I watch Laila with her toys and her fascination with TV remotes and telephones and wonder if I should skip putting the Christmas Tree up this year. I can see it crashing down with a wailing toddler and a wagging dog at the center of the chaos. It seems like too much work and hassle, only to have to be re-boxed within the month.
But I also know that skipping out on holiday traditions wouldn’t be healthy for anyone in our household. Avoiding is not the same as anticipating, and anticipating is what Advent is all about.
I’ve been reading To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration by Gertrud Mueller Nelson. Sharing stories from her own family, she explores many practices one might embrace during this season of waiting (Advent) and celebration (Christmas).
She engages the whole family in waiting for Jesus and a healed world by encouraging each person to join in God’s work to bring peace and wholeness in an activity called “Gathering Straws.” The family sets up an empty manger. Every time someone does something loving and life-giving for someone else, they place one piece of straw in the manger. They prepare a place for Jesus in the manger by adding to its bedding. They prepare a place for Jesus in their hearts, lives, and the world, by focusing on the times God has given them the power to do good work. On Christmas, the manger is brought to the nativity scene and baby Jesus is cushioned on the symbols of love shared and peace made.
While I do love planning and giving gifts, sometimes it is really stressful. Especially in the many exchanges, I always wonder, “Am I giving something good enough?” “Will my gift be appreciated?” “Is my gift too cheap or less extravagant or less thoughtful than the gift I will receive?” I guess I have a talent for turning what should be complete joy into something else! Reading Nelson’s reflections on her church ladies’ exchange, I resonated with her appraisal that it had become more about ego. They tried something new: each brought a gift with little monetary but with sentimental value, contained in a brown lunch sack tried with white yarn. No card, no identifying features. At the end of their time together, each women brought home one of the gifts, and opened it at home. Some might have accidentally brought home the one they had taken to the event! Even that became an opportunity for gracious receiving of a gift.
Our table has often been adorned with an Advent wreath, but I had never heard her explanation of its origin. Nelson tells of busy ancient farmers taking the wheels off their carts, decorating one with greens and candles, and breaking from the frenetic pace of spring, summer, and fall. Instead of pretending that winter’s cold and dark days had no effect on their daily lives, “they gave in to the nature of winter, came away from their fields and put away their tools… they engaged the feelings of cold and fear and loss” (63). She invites us to consider what it would be like to take a wheel off our car as an Advent practice! Certainly would cause us to slow down and live into the waiting expectation for the sun to come and warm us again!
I pray God’s blessings upon you and your household and neighbors as you wait and celebrate in new and old ways. May you meet God come to us, Jesus Christ, Immanuel, bringing joy, peace, and life for all the world.
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