I don’t know why it caught me by surprise, but it did. My husband was watching the World Series and I had my nose in my laptop. That’s when it caught my attention. Sleigh bells. Music reminiscent of the Nutcracker Suite, but just different enough to not have to pay royalties. Children excitedly creeping down the stairs to see what Santa had left. A promise of money-saving deals. Seriously? A Christmas commercial during the World Series? This is wrong on two levels. Regarding the first, the fact that they were playing baseball in November, I do not feel qualified to comment. So I will try to tackle the second: why are stores showing Christmas commercials before the Jack ‘o Lantern has even cooled off?
Although my evidence is purely anecdotal, I think it’s safe to say: the Christmas stuff is getting rolled out earlier and earlier every year. One reason for this is obvious. The economy is not doing well, and businesses are eager to begin trying to corner the holiday shopping market- a huge staple of their yearly income. But I think there is more to it than that. People love Christmas. We love way more than the fattening foods or the presents. It brings to mind a feeling of cozy comfort. And let’s be honest: our world today is generally less than cuddly. Unemployment, divorce, illness, distant relationships… there are plenty of things going on out there or even in our homes that would drive us to “need a little Christmas right this very minute”!
The problem is that by seeking Christmas early we tend to miss it entirely and end up feeling emptier than if we had never celebrated it. I think a parallel can be drawn in lots of other situations people get themselves into these days. I’ll just look at one example: marriage. It’s almost unheard of for your average, off-the-street couple who is engaged to not be living together or at least to have prematurely consummated the union. Aside from the fact that it is so widespread that people don’t even think about it anymore, what I think is happening in cohabitation is a desire to have now what it isn’t yet time for. Why wait to just say some words at a church when you can have all the perks of that union now? And yet, by skipping ahead, the statistics tell us that couples put themselves at a much higher risk of divorce. Studies suggest that in their domestic situation, they can easily miss red flags about each other, or at the very least did not take the time to really prepare themselves emotionally for the commitment of marriage.
I think the same grasping leads to emptiness at Christmas. When you start to roll out the holly right after Halloween, you are totally sick of it all by December 26th. My heart breaks when I see all the lights coming down and the trees in the street right as we Catholics are gearing up for the Christmas season. When we skip ahead of the Church, we miss out on Advent, a penitential season designed to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, but also at the end of time. We miss out on waiting in joyful hope, and therefore we are not prepared to celebrate. In such a case, the holiday itself seems to never have matched up with the expectations we had for how perfect it would be. We are left with a bunch of stuff to find room for in our closets and five to ten extra pounds to work off. We feel hung over and empty.
What I think is at the heart of this culture of “skipping ahead” is a lack of hope. According to the Catechism, hope is the virtue “by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (1817). We often replace the supernatural virtue of hope for the natural one, which would be hoping for things like financial stability, a good marriage or health. While these things are fine, they don’t answer that deepest call of our hearts to be in communion with our creator. They are fleeting, and even when they are caught, they do not satisfy completely. This substitution of a secular hope for the supernatural one has caused what Pope Benedict XVI has called a crisis of hope in the western world. If one hopes only in this world, they will one day be crushed as they cannot escape their own mortality. Even if one is hoping for a “better world” where there is peace on earth or an end to hunger, then one is hoping for a reality they will never live to see. This ultimately dehumanizes people and makes them merely cogs in a wheel for someone else’s betterment. This is what the Communists tried, and it crumbled.
So, as we get ready for Advent, let’s not skip ahead to Santa and elves or even to the manger. There are great lessons to be learned in the waiting. Let’s take in the haunting melodies of the season, joining our hearts with ancient Israel who groans in exile for their Messiah to come. For we too are in exile, waiting to return to our heavenly home. And in the midst of our expectation, the same God who will come to us in the form of a newborn comes to us more humbly still—in the form of bread and wine. He will strengthen us to bear with the trials we face here. He will be the true and lasting source of comfort for us in this life. And he may even help me stay calm and collected when I hear Jingle Bells for the umpteenth time at the coffee shop, two weeks before Thanksgiving.
Copyright 2009 Libby DuPont