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An Old-Fashioned, Counter-Cultural Approach

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Are you already worn out from holiday activities?  There is Thanksgiving travel, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and reports of morning, noon, and night sales hitting record levels.  The cold and flu season is well underway, and millions of Americans are totally tuckered out.  They will, nonetheless, try to sustain this frenetic activity for another month.  There is an alternative, old-fashioned, counter-cultural approach.  It’s called Advent.

Long, long ago, before people had electronic devices surgically implanted into the palms of their hands, they observed a quiet, disciplined period of waiting for Christmas.  The word, “Advent,” is from the Latin word “adventus,” referring to the arrival of a significant person, time, or event.  Over the centuries, Christians developed the practice of spending the four weeks before Christmas in prayer, fasting, and giving alms to the poor.  It was a way to discipline themselves, physically and spiritually.

Many of our grandparents were very serious about this tradition.  They waited to put up a tree and decorate it until Christmas Eve.  The 12 days of Christmas were actually celebrated from Christmas Day to January 6th, the Epiphany, or arrival of the three Wisemen.  Today, Christmas-in-July sales have us in major shopping mode for half the year.  Many people are tired of Christmas long before it arrives.  By the time credit card bills arrive in late December, very few people are ready for any sort of Epiphany, spiritual, or otherwise.

There are some healthy, helpful things any of us can do in the spirit of Advent.  Most folks want to find meaning in their lives that extends beyond acquiring money, stuff, and titles.  Nonstop, frantic striving can only distract us for so long.

  • Before the holiday craziness consumes any more of your mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual energy, consider a slightly different approach to December: “Fast” from all electronics for one hour a day (while you’re actually awake).  This will reveal volumes about where you are in life.
  • Practice the old-fashioned discipline of giving up candy, sweets, desserts, etc. The first bite of your favorite holiday treat will taste heavenly.  Chances are good that you’ll drop a few pounds in the process.
  • Avoid spending money on fancy coffee, eating out, alcohol, and other little indulgences; give the money you save to help a family devastated by the recent natural disasters.
  • Do something nice for someone else — anonymously.
  • Do something nice for someone you really can’t stand.
  • Invest 15–25 minutes each day in prayer, meditation, contemplation, or spiritual reading to focus on what matters most to you.
  • Make a serious effort to replace cynicism and sarcasm with gratitude and gentleness.

If all of us did even half of these things for a few weeks, the ripple effect would be immense.  Advent.  It’s an old-fashioned, counter-cultural approach.