Advent, Plastic, and Spiritual Disciplines

My kids anticipate Christmas like no other season. They spend the month or two ahead of time thinking about and discussing what they want for Christmas, making lists, and poring over the Lego catalogue that appears in the mailbox. They understand the waiting and anticipation part of this season, but perhaps not for the most spiritual of reasons!

This has me wondering about the best ways to engage in this season of Advent, and the season of gathering and of giving that accompanies the way that we United States Christians currently go about celebrating the birth of Jesus. Is there a space between jumping into the frenzy of the holidays full throttle, and being a humbug or a Grinch (prior to their transformations)?

On the one hand, I feel rather Grinch-y. I feel like critiquing the ways our culture celebrates this holiday. It’s about the mystery of God wrapped in flesh, God entering a particular watershed in a particular time and place, and the impacts of that incarnation reverberating across time. And to commemorate it, we…shop? It’s at this time of year that I feel the most intense pressure to participate in consumerism in a way that I try to avoid the rest of the year. Although we try to limit the number of presents our kids get, and even buy some used so we reduce the need for new products to be made all the time, each year I’m dismayed by the amount of plastic packaging and other waste we produce. How is this a celebration of the God of creation?

On the other hand, I think of this in terms of seasonality. My kids know that Christmas and their birthdays are the two times of year when they will actually get new (to them) things. They anticipate this, and sometimes they start a Christmas list during the summer, anticipating the season. While I might wish they were anticipating something other than consuming more “stuff,” at least they don’t expect to be able to consume in that way all the time. In this way, hopefully it makes the holidays more meaningful, because there is a limit.

I notice that most things become much more meaningful if I set a limit, or if I live within a seasonal limit. For example, I have gotten to the point where I pretty much never buy a tomato at the store, because they really have no taste compared to a tomato grown in my garden. So, a couple weeks ago I ate the last of the tomatoes ripening in my windowsill, and I know I won’t have many more (fresh–I’ll have some canned ones) until next summer. Last July, I waited with anticipation for the first tomatoes to ripen, and it was such a moment of savor when I tasted my first tomato of the season. It was a daily summer ritual in July, August, and September to go outside and gather eggs, tomatoes, and basil for my breakfast, and to savor those flavors in their season.

This is a little like the spiritual discipline of fasting. When we fast for a meal or a day, or several days if we’re adventurous, we appreciate the next food we eat in a different way. We know what it is to go without, and we recognize our body’s need for nourishment in a way we don’t when we are just going through the motions of maintaining our normal routines.

In this way, setting or living within limits helps us appreciate and live life with gratitude, anticipation, and wonder, and in my life I find these are lacking in myself when I give myself everything I want at the moment that I feel the slightest urge for it. Setting limits requires us to pay attention to our wants, needs, and desires, and it also requires a willingness to experience both the lack and the fulfillment, in its time.

I’m noticing that both living within limits and celebrating seasonal bounty are part of what makes being human feel meaningful.

When I think about the consumerism that is associated with the Christmas season, and my own complicity in that, it’s easy to feel guilty, and certainly there is plenty of reason for that guilt: the plastic required to package or create the gifts I give and which will sit in a landfill virtually forever, the fossil fuels burnt to bring products to me, the toxic chemicals used and discarded (who knows where) in the manufacturing process, the disparities in privilege of those who can and those who cannot afford to offer holiday gifts to their children, the injustice surrounding distribution of land and the overwhelming lingering impacts of colonial expansion on these lands in which we blithely enjoy the holidays, and the many other dimensions of injustice and environmental impact that our collective lifestyles cause. It’s easy, at least for me, to connect all of this in my mind to the very act of celebration, and to begin to feel guilty even for enjoying small pleasures and anything that goes beyond necessity.

This season, I’m working to not feel guilty for celebration, and for the seasonal rhythm of gift-giving and family gathering. I can work to engage the gift-giving in ways that do not destroy the Earth, and I can focus on reveling in the beauty and delight of the small, seasonal pleasures in life. It is these moments that truly offer meaning and joy to the spiritual work of watershed discipleship. I can enjoy my children’s excitement for the season where they experience love through giving and receiving gifts, and I can allow this season to seep into me. As I was editing this piece, I overheard my older child say to my younger, “Christmas isn’t about the presents!” So, I am working to trust that we’re raising our kids with a sense of joy, wonder, and anticipation, as well as the ability to look beyond the “stuff,” to see and experience meaning apart from consumerist practices.

As the season of Advent draws to a close, I’m practicing the waiting, the withholding, the growing anticipation, the pain of labor required to reach the desired end, and the heart-rending beauty of new creation, hope, and abundant life. May you also draw nearer this season to the One who draws near to us.