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Suffering Advent

The secular world calls it the Holiday Season. The Catholic Church calls it Advent. The two are starkly different, but the one thing they have in common is suffering.

(Heidi Sandstrom/

At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, I fully intend to shoot Rudolph and mount his head, red nose and all, over my mantelpiece this holiday season. And I really don’t mind sounding like Scrooge, the immortal Dickens character from A Christmas Carol. His complaints are compelling, and we can laugh at them in a detached way. But the reason we really like him is that he is a convert. When he falls to his knees, he brings us to our knees along with him. We always rejoice at the end of that story in its countless retellings because a soul has been rescued from hell.

In the meantime, we live through a form of hell that ironically begins the day after Thanksgiving. The secular world calls it the Holiday Season. The Catholic Church calls it Advent. The two are starkly different, but the one thing they have in common is suffering. One group has started early with the Christmas cheer, and they wonder why they are so miserable. The other group is waiting, waiting, anticipating the great day, and the wait is hard. Advent is supposed to be a mini-Lent, a time of prayer and penance and abstention. Let’s talk about all three, not in that order.

For me, the chief form of penance during Advent is shopping. I’m not talking about Christmas shopping. I’m talking about any shopping: grocery shopping or hardware shopping or buying gas at the station. Why? Because every retail establishment feels obligated to inflict on us that grindingly obnoxious “holiday” music. It starts blaring right on cue the day after Thanksgiving, as if to say, “Stop being thankful, and start feeling the pain.” They won’t play the beautiful carols because those tend to mention shepherds and angels and heavenly hosts and virgins, and, when it comes right down to it, that specific baby who apparently never fussed and yet caused all the fuss. No, only music that is empty of Christmas content is allowed: the jingle jangles about Santa and Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman and memories that nobody has about horses and unlikely demands that snow be let and let and let.

To make them more unbearable, the songs have been jazzed up or heavily electrified, and the singers screech rather than sing them. And to these “traditional” tunes, add the more contemporary offerings that involve one pounding line repeated about 47 times. The only time we hear the word “Christmas” is in such titles as “Honky Tonky Christmas.” Not sure what that even means. And “All I want for Christmas is You.” Pretty sure what that means. Restaurants, which can always be counted on to play bad music, really ramp it up during December. In any case, none of these songs exactly evoke peace on earth. And any good will is put to the extreme test.

Thus the penance, the pain, the longing for relief. The Christmas tree has become a cross.

The good thing is that music chases us out of the stores and back into our homes. There’s no place like home for the holidays. That song, by the way, misses the point. There’s no place like home the rest of the days.

It all comes to an abrupt and undramatic end on Christmas Day. All the decorations in the stores magically disappear and the horrible music mercifully ceases.

That is when Christmas actually begins. Christmas Day is…the First Day of Christmas. We have twelve days of feasting and celebration. When the world’s party has ended, ours has just begun. The holidays—the holy days—can finally be observed in their fullness. And we can start listening to decent music.

The world is out of whack about most things, as epitomized by its getting Christmas totally wrong. It attempts to celebrate it before it happens and then without the actual reason for celebrating it. It partakes of Christmas pleasures throughout Advent, and then walks away just as the real event gets underway. The result is a pleasure that is unsatisfying. Abstinence is not a concept the world takes a liking to. It has the same problem with Advent that it has with sex and marriage. Celebrating too soon, and then not properly celebrating at the right time. Not feasting at the right time and then fasting at the wrong time.

And the Advent prayer? “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24) Bet you didn’t think of that one. It gets the penance and the anticipation just right.

How do we best express that anticipation? Well, let’s turn to G.K. Chesterton for help. The march towards finally saying “Merry Christmas” is “the power of expressing, not negative happiness, but positive hilarity… It is this power of rising into the seventh heaven of mere temper the moment a strain is relaxed; of being cut loose like a captive balloon or springing skyward like a released rocket, that is really the reward of virtue. It is not the power of saying, ‘Let us feast; for tomorrow we die.’ It is the power of saying, ‘Let us fast; for tomorrow we feast.’”

(Editor’s note: This essay was first posted on December 5, 2017.)

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About Dale Ahlquist 50 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.


  1. At last. Someone has the intellectual, moral, aesthetic whatever you wish acumen to finally lambast insufferable Christmas jingles. They’re not really music. “Thus the penance, the pain, the longing for relief. The Christmas tree has become a cross”. You describe the pathos so well. But the Christmas tree a cross? The Colorado blue spruce outside my door that I covered with mini lights here on my lonely wooded hillside is a quiet source of happiness.

  2. There is one slight inaccuracy; the commercial season of Christmas does not just begin after Thanksgiving; now Thanksgiving is pushed aside, and it begins shortly after Halloween. Pumpkins disappear only to have Santa Clauses pop up. The idea is correct, though; stay home and prepare for Christmas, and then celebrate it.

