Staying true to Christmas
Every year I have the same thought. This is the year I am going to do Christmas right. It will be relaxed. It will be meaningful. It will be holy. It will be organised within an inch of its life. Every year I dream of having the sort of Christmas you could use as a model for best practice. An ideal for Catholic Family Life.
It is always a challenge to make the distinction between Christmas, one of the great feasts of our liturgical year, the birthday of Jesus, an invitation to reflect on the supreme mystery of the incarnation; and Christmas, a gaudy, tinsel-strewn, Mariah Carey themed festival of conspicuous consumption.
In my attempt to highlight the true meaning of the season, I seem to have amassed several nativity scenes. I love them. I know that most households only have one, if any. But mine are all so beautiful. Some are wooden, some ceramic, some are made of fabric. At what point does this become an obsession? And I want to buy more. No piety store is safe. I’m running out of places to put them. It’s getting to the point where you might open a cutlery drawer at my house to find a small Mary, Joseph and Jesus gazing up at you. I can’t stop.
I’ve also been trying to put together an Advent wreath. I’ve got most of the components. The wreath itself was once a raggedy coat-hanger-and-plastic-bag number but has been upgraded to a pretty wicker thing I found. The kids complained when I replaced it a few years ago, but the wonky wreath had been my failed craft project, not theirs. The candles are a work in progress.
We’ve tried all sorts. Coloured tea-lights, precarious candlesticks, a set of four white pillar candles coloured in with sharpies (it doesn’t work). None have been quite right. I currently have three perfect purple candles. They are pillars. They are unscented. They can stand up all by themselves. They are exactly what I want. But pink? I’m really struggling to find a great pink one. It needs to be a lovely shade of pink. It needs to be unscented. It needs to be self-standing. It needs to retail for less than $6.95 (what? I’m not made of Advent-candle-money!).
If I’ve got it together this Advent, we will say a morning prayer every day with the Advent wreath lit. Every child will be assigned a day of the week. If Monday is Penny’s Day to snuff the candle, then Penny will make sure we don’t forget the prayer on Monday! If I don’t have it together, we will say a morning prayer once in week one, then forget about it until the end of week three, then say it three times in one day, then forget again until Christmas.
I can remember a conversation I had a few years ago with my friend Elisha who had a brilliant idea for decorating the house during Advent. You see, she was going to decorate the house in stages. On the first week of Advent, she would put out all the purple decorations – only purple. Purple baubles on the tree. Purple tinsel. Purple ornament made of glitter and icy pole sticks. Then in the next week, she can add blue decorations. Week three is pink (of course) and then in week four she would add gold. There was probably something extra special to do on Christmas Day, but I don’t remember. It was several Christmases ago that she told me about this, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
I know myself well enough to understand that executing this plan in my own home would be too ambitious for me. It requires a certain level of patience and ability that I just don’t possess. But it’s also true that I can beat myself up over this sometimes. Why can’t I be more like Elisha? Elisha has it all together! Why can’t I make special traditions like this? What is wrong with me?
But that’s the funny thing about families. We fall over ourselves as parents, sticking elves on shelves and trying to establish Christmas traditions. The thing nobody ever tells you is that Christmas traditions happen whether you plan them or not. They gradually build, following the natural rhythm of family life. I never meant for it to be a beloved ritual on Christmas Eve that we have a rushed dinner of drive-thru nuggets after the Nativity Mass and before driving to my parents for Christmas drinks. This is just what we’ve always done. The tradition happened without trying.
I give Elisha a call. “I’m writing an article on Christmas for the Majellan. When you decorate your house for Christmas, is it blue first, or purple?”
Elisha pauses and then laughs. “Oh, I remember that! Yeah, I liked that idea. I don’t remember the order of colours, but you know I never actually did it.”
I blink and swallow. “You what!”
“I remember we talked about it. It was a great idea. But in the end I was outvoted. We didn’t end up doing it.”
We finish the call and I pause to think. For so many years, I’ve grappled with sub-par candles and poorly planned shopping expeditions imagining Elisha decorating her home in stages with perfectly timed execution. It was all in my head.
Perhaps the perfect model for Catholic Family Life doesn’t really exist. Perhaps we all just need to muddle along as best we can with love and, if we can remember it, some prayer as well?
Then again, perhaps I just need to buy another nativity set?
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