As a kid, I looked forward to Christmas. I got out of school for a couple of weeks and I got presents. Sure, the birth of the baby Jesus was in there somewhere. We were a church-going family and our church did the Sunday School Christmas play thing. One year, I played Herod’s wife who sat beside him while he sent the wise men out to look for the Christ child. I wore a really beautiful sari-like costume and exotic make-up and was, as far as I was concerned, drop-dead gorgeous. I didn’t want the play to be over but, once it was, I focused on the really important part of Christmas — the presents.
Unfortunately, Christmas morning in my family was a potential minefield. If the longed-for gift was not under the tree, the disappointment of the expectant recipient was evident even though there were dozens of other gifts. Squabbles broke out when one child wanted the gift another sibling had and my mother’s fraying nerves could short out at any moment.
Yearly, I dutifully admired the handmade sweater my grandmother sent me, unstylish sweaters that I would never wear and, fortunately, were not acceptable accessories to my school uniform. I would rather have had something mass produced, popular and throwaway, just like I saw in the commercials.
As I grew older, Christmas gradually evolved from a time of joyful anticipation to one of duty and looking forward to December 26 (when it would all be over). As a parent, the lead-up to Christmas was just too stressful; I had more children and less money than my parents had. My husband and I did our best ensuring each child had the same number of presents and their gifts were of equal value. Even so, too much money was spent, too much food was eaten and overly high expectations caused anger, arguments and depression to hover just around the edges. And it wasn’t just my family; statistics show the highest number of suicides occurs during this time of the year.
Since becoming Orthodox, my perspective on Christmas has gradually changed. For the past sixteen years, I have reigned in indulgence and diligently followed the food fast for Advent as prescribed by the Church. Now, after 16 years, I am also starting to realize the importance of fasting from all the flurry of activity I have imposed upon myself. Not the activities per se, but rather fasting from the stress of having to do them all during this time of Christmas preparation. Sure, I can make presents year round, but I can also ask forgiveness, give alms, visit my parents and save the planet year round as well.
Advent should be a time of preparation to receive the One who heals the world. It should not be a time of stress, isolation and depression.
For 13 years, Mary prepared to become the mother of Jesus. For generations, her family was shaped to produce the virgin mother. For thousands of years, the Israelites were disciplined to become the tribe from whom God’s salvation would come. Throughout time, people all over the world had stories and prophecies of the impending birth of a Saviour.
Through the birth of His Son, God has given us Himself, Love incarnate. This living and breathing embodiment of Love enables us to restore our relationships with each other, with other nations and with all of creation, if we choose to.
My grandmother innately understood some of this when she spent her Christmas preparation knitting sweaters for all of her grandchildren, giving each of us a part of herself. Back then, I had no sense of the value of the gift my grandmother had made for me. But now I too am beginning to understand, as I buy or make a gift for a particular person – something that carries my prayers, my thoughts and my love.
Christmas, the birth of the Saviour of the world, is not something I should celebrate only once a year. Daily people are broken and need help –everyone needs love daily. God has prepared for Christmas since the beginning of time. I should be preparing for Christmas everyday of my life.