By Jody Collins —
Have you ever had to move house during the Christmas season? How much fun is that, eh? Twenty years ago our family journeyed to a new land from California to Seattle during the holidays and I discovered something.
It’s impossible to celebrate a “normal” Christmas when your living room is crowded with moving boxes. That wasn’t my discovery. No. The good news I found was that surrendering my ideas of what Christmas “should” look like left space for God to surprise our family beyond what we could imagine. I was forced to adjust to a new season as I viewed things, not as I dreamed they would be, but the way they were. My ideas of what-was-to-come–a new home, settling in, making it my own–kept me going through those few months.
Oddly enough, as I looked around at our temporary rental, the empty walls and barely-furnished rooms greatly improved my mental state, making it easier to ‘see’ the future. Although I felt untethered and impatient, desperate to begin nesting in our new home, the emptiness created room for waiting.
The focus and intent of the Advent season is just that, providing space to wait—physically, spiritually and mentally—to celebrate the birth of Christ.
My faith background is tempered by an Evangelical perspective, so Advent and all it represents is quite new to me. I love the slowing down that the Sunday candle lighting affords my husband and I, along with its focus on Christ, not the day of All the Presents.
As a newcomer to this observance I was surprised to learn that Advent was originally a period of fasting in preparation for the feast of the Nativity (now Christmas) and was practiced in some form as early as 400 A.D. Unfortunately for us, Advent as a season of fasting and reflection has all but disappeared from many church landscapes. Advent has been defined, instead, as the number of shopping/party/activity days there are until Christmas, and thus, our gift-driven Advent ‘calendars.’ (Which are actually, December calendars, not Advent calendars, as a friend recently pointed out.)
The practice of fasting seems like a shocking suggestion prior to the rich celebration of Christmas. But it makes sense when you think about it. Letting go, putting off or making room for one thing makes space for something else. Like the empty walls in our new rental house all those years ago, extra space can help us “see” better without all the distractions. When the too-much of Christmas presses in, it helps to make room for the joy we crave by saying ‘no’ to what we don’t need.
Instead of the usual going without food, fasting during Advent can simply be a variation of giving up, putting off, setting aside or laying down. All these provide a way to make room for Jesus in our soul and spirt, where we are hungriest. Because, goodness knows, there are scores of things that want to “feed” us; too much of anything can fill me so full that I never know I’m hungry. Fasting is one way to make room for God to show up, and hunger can often provide a way for us to say no to our overstuffed senses.
So–what about fasting? Fasting doesn’t have to be just from food.
How About Fasting from Noise?
Turn off your screens—phones, tablets, computers—for 60 to 90 minutes and relish the freedom that quiet brings. Of course, it may be noisy now that you’ve got time to read one more book to your kids. But that’s a good kind of noise, the kind that feeds the soul—theirs and yours. Having young children and teens limit their visual media input is a way they can also fast. You might say, “Sometimes there’s noise we hear and sometimes there’s noise we see. All that makes it hard to hear and see God. Mom and Dad are going to spend less time with their phone/computer/tablet during Advent. When would you like to give up some of your screen time?” This phrasing frames the question in a way that communicates they will cut back, but it also gives them the power of making the choice of how and when.
I’m not talking about stopping all visual media but taking baby steps to help children adjust their thinking, too. The point is too make room for God to speak to us in that still, small voice; He will show up in the space that we give Him. That’s what Advent is all about–preparing room for the Saviour to come.
Fast from the “Shoulds”
The overwhelming amount of Christmas trappings even at the grocery store can be hard to ignore—everyone has to eat, and thus we are inundated with the visual overload of the holidays. It’s hard to ignore. “Decorate like this! Buy this! Your home should look like this!” Sometimes it feels like the displays are shouting from the aisles.
We can’t forego feeding our families, but we can take intentional break during the Christmas season from visual media channels that keep us focused on all those ‘shoulds.’ Facebook’s siren song or Pinterest and Instagram come to mind—whatever social vortex seems to suck you in. These platforms can be helpful for creativity but can also be a rabbit hole of, “Oooohhh, I should make this. No, I should try this.” Lay it down. Turn it off. Put it away.
Fasting from Food
Of course, your children will need their three squares a day. Growing children need fuel to stay well, keep growing, and continue learning . . . and to be happy. The practice of fasting from food when it comes to your kids is clearly fraught with questions. Should they participate? Will they even understand what they’re doing? What’s the point?
Consider this. If our children get everything they want whenever they want it, we all know this is not a good thing. One way to help children understand they cannot always have whatever they want is to practice even a simple fast.
What about fasting from certain foods as a family? saving your enjoyment for Christmas when you will break your fast together? Perhaps meats—ham, beef, whatever—sweets or a particular treat. Or, you could set aside Sundays, traditionally the “feast days” on the church calendar, as days to look forward to those special foods. (Chocolate totally counts.) My friend Kay says she and her family fast from sugar during the week and mark Sunday as the day to indulge.
Setting aside one day as different is another way to simply mark the time as special.
Fasting during the holidays doesn’t have to be cold-turkey (sorry), but more of a subtle shift in thinking about the way we look at Christmas with all its too-much. Consider taking out all the fake “food” that promises to feed our soul and replacing it with holy nutrition.
Honoring, adopting or adapting one of the earliest traditions of Advent is a simple way to make room for more joy and peace this Christmas season. And the best news? There’s nothing you need to add to your busy life, but something to take away. Literally.
Sometimes the best ‘yes’ is a ‘no.’ What a simple yet powerful gift.
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This post is an extract from Jody’s new book “Living the Season Well-Reclaiming Christmas”, a short & practical primer for families to slow down and simplify the Christmas Season. Available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.