Most of my family aren’t church-going, so Christian traditions have never featured heavily in our family celebrations. I suppose our Advent was more about seeing people. We would do the big family get-together thing earlier in the year, rather than on Christmas Day itself. We have a shared “Stir-Up Sunday” around the end of October. All the aunts, uncles and cousins on my mum’s side gather at my aunt’s house. We have lunch together and the cousins take turns to add a Christmas pudding ingredient to a huge bowl. We all take a turn stirring and then the mixture is divided up so that each family has a pudding for Christmas Day.
On Christmas Day itself, I celebrate with my parents and sister. When we were growing up, Christmas used to involve friends and neighbours a lot. Different neighbours would host drinks and nibbles gatherings Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, and my parents would invite people round for Christmas Day fizz. So on Christmas morning, we’d get up and open the presents in our stockings, then have porridge or pain au chocolat for breakfast before everyone came round for drinks and more presents.
Once people left, we’d have a big, three-course lunch. Not turkey – I don’t remember us ever having turkey – so we’d always need a family discussion a few weeks before Christmas about what we were going to eat. We’d have crackers and sit in the proper dining room rather than the kitchen. And we’d eat huge amounts. After lunch we’d collapse on the sofa, play a game or watch a film.
When I was exploring Christianity as a teenager, I set Christmas that year as a sort of deadline for God. When it came to that deadline, I was so excited about starting the next stage of my life that I remember coming home from the Christmas Eve party and praying the words of a prayer at the back of a “Why Jesus?” booklet. I knew that I wanted God to be part of my life. So Christmas is significant in terms of my own faith.
I knew the nativity story growing up – I featured in plays – and a musical – about it through school, but it was just a story at that point. I don’t think I really realised that some people thought it had any particular significance. Now though, I find it difficult to express what it means compared to what it meant to me before. It’s quite difficult to shift focus and explain how something can suddenly mean more than it did, but it just does.
I think many people, regardless of their beliefs, try and reconnect with faith at Christmas. Many people who were brought up going to church want to go back at Christmas, because they love the traditions. They like the familiarity of liturgy, carols and candles – because it’s part of what they’ve always done at Christmas. I wonder how often people ask themselves why they do it? Because their parents always did? Because it’s tradition? Because, no matter how chaotic and uncertain the world can seem, you can rely on the Church to do things a certain way at Christmas this year, just as they did last year and all the years before?
For me, I wasn’t familiar with church services, so didn’t connect a lot of the Advent traditions to each other or Christianity. A wreath was part of the Christmas decorations for the front door. The Advent calendar was counting down to Christmas Day, not about a separate season in its own right. We would have Christmas music – both carols and other songs, choral carol-singing in the background on Christmas morning, stuff like that. I remember people carol singing in the streets or outside supermarkets, collecting money for charity. So carols were part of a secular Christmas for me, part of the background noise. Because of that, I’ve not always found it easy to sing carols as a form of worship since I became a Christian. I still hear the alternative lyrics that I’d giggle over as a child.
In many ways, the most unfamiliar bits of Advent have proved the most useful for me as a Christian. I’d never been to a Midnight Mass service until a few years ago and I loved it. I didn’t know until I got there that it’s traditional to turn all the lights off and then light a single candle, symbolising Jesus, who the Bible calls the Light of the World, being born. Then to have the light passed from person to person until everyone in the church is holding a lit candle… it takes time, you have to pause to think about what you’re doing, you have to focus on getting your candle lit and not accidentally setting fire to anything. I find that incredibly powerful and emotional.
This year, I’m trying to make more of Advent for myself. Because the Christian celebrations are not a big part of our family Christmas, I wanted to use Advent as a time for me to reflect more on the season and also to prepare for Christmas. It’s pretty common to see Lent as a time of preparation and reflection ahead of Easter, but Advent is much the same thing for Christmas.
I’ve been reading a book on prayer and thinking about how I approach my prayer life. I’ve had an Advent candle for the last couple of years – I love candles anyway – so that is how I’m choosing to celebrate Advent this year – recognising Advent as a season, not just an easy way to keep track of the number of days left to do my Christmas shopping or an excuse for a chocolate at breakfast every day. Mostly, for me, I’ve started to recognise Advent as the starting point for the events that would ultimately lead to the Easter story. Advent became more meaningful to me when I saw that link. They weren’t just two separate stories; they were two chapters in a single story. It finally clicked with me: that’s why it matters. That’s why this baby is significant.