Call me old-fashioned if you will, but I prefer to exclude violence, mayhem and murder from my personal holiday traditions. Granted, there was that memorable exchange over a lavender cashmere sweater at Von Maur’s department store in Kansas City, and a sudden, stubborn insistence on my first and only trip to Bloomingdale’s that I did so have it first, but nothing in my life compares to the headlines emerging from the beginning of this holiday season.
“Woman Pepper Sprays Shoppers to Gain Advantage” in her quest for a discounted Xbox, reads one report. “North Carolina Police Use Pepper Spray to Calm Black Friday Crowd”, reads another. There was looting reported in New York, and a beating near Phoenix. Shootings in San Leandro, California and Fayetteville, North Carolina competed for ink with a stabbing in Sacramento. Instances of opportunistic petty thievery among midnight shoppers walking to their cars were too widespread and frequent even to detail.
“The difference this year is that instead of a nice sweater you need a bullet-proof vest and goggles,” said Betty Thomas, 52, shopping with her sisters and a niece at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, N.C. She did go on to suggest that the sale prices on merchandise had been over-hyped, and the shopping wasn’t as good as she’d hoped. “If I’m going to get shot,” said Thomas, “at least let me get a good deal.”
Given our taste for tabloid journalism and the media’s love of shocking stories, it’s tempting – and probably justifiable – to pass off such incidents as exceptions. On the other hand, there’s no question the on-going commercialization of the holiday season has made “getting ready for Christmas” increasingly competitive, combative and exhausting.
Whether it involves multiple trips to the mall, combing the internet for gifts in order to avoid going to the mall or engaging in that perennial favorite, Making-a-Run-Through-the-Stores-on-Christmas-Eve, holiday shopping can be as complex and demanding as a two-front war, as costly as minor surgery and as stress-filled as a performance review.
Determined to stoke the fires of avarice, insecurity and guilt that burn especially brightly at this time of year, retailers begin stocking Christmas merchandise and promoting advertised specials late in October. Cities light holiday displays as soon after Thanksgiving as possible and, as if on cue, carols and popular Christmas songs begin washing through the stores like an implacable, sappy tide.
By the time the day of celebration arrives, many people are ready to be done with it. Families gather, communities of faith worship and all of those hard-fought-for gifts are exchanged. Then, in just a twinkling of St. Nick’s eye, Christmas is over. As the wonderful trees are stripped of decoration and tossed away, as ornaments are returned to storage, Christmas-cookie crumbs swept up and the candles extinguished, the world goes back to its business. Shoppers head off to make their exchanges, store-owners begin pushing end-of-year inventory clearance sales, and the cycle of retail life begins anew.
I’m certainly no Scrooge, and I begrudge no one their Christmas preparations. I take great joy in Christmas Day myself, not to mention the Twelve Days of Christmas stretching away to Epiphany on January 6. I love choosing and wrapping gifts, decorating with ornaments alive with memories and baking the special treats that taste of childhood and innocence. I enjoy the richness of banked poinsettias, and the surprise of blooming cactus. I delight in placing each light upon the tree “just so”, and never fail to admire the glimmer of colored lanterns across the water, their reflections clarifying into pools of light as the wind lays and the night-bird carols begin.
It’s quite an endeavor, this preparation for Christmas. Most of us survive the season with our bodies intact, but when retail consumption is touted as the sole measure of a “good Christmas” and businesses increasingly co-opt Christian imagery to manipulate shoppers, the spirit can languish. Ocasionally I find the misrepresentation of tradition so distasteful I find myself edging away from the marketplace and heading for the shadows, clutching my candles and garlands as I lean into the silence and wonder, Am I the only one here?
“Here”, of course, is Advent. Set aside by the Church as a time of preparation before the Feast of the Nativity, the four week season has its own traditions, prayers and disciplines. The Advent Wreath marks the passing of the weeks, the Advent Calendar the passing of the days. The shimmer of candlelight softens the lengthening winter nights; the beauty of liturgical prayer and song shapes and strengthens the soul. Taken as a whole, the Advent season is nothing more – and nothing less – than a word of permission to stop, to rest, to lie fallow as a field anticipating a season of new growth.
In the midst of solstice darkness, Advent empties itself like an upturned heart and turns waiting into art. It dares to suggest the gifts we long for are not necessarily the gifts we will receive, and any future we demand may not be the future we are granted. Suspended between past promise and future fulfillment, the season counsels patience, the companion of wisdom, and reminds us it is the open hand, not the clenched fist, that is capable of receiving gifts.
In the midst of our chaotic world, Advent is not meant to be celebrated, but to be kept – each day and especially each night of it treasured like a precious gem, its silence the setting for songs to come, its darkness a perfect foil for the nascent light destined to spread from one glowing star to another.
What will Christmas bring? Who can say? There is no certainty. And yet, in the midst of this gracious season, a great truth continues to resonate. As individuals and as communities, we are free to set aside the murder and mayhem, the frenzied melees, the getting and spending that do such violence to our lives. And, we are called to remember that which we most need never will be purchased. It comes to us, always, as gift, and it is that gift for which we wait.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So shall darkness be light, and the stillness the dancing.
T.S. Eliot, East Coker