Husband & Wife Articles


Don’t Be an Advent Scrooge

Rejoice that others want to rush to Christmas, however imperfectly they go

by Rebecca Ryskind Teti

After graduating from college, a friend and I each ended up doing graduate work in my hometown of Washington, D.C. The two of us moved into the attic apartment of my childhood home, and we had kitchen privileges – by which I mean run of the whole house in exchange for chores. As fresh-minted converts to Catholicism, the two of us took it upon ourselves to introduce Catholic customs into my mom’s evangelical Christian household.

Author Rebecca Ryskind Teti (second from left) and her husband, Dennis (fourth from left), are shown with their four children and extended family members.

We had mixed results. When we left candy canes and chocolate kisses in everyone’s shoes late on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, we awoke the next morning to my brother’s shouts: “Who left this hook and these painful pointy things in my shoes? Curse you, St. Nicholas!” Score! That meant he appreciated the gesture. Another of our efforts I can’t recall without regret. My mom has a gorgeous papier-mâché nativity scene she made herself. She used to add a figure or two each year until she’d amassed not only the Holy Family and numerous shepherds and their sheep, but also Herod, the wise men and their caravan and a sizable angel choir.

That first Advent in my parents’ home, we stole Baby Jesus from the crèche. It began as a prank after we’d teased my mom about jumping into Christmas with no Advent preparation, but my girlfriend (yes, I am throwing her under the bus) stuck on the point and wouldn’t return him long after my mom ceased to be amused and began being ticked off.

We meant well and ours was a jesting kind of family, so no harm done. I nonetheless cringe at the memory that we didn’t let my mom celebrate in her own way in her own home. How obnoxious! And how wrong-headed to belittle the honor she was paying Jesus because it wasn’t the way we would do it.

It’s in the spirit of remorse for mishandled evangelization that I confess I mostly now recoil from what public Catholicism has on offer at the start of Advent. Have you noticed that some of us have nothing nice to say about Christmas? Our media outlets – magazines, blogs, Facebook posts – seem filled with three kinds of stories: those bemoaning how stressful Christmas preparation is, those tut-tutting people who play their carols too early and the outraged documenting of consumerist excess.

As to the stress: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, so obviously we ought to let go of practices (however charming) that don’t serve our families’ needs or don’t leave us space to prepare our hearts.

Sometimes, though, I think we forget that we are incarnate beings, not meant to live a merely spiritual existence. Joseph & Mary spent the first Advent on an uncomfortable road trip. They probably travelled in a caravan for safety’s sake. There was likely not much privacy. They walked all day and every night was a social occasion, everyone pitching tent and eating around communal fires. They would have prayed the Psalms morning and evening, and there were moments, surely, of quiet joy – the baby kicking, a knowing glance between husband and wife. But these would have come as they do for all of us, as surprising moments of grace amid the hustle of daily routines of prayer, duty and community life.

Where the abuse of Christmas is concerned, I take a certain comfort in the phenomenon of Black Friday. Not people’s behavior on that day, for which pious Christians probably ought to do holy hours of reparation. But just the fact of it. If you don’t know, the “black” in Black Friday refers to the day that merchants cease being “in the red” and start turning a profit for the year. I’ve always thought there’s something delicious in the fact that our whole economy in a certain sense turns on the Incarnation – such that even the most cynical atheist businessman – if he cares to be successful — has to nod his head towards Christmas. I’m not suggesting that this fact justifies contemporary American consumerism. I’m saying the Lord is the Lord of history and he likes his ironies.

As for how other people celebrate? It takes a special talent to boil the Good News – the News that brought imperious angels to earth and caused poor shepherds to set their livelihoods at naught to run and find the Savior — down to “You’re doing it wrong.” Yet I’m afraid that’s the tone of a lot of our well-intentioned Advent lessons to our “less-enlightened” family members and friends who want to rush to Christmas.

I like to remind myself and others that Christmas isn’t to be horded to ourselves. It’s Christianity’s gift to the world. We should rejoice wherever we see it celebrated, however poorly – and there is no better gift we could give Christ than an Advent lived with a merry heart, telling others the reason for our joy rather than rebuking them for not knowing already.

Rebecca Ryskind Teti lives in Hyattsville, Md., with her husband, Dennis, and their four children. She is Director of Women’s Programs at Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center, web editor for Catholic Digest Magazine and writes a regular column for Catholic News Agency.