Alternative Advent 1: a season of mindful preparation

A bright star over a dark horizon featuring trees and boats
Photo by Edoard Costa

Advent. ‘Tis the season of consumption and frantic socialising where, in a tacit acknowledgement that everyone is overloaded, mention of any unrelated project is prefaced with ‘after Christmas, obviously …’

Traditionally, of course, Advent – from the Latin for ‘a coming’ or ‘arrival’ – derives from a religious season marking precisely the opposite: a time of waiting and preparation for, variously, the baptism of new Christians at Epiphany, the birth of Christ, and the second coming. In the Eastern tradition, the run-up to Christmas is a period of abstinance and penance known as the Nativity Fast. The season commemorates the time when the Israelites awaited deliverance from their suffering in a spirit of anticipation mingled with uncertainty – a waiting characterised as ‘watching’ with a range of emotions by John Henry Newman.

Every year, Christian leaders remind us of this, the religious significance of Advent, although in a culture as incorrigibly materialist culture such as ours they’re careful not to push the point too hard. As Rowan Williams points out in his former role as Archbishop of Canterbury, in modern times the word ‘advent’ is primarily associated with ‘calendar’ which reframes the waiting for Christmas as a time so dull that we need daily treats of chocolate to get through it.

The features of our culture that occlude the qualities of reflectiveness and receptivity that are supposed to characterise Advent seem stronger than ever. Amazon – hot on the heels of yet more reports about the human cost of its business model – is now offering delivery within an hour in some London shops. On Black Friday, I switched on Radio 4’s You and Yours to hear the chief executive of Argos boasting that customers can now expect their in-store orders fulfilled within a minute. This commercial fostering of instant gratification sits oddly with our growing understanding that working to relentless, unrealistic targets militates against what people need to maintain health of body and mind.

We can’t, I think, opt out of the culture in which we live, at least not during the season which is most about spending time with family, friends and community. Impossible to adfast, unless you want to be like the ultra orthodox Jews who avert their eyes from the contaminating nature of the adverts on Oxford Street. And who wants to sit in and miss every festive gathering?

Yet I think it’s still possible to do Advent differently, and to build on the customs that have emerged over the last decade or so to limit the frantic shopping of the modern Christmas.

I’m thinking of the limits that families put on spending – say £10 per present, or outright present bans for adults. Then there’s the rise of the home-made present, a trend which combines nicely with a custom I share with a couple of friends of trying a new Christmas craft, such as wreath-making, every year. Last week I went to an auction with a friend who bought a lot of glasses and linens with which she plans to make cushions and candles. Since she’s on the go most of the time, the home-made presents only rule agreed by her family means she’ll perforce be spending a few quiet evenings sewing and making.

Since my people don’t go the home-made route, this Advent I’ll be indulging my love of slow shopping to the max. Slow shopping involves making careful decisions about things you consider useful, beautiful or funny (Think William Morris with a sense of humour) fitted to the person you’re buying for. It’s ideally done locally – perhaps at a good Christmas market such as the Kennet and Avon floating market – and can involve quite a bit of chat.

So hail Advent, season of mindful preparation. Long may you take!

This is the first in a series of weekly blogs on Christian and pagan themes through Advent. The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent.