These weeks before Christmas, I find my shoulders steadily inching toward my earlobes. My mind’s a hive, abuzz with lists.
Turns out, I need a deep breath. Will you take one with me?
Phew! I needed that. That breath might be the most important thing I’ve done all day. Every year, I’m struck with the discrepancy between the frenetic holiday season and what’s happening in the natural world at this northern latitude. While we’re out “getting and spending,” nature is conserving energy, paring back, hunkering down. For all the technologies and comforts that seem to elevate us above nature, we’re still a corporeal species with a deep, instinctive desire for slowness, abeyance, and quiet at this darkest time of the year.
In my Episcopal tradition, these creaturely instincts are preserved in the four weeks before Christmas, the short season of Advent. In embracing the darkness and holding space for quiet, Advent invites an inward turn. Perhaps at no time of the year are our acquisitive habits more on display than during the holiday spending spree. Advent is a counterpoint to this cultural excess. It asks of us inquisitiveness rather than acquisitiveness. Among the inquiries of Advent: What really nourishes me? For what truly good thing do I yearn? If God were to come disguised as my life, would I have the eyes to see?
While store windows are aglitter with promises of material fulfillment, Advent’s spareness bestows a different type of gain. It allows me to hear the muffled eloquence of footsteps in snow or feel the simple, sharp exhilaration of a breath in winter. And it is through the darkness of Advent that the small pinpricks of light — starlight, candle flame, alpenglow on the mountainside — are revealed as truly consequential and glorious.
I hope that in these hustling days you find a few Advent moments to sit in the silent company of a flickering candle, to walk beneath the barren trees of winter, to gaze through the darkness at the miracle of stars above. To breathe.
p.s. Since Kim and I both delight in children’s books, we thought we’d list some of our favorites to read at this time of the year. Short and centering, perhaps one of these will usher in an Advent moment.
Recommendations from Kim:
The Clown of God by Tomie de Paola: Based on an Italian legend, this beautifully illustrated book is a wonder and brings me to tears every time I read it. (Me too! – Lindsay)
A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas: This is such a great read-aloud, sure to evoke wistfulness and many chuckles.
The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumor Godden and Barbara Cooney: You’re probably familiar with this classic, but this version is exceptionally told, with the magic of Cooney’s gorgeous artwork.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: this story has become almost a trope, but the original glitters with deep meaning and beauty. Try listening to this fabulous audiobook version in the car as an alternative to Christmas radio!
Recommendations from Lindsay:
A Northern Nativity by William Kurelek: My all time favorite Christmas book. Spare folk art drawings paired with short visions of the Holy Family in various northern landscapes. It asks the question: “If it happened here as it happened there, if it happened now as it happened then, who would have seen the miracle? Who would have brought gifts? Who would have taken Them in?”
How Brown Mouse Kept Christmas by Clyde Watson: While this little book is a simple, sweet story, it’s real value is in pitch perfect observance of tiny moments, rendered in beautiful prose.
The Church Mice at Christmas by Graham Oakley: Like all the books in this series, this one is a perfect pairing of understated British humor and hilariously detailed drawings. A thorough pleasure.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson: In my opinion, no Christmas book list can be complete without this classic where humor paves the way to wonder and a sense of what is truly holy.