My dad loved Christmas, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just because it’s a Christian holiday. He was a Presbyterian minister and a kid at heart. Is there a more exciting holiday for Christian—and secular—kids than Christmas? I believe Dad loved Santa as much as he loved Jesus. He loved the decorations and caroling, the gift-giving and receiving, the special goodies, both solid and liquid, and especially the idea of getting snowed in, which he always prayed for. He also loved celebrating Advent, and his enthusiasm got his family hopped up on it too.
From the Latin ad-venir, to come to, Advent is the Christian celebration leading up to Christmas, the birth of Jesus, which is commemorated by the lighting of candles. Candles are also lit during Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which ends December 18. Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean revolt and retaking of Jerusalem, along with the rededication of the Temple on the Mount.
Most Advent wreaths have four candles, each representing a different quality or state of being, such as joy, hope, courage, and peace. My family had a huge Advent wreath, one candle for every day, beginning with the first Sunday in Advent all the way up to Christmas Day. The oval wreath was an inch-thick board with holes drilled around the edge and a single hole in the middle for candles (which Mom said always cost a fortune). We kids loved putting it together. We’d wrap the board in heavy-duty aluminum foil, punch the candles through into the holes, and wind a fake plastic garland of holly and berries around the candles.
Every night our family would have Advent. Dad read a bible passage, and Mom played the piano while we sung a few carols. We loved turning out all the room lights and basking in the glow of the candles, which got brighter as the weeks approached Christmas. We took turns lighting the candles and snuffing them out with a genuine candle snuffer. It was a special—and rare—time for us all to be quiet and still together, to reflect while staring at the lit candles. The ritual instilled in me, an active child, the habit of finding inner calm. I’m forever grateful to Dad for it.
This year, Mom is living in moderate isolation in assisted living, far away from her family. So we’ve been celebrating Advent with her every evening on Zoom. We each light our own Advent wreaths and reminisce about happier times and family memories. My sister, a recently retired Presbyterian minister, leads us in a reading, and we each share what’s going on in our worlds based on the reading. We sing a hymn and close with a prayer, many of which are in support of all those suffering through this crisis without the comfort of work or food or adequate housing. We pray for the caregivers and health professionals who’ve nary had a break from caregiving for the gravely ill, the lonely, and the dying.
This year for the first time in her 89 years, Mom will spend Christmas without family or friends. Although we’ll Zoom on the day, video conferencing can’t replace the warmth of a hug or the feel-good energy emanating from an in-person smile or the sublime joy of a home-cooked meal shared with extended family. It can’t replace communing in person and the spontaneity of a moment; these things will be missed this year. But our daily Advent gathering has helped connect us through circumstances that separate us physically, to bring some light into Mom’s solitary life—and into our own.
During this season of Advent and Hanukkah, when the days are their darkest, I invite you to light a candle and reflect on ad-venir. What are you waiting for to come? What do you hope to birth in 2021 or hope our collective humanity will birth? Is there someone you can connect with to bring a little light into their life? You don’t have to be a Christian to do your own type of Advent. Just find some time to quiet your mind, light a candle, and reflect on the good things in your life, as well as what you’d like to change. What small things can you do or change about yourself to start you down the road?