Wait for it!
So, what is the build up to Christmas? On holiday in August there was a documentary on the television about the Christmas Trade Fairs. This was a gathering, in balmy sunny weather, for distributors to meet with the big shopping chains to promote the Christmas ranges. On the way home I noticed Christmas being advertised in one supermarket – it was early September.
Indeed, the decorations in some shops will be up the moment bonfire night is behind us. And let’s be honest, we will all be in full swing by the beginning of December with decorations, Christmas parties, carol services and the like.
But this is not a traditional Christmas. In the days before commercialism the celebrations didn’t start until Christmas day. When they did start, they continued from Christmas day until the eve of Epiphany – the twelve days of Christmas. So what were Christians doing before the 25th of December? Well, they were waiting.
This waiting involved an advent calendar (though not full of chocolate), but also advent prayers, and perhaps most importantly the Nativity Fast. Just like the period of Lent before Easter, Christians would fast in the weeks before Christmas in anticipation of the big celebration.
So, what was this prayer and fasting about? Well, before they celebrated Christmas, they spent time saying sorry for their wrong doing. The fasting was not about making room for lots of extra food on Christmas Day – there was rarely the need for a diet back then. The fasting and prayer was about focusing the soul on God. It was a time for Christians to remind themselves why God had sent His only son – to redeem His people from their wrong doing and to bring them back to Him.
I was quite taken by this when I read about it a few years ago, so decided to try a traditional advent. It was really hard! At a time when we in this country are gorging ourselves like never before, and it seems like everyone is in the party mood, trying to abstain from things like chocolate, or alcohol, or excessive eating generally, is particularly hard. It was also hard to focus on God with so many other distractions.
Despite the temptations however, it was a time of spiritual growth for me. It certainly wasn’t easy – but the journeys of our souls rarely are. I also had some great conversations with non-Christian friends about what Christmas is really all about. It felt like a meaningful start to Christmas.
I should not have been surprised! As Christians we are still called to be different from the world (John 17:14-15). We are called to be ‘in the world, but not of the world’. Our souls are designed to magnify the Lord. At this time of advent why not try to set aside some extra time to be with God? Maybe give up something for advent, just as you would for lent, and take up a little extra prayer instead?