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Francine and Byron Pirola: True confessions of an Advent failure

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Over the years, we tried lots of Advent family traditions to help us recentre ahead of Christmas. Photo:
Over the years, we tried lots of Advent family traditions to help us recentre ahead of Christmas. Photo:

Advent is full of opportunities for spiritual nourishment. There’s community celebrations and family gatherings, beautiful church services and stunning displays proclaiming the Christmas message.

Working against us, there’s the pressure of prepping for annual leave, school graduations, obligatory office parties, shopping, family tension and budget blowouts.

Among it all, the season is loaded with deeply held expectations about family traditions, how to spend Christmas day, and what to do on the holidays—all of which can quickly lead to arguments and hurt between husband and wife.

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Decisions around presents and spending can be a hot potato. One present or many for each child? Toys and indulgences or practical things for the new school year? Wrapped individually or stuffed in a Santa-sack (aka repurposed pillowcase)?

Christmas eve too often found us grumpy as we wrapped gifts for the following day.
Some of our differences didn’t wait for Christmas day to emerge. A live tree or a reusable artificial one? Homemade decorations or delicate (pricey) ornaments?

And how many lights are too many? For Byron the question is as stupid as putting a limit on hugs. For Francine … lights are just not the highest priority.

Over the years, we tried lots of Advent family traditions to help us recentre ahead of Christmas. We tried the Jesse Tree, an Advent wreath, a Journey to Bethlehem, and various prayers, crafts and activities.

Although we usually started well, somehow, we got derailed by busyness and disruptions before we arrived at Christmas eve. Our home, work and family life just never had the stability for daily routines longer than a week.

Invariably we felt like Advent failures.

Then one year, we took a short vacation the week before Christmas. At one level it seemed crazy, but in fact it was brilliant! It pulled us out of the party-go-round and out of the consumer trap (shopping expands to fill the time available).

It gave us all a breather and time to connect as a family. We returned home refreshed and focussed. The necessary shopping, cooking, wrapping and parish activities all got done, and with less anxiety.

In many ways, it was an Advent retreat. We retreated from busyness, from unnecessary distraction, from pre-Christmas gorging and life-sapping social obligations. It was a much-needed work and technology detox.

And in the space that opened up, we filled it with sunshine, rest, meandering conversations, and family memories. It was deeply, humanly nourishing and created the space needed to connect. At one level it did not appear to be overly spiritual, but in fact it was.

We did that for three or four years and truly, those were our best Christmases. The ones where we felt ready to celebrate the gift of Christ’s birth rather than feeling ambushed by its “here already?!” arrival.

We were more patient with the children, more tolerant of difficult relatives, kinder to each other. It felt like we could breathe and savour and just enjoy the wonder of everything that Christmas means.

When it comes to nourishing our relationships, doing more is often exactly the wrong thing.
Sometimes we need to do less; to retreat so as to advance. Relationships need space and time, and when we slow down all our relationships have a chance of deepening, including the one with God.

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