glittering baubles just yet.  As the rest of the culture around us is diving head-first into the Christmas season, we are merely going to dip our toes in.

We are attempting to seek simplicity this Christmas season by observing the Church calendar.  According to the Church calendar, Advent begins this year on Sunday, December 1 (which is actually the start of the Church’s calendar – Happy New Year!). Christmas doesn’t technically begin until December 25.  It lasts for 12 days, and then it ends on January 6, with Epiphany.

For us, to observe Advent is still sort of a new adventure. It means that we will practice anticipation. The word “advent” comes from the Latin adventus, which means “the approach” or “the arrival”. So, it is a time of preparation for an arrival – for Christ’s arrival, to be specific.

During Lent, we prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it is a serious time – a time of fasting, introspection, and cleansing.

In contrast, during Advent, we prepare to celebrate the birth of our King. I like to think of it as though I am preparing my home for honored guests. Cleaning house, planning and preparing delicious meals, making our hearts ready, clearing our schedules, awaiting the arrival, and savoring the days ahead with joyful anticipation.

Yet this time of preparation is still separate from the actual visit from the guests. Once the guests arrive, the time of preparation ends and the celebration begins. That is Christmas. That is the true party.

So, when we celebrate Advent, this is how it looks: each Sunday, we will go to worship with our church. We will spend time together in intentional anticipation, contemplating the birth of the Savior who has come and will come again.

Each Sunday evening of Advent, we will host a gathering of friends in our home. We will light a candle together in our Advent wreath, and share in a Scripture reading, a prayer, and a song. We will choose songs that speak of the coming Savior, rather than the Savior who has already come. Then we will share in a potluck meal together – a simple but hearty feast of finger foods, soup or stew, wine, hot cider for the kiddos, and some sweets to finish. Our Advent Gatherings have become a family tradition that we hope to continue for many years.

And finally, every evening before bed, we will look at our Advent calendar together as a family. We have created a Nativity calendar that was inspired by Noel Piper’s Advent calendar. It tells the Nativity story slowly by adding another piece of the picture each day, and finally completing the story with Jesus in the manger on December 25.

Throughout Advent, we will do our best to fix our eyes upon the coming King. This means that we will choose not to fix our eyes on other things. We will slow down our pace, and make space in our schedules, and hopefully in our hearts, too.

And then, on December 24, we will finally decorate our Christmas tree. The bare branches, a visual symbol of our waiting, will be festooned with all the beauty and regalia that is fitting for a King. The songs of longing (O come, o come!) will give way to songs of welcome and joy (Glory to the newborn King!).

We will exchange gifts on December 25, and feast together, and celebrate. And we will continue to celebrate for 12 days! (Yes, in case anyone was wondering: the classic Christmas carol, The 12 Days of Christmas, has its origins in the Church calendar.) So, Christmas is a 12 day celebration, and therefore our tree will stay up at least until January 6, also known as the Feast of Epiphany: the day we celebrate the arrival of the three wise men.

We are really seeking simplicity during this holiday season, and we’ve decided to seek it by aligning our lives with the Church calendar. The craziness of the season can begin even before Thanksgiving, but once we hit December 1, it becomes a true force to be reckoned with. Resisting feels counter-cultural, but we’re going to try and stand firm against the madness by pressing in to the anticipation and waiting and preparation: of our hearts, our homes, our lives.

It won’t be perfect; I’m sure we’ll still have Christmas songs on the radio, early gift exchanges with extended family and friends, and Christmas parties with co-workers, and that’s totally okay. We aren’t trying to make rules that create more stress.

But the unavoidable hubbub gives us all the more reason to press in to this discipline, to seek stillness and quiet gladness, and to cultivate a joyful sense of expectation in our hearts. The Church calendar offers us another way.