“Hey, did you know we have Advent candles?” I asked my youngest stepson one day recently before school. I happened to notice the small purple and pink candle holders and the stately white Christ candle nestled among the delicate white metallic ribbon and shiny silver beads as we headed toward the front door and eventually the busstop.
“We have Advent candles?” he asked back.
“Yes, I’ve been lighting them each Sunday,” I told him. “Just like at church.”
“I didn’t know that,” he said.
“I’ve been doing it by myself since know one else really cares,” I said, laughing.
“Not even Dad?”
“Nope. Not even dad. I just light them by myself. It’s my tradition,” I told him. “Before dad and I got married, it always used to do it. Once we got married, I kinda stopped. But this year I decided to light the candles again, even if I have to do it by myself.”
“So it’s a family tradition, except your family doesn’t even do it?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“That’s pretty sad,” he told me, chuckling. “You have an actual family, and they won’t do your family traditions.”
“It is kind of sad,” I agreed, pausing for a minute to decide just how to respond. “But oh well. It’s important to me, so I’m going to do it anyway.”
For some of us, Christmas-time is the most wonderful time of year, with full homes, full tables, and full tree-skirts loaded down with gifts. Our hearts are full with the joy of the season, and the excitement builds as we count the days, light the candles, and eat the chocolates from the tiny paper windows of our Advent calendars.
For so many others, though, the reality of strained relationships, increased financial pressure, and overloaded schedules can never live up to the magical promises of tinsel and twinkle lights covered in glitter. And really, having family traditions my own family won’t join me in is just the smallest of sadnesses this time of year. Many people have no family at all, or family with whom traditions are the least of the things they just can’t share.
Most of us live somewhere in the tension of the two. We want this season to be wonderful and holy, but the hustle and bustle empty out our spirits as quickly as our wallets. We sing the carols and recite the prayers; we remember the Reason for the Season in the incarnated Christ. But we also feel the weight of our own humanity pulling against the exuberance of the season.
“I don’t really like Christmas,” I admitted to Steve recently, knowing he doesn’t either. “I think that’s why I like Advent. It helps me focus on the true nature of the season.”
I thought back to my introduction to Advent when I was a college student. Though we weren’t on campus for the all four Sundays of Advent, our campus pastor improvised the ritual to four chapel services before Christmas break. Professors and their families lit the candles, and we held our breath with anticipation along with all the generations of believers who waited either for the first, or later the second, coming of Jesus.
I learned of Advent in a season when I was coming into my own, having spent most Christmases divided among divorced parents and extended stepfamilies, some I barely knew. Knowing I’d have a whole month to prepare my heart for the holy day made spending the one holiday eating multiple ham dinners and watching virtual strangers unwrap presents much easier. Advent both heightened and diminished the expectations of Christmas: I began waiting for something other than gifts and stockings.
This year, as I huddled in the corner week after week lighting the Advent candle alone, it was hardly the sacred moment I had envisioned or would have preferred. I forgot to light the joy candle on week three. Three nights ago, the peace candle burned for only a minute before it flickered out. I didn’t notice in time before hope, love, and joy had burned down too far to relight. And I wasn’t as faithful to read the Advent devotional I bought for the busy December weekdays.
But I am looking forward to lighting the Christ candle on Christmas morning, or maybe Christmas Eve since that will fit better into our schedule. And I regained some of the anticipation of Christmas … of Christ … that doesn’t happen when all I have to wait for is holiday parties and shiny packages.
In the end, my advent candle tradition wasn’t sad at all. Even if I did it by myself.
Thanks to everyone who commented on and shared my post about Liturgy of the Ordinary. I drew a name out of the many who participated, and the winner of the free copy of Tish Warren Harrison’s book is Ann Kroeker. Since Ann lives nearby, I’ll be hand delivering her copy of the book in the coming days. Thanks again and Merry Christmas to all.