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Monday, December 04, 2006


The neighbors have their lights up, B101 is playing all Christmas music, and I’ve begun my annual wrestling match with what is supposedly the “Hap-happiest time of the year.”
Part of it is my ongoing struggle against consumerism—a regular theme in this blog—as well as my issues with being a cultural minority. My particular questions of the day: What does it mean to celebrate advent? And what does it mean to honor religious diversity in a culture that commercializes everything?

Traditionally, advent was the season of waiting. It was a dark quiet time of inward preparation, or at least that’s my ideal. Gradually the candles on the advent calendar increased, and then on Christmas day (or Christmas Eve, depending on your family), the tree appeared, blazing with lights, and the darkness was over. Christ was born. Hallelujah!

We’ve tried that, and here’s what it gets us, two kids whining: “Why can’t we put up our lights? All the neighbors decorated after Thanksgiving. Our house looks stupid.” Since Christmas has become a consumer holiday more than a religious one, the days before Christmas have become the focus, rather than the days of celebration afterwards. Expectant waiting is a spiritual value, not a capitalist one.

We’ve tried to explain it to our children, tried to focus on the advent wreath, but this year I’m on the verge of giving up, thinking that we could make decorating, rather than darkness, part of the expectant waiting. I ran into a friend this morning who said that’s what her family is doing, and they are having the most “integrated” advent ever. I liked that idea of integrating the commercial, cultural and spiritual aspects of the season. That’s really what’s important to me, rather than some rarefied ideal of the past.

The gap between the commercial and spiritual aspects of Christmas was evident in a story I heard this morning on CNN. Apparently Chicago’s Christmas Fest will not be airing ads for the film The Nativity Story and has dropped the filmmaker as a sponsor because a film about Jesus’ origins might be offensive to non-Christians. The city is widely being made fun of, since it is after all a Christmas festival. But the incident seems very revealing to me. Very few people seem concerned that we are forcing Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christian Americans to endure non-stop Christmas music and shopping advertisements featuring red. I supposed it’s assumed that shopping is a universal value in America. We all worship at the mall. The Chicago Christmas Fest, which is really a market featuring vendors from all over, was just an expression of the shopping religion we all presumably share. But Jesus…he’s dangerous. It reminds me of a story I heard from one of the volunteer Santas at a city zoo. Santa usually appears in December with the reindeer, but when one Santa suggested they bring in the camels to symbolize the wise men of the nativity story, the zoo said that might offend some zoo goers. Apparently it hadn’t occurred to them that Santa might offend people.

I really don’t have an easy answer here. I believe in respecting other traditions and in being sensitive, especially when you’re the majority. I’m disturbed, for example, that Wal-mart has given up having its cashiers say “Happy Holidays” and has reverted to “Merry Christmas.” There seems to be something arrogant in the assumption that it’s too politically correct to notice that we’re not all Christian. On the other hand, Chicago seems to have gotten it wrong too. It’s hypocritical to embrace the revenue of Christmas while discouraging the reverence.

Somehow this relates to advent and the idea of integrating. It makes me want to put up my Christmas lights, but inside rather than outside, as a family act rather than a public one. Perhaps if we focused a bit more on Jesus’ message, increased respect for others would be a natural consequence.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks you for your thoughtful post.
This is helping our family to appreciate
the time of expectation

8:52 AM  
Blogger Michelle O'Neil said...


8:30 AM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for the great link to an online advent calendar that includes opportunities for giving.I hope others check it out, too.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Ellen Aim said...

I love reading your blog. I had to look up my advent candles the other day, as my husband kept asking me what they meant! I was raised agnostic but with many Christmas traditions none of us really knew much about. I find your views on religion and your family very insightful and always look forward to new posts.

9:34 PM  

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