  3. Many of my neighbors put up their Christmas lights and trees a week or two before Thanksgiving. Yesterday, I put my Advent wreath on the front door along with three purple and one pink candle cut from foam sheets. This morning, I will “light” the first candle by putting its foam flame atop. The neighbors will puzzle over it, if they even notice, the same way they puzzle over my Easter decorations that remain in place until Pentecost. Thanks for the reinforcement of the true meaning of the season of Advent!

  4. If you really want to do penance for Advent try watching the endless Christmas shows on the Hallmark channel, which I think started in mid October.

  5. “Grindingly obnoxious” – These two words have finally met – an adjective in search of a noun, a noun in search of an adjective – t’is a perfect fit.

  6. Even before the current insanity that has gripped the world and kept me out of stores altogether, I would studiously avoid any sort of shopping in December. If I didn’t need it in early November, it could usually wait until January. I’ve long relied on recorded, saved music to play in December as well; I’d never listen to the radio in December, though EWTN Radio has been quite a relief since I discovered it a year or two ago.

    Despite being four years old, this article is as fresh as the day it was written.

  7. Would like to add one way I found to overcome the secular insanity is to read and reread good books on Christmas. Not to diminish prayer and fasting, but I find reading good material in a way very soul satisfying. Anyway, a new book I just started reading is “The True Meaning of Christmas – The Birth of Jesus and the Origins of the Season”. Its published by Ignatius Press and written by Michael Barber, Augustine Institute. For me, it is the type of book that fits my need for sanity. Should note a generous person at my parish bought paper back copies for free distribution by the parish.

  8. Advent Violet. Violet is a royal color. It combines the Blue of St. Mary with the red of the Martyrs.
    Advent has some of the most beautiful Gregorian Chant of the whole liturgical year.
    When I was a boy no one decorated before Christmas Eve, not even the Protestants. We are a society that navel gazes and only wants what we selfishly want. The Church decides when the liturgical seasons begin and end; not whimsical man or worse yet tyrannical corporate America.

    • Violet is my favorite colour.
      Growing up my family never decorated the Christmas tree until Christmas Eve. I still carry on that tradition but I don’t know anyone else who does.
      Where I live Christmas trees go up anytime during November. Pretty much when the Halloween decorations come down the Christmas trees go up.
      One sad outcome is that Thanksgiving gets swept by the wayside. I suppose the powers that be can’t commercialize it properly or force us to buy stuff beyond turkeys.

  9. For the first time in my life I will not be putting up a Christmas tree In 2022. I’ll have a Nativity scene only, lit in red and gold.

  10. Well, what a lot of grinches here! I will admit I do not mind the Christmas music. I am Catholic but in my car I listen to a Christian radio station and all of their music has a religious cast to the lyrics. I enjoy every minute of it. Listen to the WORDS! We do not put up out Christmas tree and outdoor lights until a few days after Thanksgiving. In fact we are only forced to put up the outside lights that soon because living in the Northeast, the weather often turns bitter shortly after Thanksgiving and its miserable to spend a few hours out there getting out lights in severe weather. I love to drive through our town at night and see the lights. When my children were little I would sometimes pop them into the car and we would drive around slowly, seeing the spectacular displays. If I could eliminate one thing it would be the excessive gift giving to extended family. I love them all, but the family has expanded to the degree that it has become a difficult task to manage the shopping, which takes weeks and weeks to accomplish. Suggestions on my part that we find a way to cut back has fallen on deaf ears. Just too exhausting.

  11. Question: For years we have been giving checks of $200 each to our four “children”, eight grandchildren who now are grown, have jobs and now several are parents. Also purchase two gifts each for eight great grandchildren. All these plus birthday checks for adults and gifts for grt. grndchldrn. Did this again this year under protests from husband because of our extremely expensive year of 2022, hundreds of thousands of dollars for huge repairs, necessary purchases, doctor bills, birthday gifts and checks and more. I won, and we did send the Christmas checks and multiple gifts. However, we wish to discontinue or lessen this from now on but don’t know how to approach this change. Should we just not make excuses and send less or try to explain why we’re less generous. We are far from wealthy and are in our 90ties in age.

8 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Suffering Advent -
  2. Advent and Suffering – Catholic Life – The Roman Catholic Diocese of La Crosse
  3. On The First Day of Christmas or: “When the world’s party has ended, ours has just begun.” | the five minute Catholic
  4. Suffering Advent – Via Nova Media
  5. Suffering Advent – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman
  6. Suffering Advent – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman
  7. Suffering Advent | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya
  8. Suffering Advent | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers

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