It’s holiday season. Take advent beyond the four walls of your own home.
As a spiritual rebel, I have not yet met a winter holiday I don’t like. And so, our home is subject to a continuous whirlwind of decorating adjustments every December. My Scottish heritage arrives first with Saint Andrews Day, as I lay MacPherson tartan down for the foundation of our holiday altar. Next, a pink Cadillac menorah is placed for Hannukah. Yule pops in after that, as I add fragrant evergreen cuttings. Soon glowing candles featuring the faces of Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are lit for Festivus. And finally, we get to my birth tradition, Christmas, as a half dozen creche sets from around the world join the spiritual milieu.
Yet, there is one thing that stays consistent throughout the dynamic adornments and ornaments—the daily observance of advent.
The Meaning of Advent
Traditionally, advent is a time for waiting and preparing for the coming of the Christ child. For early Christians, this usually meant penitence and some fasting. Later, robust liturgical events developed for each of the four Sundays preceding Christmas Eve, such as candle lightings, violet vestments for clergy, meditative contemplations about Bethlehem, musical carols, and decking the halls with wreaths.
When I was a child, advent meant a fabric calendar showed up in our family’s kitchen. About three feet long, on navy blue fabric, it had been meticulously cross-stitched by my mother in an era when holiday decorations were handmade. The design featured a tall townhouse, with people waving from windows and a few cats, dogs, and birds joining the merry-making. Numbers 1 through 24 zigzagged down the tapestry, with a small plastic ring stitched below each. My mother would tie two tiny, wrapped gifts—one for my sister and one for me—to each ring. Each morning, we would rush downstairs to see what awaited us. Sweet candies, shiny quarters, and myriad craft supplies eased the wait for Christmas.
Creative Ways to Celebrate Advent
Later in life, I became the wrapper, thinking up creative ideas for my own family. There was a year of gift cards, a year of art supplies, and the who-can-forget year of aromatic spices from India. When we became empty-nesters, I pivoted to a cat-vent calendar filled with catnip mice and crunchy treats (opened whenever we humans were sleeping). The next year, we decided to start extending advent beyond the walls of our house.
Each Thanksgiving week, my husband and I research organizations that are working to better others’ lives. I write each name on a slip of paper and tie it to one of the calendar rings. Then each day, after breakfast, I donate on their website. Slim years have meant a couple of bucks a day. In years where we didn’t have to travel for the holidays, we could contribute more. One year, no money was available at all, and so each week, we donated items from our home to a local aid organization, such as an animal shelter, food bank, or recovery house.
After donating, I light a candle and start my morning meditation, offering these words:
Dear divine presence, who I know by so many names, in my search for sacred meaning and purpose, I want for things. And yet, I know that so many lack basic needs like clean water, full meals, and a safe place to lie down to rest. Please help me be of service to my fellow two-legged and four-legged friends, the other living beings around me, as well as this beautiful Earth you energize. Please see that my funds support peace and justice in this world so that all may feel the holiness that is present every day, not just the ones we proclaim holidays. Please sustain the hard-working people from [organization] and bring ease to them in their work to make this world more equitable, healthy, and peaceful.
Of course, there’s no end to the places our holiday cash can go. Here are a few of this year’s picks, in the hopes they can be thought-starters for your own advent season practice.
My husband and I are:
- Bringing clean water to the 1 in 10 people on the planet who lack access to it
- Feeding some of the 1 in 9 people in the U.S. who struggle with hunger
- Advancing the liberation and well-being of Black and Brown communities through education, self-empowerment, mass-mobilization, and the creation of new systems that elevate the next generation of change leaders
- Enabling mental health tools for more than 21 million people in the U.S. who live with mood disorders
- Making a difference for other-than-human animals all over the world
Admittedly, single donations to these causes will not be enough. My husband and I are not naïve in that respect. Just as Christmas signals the beginning of Jesus’s travels, it kicks off ours as well. As theologian Frederick Buechner offers, “For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning.