Be Prepared

I absolutely love this season.

I don't mean Christmas - there'll be time enough for celebrating that come the end of December. The season I mean is Advent - the last few weeks of preparation before Christmas really begins. In Christian communities, Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, and so it has begun today. It is a time of heightened spiritual activity, extra efforts to be generous or compassionate, a more disciplined approach to prayer and spiritual reading. In the Orthodox Churches it is a time of strict fasting, too, and Catholics are encouraged to attend confession. It hardly sounds fun, does it, so why do I enjoy it so much?

I think I have come to appreciate Advent as a buffer-zone against the somewhat frantic, enforced jollity of Christmas. There are all sorts of jobs to be done to ensure our home is clean & tidy and ready to receive guests. Food has to be made early, gifts must be bought, wrapped and delivered, cards written and sent. It can be overwhelming if we're also busy trying to celebrate at the same time. What Advent teaches, whether you keep it as a religious season or a more secular time of preparation, is a sense of pace. "Calm down," it says, "Christmas isn't here yet. You don't have to achieve it all overnight." 

Lovers and athletes alike will attest to the importance of pacing yourself, and a key element of Advent is the counting down of weeks and days. Sacred and secular Advent calendars feature a series of windows to open, one a day, from the beginning of December to Christmas Eve. Many homes and churches will feature a prominent wreath of green leaves and candles. Each Sunday is marked with the lighting of another candle, until all are lit. Like the beat of a song or the distance-markers on a marathon route, the windows and candles encourage you to take your time, breathe, and not expend too much energy in one go.

The Advent wreath is a tradition borrowed from Scandinavia. Cart wheels, which had been removed and replaced by runners for the snow, were hung indoors to prevent them getting warped by the weather. Like the rest of the house, they were decorated with evergreen branches. They often made convenient niches for candles and lamps. In time, the practice was adopted by the Churches and given a spiritual interpretation, but that interpretation belongs to the believer, not the wreath. Anyone can make one. All you need is a circular frame, four sconces or tealight holders and some greenery. Lighting the candles in the evening gloom can be a moment of mindfulness, meditation or simple enjoyment of the beauty of the light. In an age of anxiety, taking ten minutes to sit in silence and watch a flame can be incredibly healing.

small cakes ready for giving as gifts

Once you've decided to push Christmas back beyond 24th December, the rest of the month opens up as a time of possibilities. Maybe one day I'll make a batch of mince pies to store up in the freezer. Perhaps another I'll have a mooch through the Christmas market and pick up a couple of gifts (and a cup of mulled wine). Alternatively, I might just sit with a cup of tea and an old film one afternoon. If it helps me stay calm, patient and hospitable later in the month, it's an appropriate activity for Advent. The writing of cards becomes part of this pacing myself, too. By limiting myself to maybe a dozen a day, I can be a bit more careful in personalising them, so they are a proper greeting from one friend to another. And if they don't arrive before Christmas Day, it doesn't matter. Greetings cards were originally a replacement for a personal greeting, for those we wouldn't be seeing in person at Christmas. If that greeting arrives between Christmas and New Year, or even in the early days of January, it still conveys the same message of love.

If Advent is all about getting yourself prepared for Christmas, it's a reminder that you have to prepare more than just your home. We know that the darkness of winter leaves many people feeling down, so Advent can be a time for self-care. With so many social events coming up, it might be an opportunity to say "no thanks" to one or two invitations, especially if they're going to leave you frazzled. It might be the perfect moment to make yourself a Christmas spreadsheet of all the things you need to do, so you can manage how and when you do them, noting which ones are essential and which can give. It's a time to consider what, for you, is at the heart of Christmas and to give yourself permission to prioritise that over everyone else's expectations.


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