IT WAS JUST a throw-away question, a bit of small talk with a high school student at church two weeks ago. But when I asked whether she was ready for Christmas, she shocked me with her enthusiastic “yes.”
“Wow,” I replied. “I’m really impressed.” She looked puzzled for a moment and then recognized the misunderstanding. “Oh, I haven’t done all my shopping and all that,” she said, explaining that she was ready for Christmas to be here.
And I recognized something more significant: There are at least three very different levels of meaning embedded in that simple question.
Too often, adults get caught up in the meaning I had in mind: Have you bought your presents, sent out your cards, done your Christmas baking, decorated your home, planned your Christmas dinner and completed all of those other tasks that go into creating the picture-perfect family gathering? (And please don’t tell my priest that I was asking such a question — of an impressionable young person … at church — during Advent. Because of course I wouldn’t expect anyone to have even started any of that by the second Sunday of Advent.)
For me, the answer to that practical question is never yes, because on those rare occasions when I’m progressing nicely on my too-long Christmas to-do list (and this year is not one of those occasions), I always come up with more things to add.
Perhaps you have the same problem. Perhaps if we could stop focusing on making all of the things that we imagine will make Christmas perfect, and then extra-perfect, and concentrate instead on the joy of the season, on the relationships, on the time we can spend in special celebration with friends and family, it might be a little easier to muster the enthusiasm of a high school student. To be ready as in, “I can’t wait for Christmas to arrive.”
It’s not too late to shift to this mindset.
In fact, one of best things we could all do to get out of the frantic mood and into the “I can’t wait” mood is to just decide, at this very moment, that we’ve bought all the presents that need buying, done more than enough decorating, prepared plenty of sumptuous desserts, completed all the tasks that really need completing (well, except for cooking the dinner; you definitely do not want to serve raw meat for Christmas dinner).
And then we could spend the rest of the time between now and the first day of Christmas getting caught up in the pure joy of the season.
Unfortunately, even if all of us managed to miraculously lock our inner obsessive-compulsive selves in a closet until the New Year, I’m not convinced that most of us could answer the question on its deepest and most important level: Are you ready for Christ’s Mass — which is technically a redundancy but which reminds us of what it is that anyone who is celebrating Christmas is supposed to be focused on. That is, the coming of the Christ child, incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.
Advent, which ends at sundown on Dec. 24, is the four-week season set aside by many Christians to prepare for Christmas on that most important level. Each day, we prepare our hearts for the celebration of Christ’s birth more than 2,000 years ago, and we prepare for the return of Christ.
But I have to admit that while I have faithfully observed the rites and traditions of Advent — even looking down my nose at all the premature Christmas light displays and haughtily tut-tutting the sacchariney secular Christmas music — I haven’t put Advent to good use. Which is self-evident, after all, by the fact that I’m looking down my nose and being haughty, toward anybody, about anything.
Fact is, it’s hard to find much more Adventing in the Christian community than in the rest of society. And here, I’m not just talking about how we let all of that checking off to-do lists and adding more items to them get in the way of enjoying time with loved ones. I’m talking about what’s in our hearts.
If we’re holding onto grudges against our siblings or our spouses, gritting our teeth through Christmas greetings, hoping upon hope that that obnoxious cousin won’t show up, or at least won’t bring her annoying children, then where is the room in our hearts for Christmas?
If we’re looking for reasons to take offense instead of looking for reasons not to take offense, perhaps we need a little remedial Advent.
If we’re determined to force our political observations into every conversation, or plotting the sharpest retort to that snide political comment we know is coming, if we’re angry about the people who are angry about the president, or angry about the people who aren’t angry about the president, then we’re not ready for Christmas.
Instead of getting put out about the fact that someone wished us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” — or getting put out about all those people who are put out about that — maybe we ought to spend our time in church this weekend praying for God to set our hearts right, so that we truly can celebrate Christ’s Mass. Because otherwise, this really is nothing more than a winter celebration.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.