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Reclaiming Advent

Embracing the wait consolidates our identity

· Christianity,Catholicism

It's really difficult to maintain that sense of preparation and anticipation once December 1st rolls around, because for the the rest of the world, Christmas has already started and in fact for some people, the first day of the month is already a bit late to be thinking about putting the decorations up.

I was greeted with looks of incomprehension and pity during a recent conversation with fellow parents, who were discussing getting ready for Christmas and how the decorations had been dusted down from the attic, during the first weekend in December, when I explained that in our house, the tree does not go up until Christmas Eve, which marks the official beginning of Christmas.

As a concession we might now buy the tree a few days earlier, in order to ensure that we are able to get a one, but it remains undecorated until the morning of Christmas Eve.

Ah, it's a shame for the children, remark some, but my sense is that teaching children to wait is a good life-lesson and the joy of decorating the house is increased by the sense of desperation. It's a physical sign that Christmas is actually finally here, after weeks of waiting.

While the rest of the world are sick of the sight of decorations and mince pies on Boxing Day, our family is just getting into the swing of things with a full eight days of partying and indulgence, while everyone else looks out their Davina fitness DVD and Slimming World cookbook.

It is extremely hard to adhere to that sense of waiting as the secular world prematurely begins their celebrations. As I write, I'm in the middle of week of school nativity plays, Christmas carol concerts, official class parents' Christmas nights out and parties, dictated to by school terms and office working hours. My eye was caught by luxury Advent calendars the other day, containing miniature bottles of my favourite champagne, or pampering grooming products, priced at around £100 apiece. It was a reminder of how in a materialistic consumer society driven by instant gratification, we seem no longer able to wait. Which is why for those who don't have a faith, that once Boxing Day rolls round, the decorations seem gaudy and faded and the magic has disappeared and yet as Christians, the joy should still be unconfined!

Last year the supermarket chain Tesco, attracted much criticism for their inclusive Christmas advert, which seemed to be highly politicised in its portrayal of every single race, culture and sexuality celebrating Christmas, with the help of the store.

At the time I commented that I had no issue with the advert, because it was simply a reflection of what Christmas has become in the UK, a national holiday with a secular pluralistic flavour. Jesus clearly would have no problem with everyone celebrating His birth, as long as we remember that it is not just the cutesy undemanding baby in the manger we are rejoicing over, but also the version who demands that we repent from the glamour of sin and who will return amidst clouds of glory.

However it seems to me that if Christians are going to moan, as we invariably do every year about how Christmas has become utterly devoid of meaning, then we need too to start reclaiming Advent, in order to consolidate our identity and assert the true meaning of the season. Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays both as a sign of penance but also as a sense of consolidating and asserting our identity and as a sign of witness to the rest of the world.

In years gone by, as well as the traditional Advent calendars and wreaths, children would go from door to door, with a model of the Christ-child in order to beg pennies for the poor, in a foreshadowing of today's Halloween Trick or Treating ritual. Families would eat modestly and give their left-over provisions to the poor, parishes would hold feasts after Sunday Mass, where the food was plentiful but the actual provender basic, consisting of bread and water or perhaps some fish. It was all a reminder that God is coming and we need to make ready not only physically, but also in our hearts.

While Advent is not officially marked as a penitential season in canon law, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) does state that both floral displays in church and organ music, need to be restrained and moderate. Accompaniment should only be for the singing of hymns and the trumpet voluntaries left until Christmas morning. The inside of church in Advent make a welcome contrast and sanctuary from the brightly-lit displays in the streets an department starts and act as a reminder that we are still waiting.

Advent isn't Lent, we do not walk way of the cross with Jesus, we do need to find new ways of reminding ourselves that He isn't here yet, and reclaiming this season as one of penitence and preparation. It's not about donning sackcloth and ashes instead of santa hats or putting a damper on the season, but visually marking both in our hearts and to a world already immersed in self-indulgence, that for now, our joy is contained. He is not here yet, but coming, very very soon. Make ready.