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Simcha Fisher: Screen-free Advent evenings can make all the difference

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Photo by Ann Danilina on Unsplash

Over the years, we have tried many family activities for Advent — some of them elaborate, some of them bare bones. Some of them have been ambitious and better designed for some other family; some probably could have been a little more ambitious. But the one thing we keep returning to, year after year, is screen free evenings.

Not the whole evening. Just from 7-9pm. It’s exactly as described: The whole family simply turns off screens, and that means TV, video games, computers, tablets, phones, and anything else that glows and boops and hypnotises you into gazing your life away.

you may find that there is time and space for the joy and peace of Christmas after all

I would love to do some kind of major, long-lasting detox like some of my friends have done, but I just don’t have the energy or willpower. Screens are part of our life. My social media friends are real friends, a big part of my job is online, and this is just how it is.

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But Advent is a time to make things a little different from how they usually are. This is the beauty of the liturgical year: There is a built-in time printed right on the calendar that tells you to stop and make an effort to shift gears.

And that’s really all it is: A subtle shift in gears. When we first start to do it, it’s a little bit like someone who isn’t used to driving a stick shift: It’s jarring and unfamiliar, and we sort of lurch around and aren’t sure how to proceed. We may even stall out a few times. But with practice, it becomes smoother, and we even discover that we prefer having more control over the evening. Here is what happens when “screen free” is a built-in part of the day:

I have an alarm set, so when it’s time to turn of screens, I go around the house shouting, “Screen free! Screen free!” There are moans and groans, and a few people sometimes discover a sudden urge to visit the bathroom for long spells of time. But eventually, most of the family drifts into the living room and finds somewhere to settle.

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Sometimes I just straight up fall asleep sitting up on the couch, like a bird with a cloth plopped over its cage. This is a little embarrassing, because I have to face the fact that there were many evenings I was staying awake for the sake of my phone, which makes no sense at all. But I love napping, and accept it gratefully if I do doze off.

Sometimes someone will turn on some music, and that’s nice. My kids tend to have a personal playlist and a normie playlist, and they courteously share the more socially acceptable one with the rest of the family.

Occasionally, someone will even bring a guitar or a ukulele down and do a little strumming, which is lovely. Sometimes I make an effort to mix in liturgically appropriate music, but mostly I just let people listen to whatever they want.

Sometimes the kids will start to play a board game, or just sit around yakking. I quickly proceed from feeling glad and grateful that my children like each other, to trying not to panic because they’re clearly all insane and talk nothing but nonsense; but this is just because I was dumb enough to have a bunch of teenagers all at once.

Sometimes they fight. But that happened anyway, even if we had the TV going and everybody on their phones and the Playstation yammering away. At least it’s good old fashioned analogue fighting, just like my grandparents used to do.

Sometimes someone gets the idea to bake, or make a craft. I’m fairly torn about this, because they never get the idea to clean up afterwards. Still, ’tis the season. Screen-free time helps a lot with the constant problem of not having enough time to do all the extras that the season demands.

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And sometimes some warm, slightly sticky person will still get the idea to climb into my lap and ask me to read a book. She has just about aged out of this practice, and so I am grateful for it every single time it happens. Again, I will make an effort sometimes to read a seasonally appropriate book, but any good book will do.

And sometimes, people are just restless and cranky, and keep checking the time and sniping at each other until 9pm comes, and then they leap over and turn the screens back on like they’re on top of Mt Everest and their phones are feeding them oxygen. Oh well!

The point is, none of the good things that sometimes happen are likely to happen at all if there are screens sucking away all our energy and attention. The liturgical season is there for us to take advantage of, but we have to make room for it to do its work.

It’s kind of amazing how quickly we rediscover our ability to do things, make things, think things, and you may find that there is time and space for the joy and peace of Christmas after all.

I warmly suggest you try this with your own family, no matter who’s home. Turn down the lights, put on some inviting music, have some cozy blankets handy, and see what happens.


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