For many of us, the words “holiday season” are quickly equated with feelings of being rushed, stressed and overwhelmed. As Christmas approaches, we are plagued with thoughts of buying gifts, fighting crowds, making plans and talking to our complicated families. Sometimes we just want to give up and throw in the towel.
Through Advent, God invites us to tune in to our faith rather than check out—a challenge given the frenetic pace and pressures the holiday season can bring. As my childhood priest would often say: “We are not distant from God; we just aren’t paying attention.” When we take deliberate steps toward our faith, community and God, we may find the peace we crave.
The following ideas, tools and practices may help you cultivate peace in your heart as you await the coming of the Christ child this Advent season.
1. Carve out time to read devotions.
Devotions can serve as a daily reminder to hit the pause button. Before you start thinking, “I don’t have time to read!” aim for a moment a day. Whether it occurs each morning in advance of the rush of to-do lists and obligations or right before bed to wind down a racing mind, devotional time is an opportunity to reconnect with God’s word, ask for help or acknowledge gratitude.
Some favorites include Book of Faith Advent Reflections: You Shall Have a Song (Augsburg Fortress), Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Orbis, 2004) and All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas (Abingdon, 2004).
Available at elca.org is a collection of new Advent devotions by ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton and leaders from the Anglican Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Episcopal Church.
If formal devotions aren’t your style, another option is to read a little poetry each day. Certain poems, such as “After Annunciation” by Madeleine L’Engle, “Praying” by Mary Oliver, “A Christmas Carol” by Christina Georgina Rosetti, “Advent Calendar” by Rowan Williams and “Nativity” by John Donne, can inspire reflection and refreshment this month.
2. Say “no.”
You have countless parties, activities and obligations at your fingertips during Advent. From the get-go don’t overcommit or pressure yourself to show up at every event. Instead, choose those that are most nourishing to you.
It’s tempting to get caught up in the allure of potential plans because it can make us feel important, worthy and special. Similarly, guilt and awkwardness can arise when we feel the urge to meet other people’s expectations of our personality or behavior. Give yourself permission to say no in order to prioritize the balance of your needs and to protect your time and energy.
Remember, a packed calendar isn’t the same thing as a full life.
3. Try alternative worship services.
Many ELCA and other congregations hold special, short weeknight services during Advent that can feel more approachable or convenient.
“Churches are increasingly aware of how hard the holiday season can be for people who are grieving, recovering from addictions, estranged from their families or impacted by mental illness,” said Corinne Freedman Ellis, pastor of Macalester Plymouth United Church, St. Paul, Minn. “If the holidays are hard and church feels like the last thing somebody wants to do, one of these alternative services might be a good way in.”
4. Explore mindful movement.
At its core, yoga is a regular practice of establishing a connection between breath and movement to align body, mind and spirit. It can also be a powerful tool for combating stress, increasing mindfulness and staying active during the holiday season.
“During Advent I have to consciously wash my mind with deep breaths and a remembrance that Peace literally came down to walk on earth,” said Olivia Ryan, an instructor with Holy Yoga, Moorhead, Minn. “Because of my faith, stressful trappings lose their luster. I can breathe into peace. I can welcome it into my heart and home.”
Yoga Journal, Yoga Download, Kino Yoga and Yoga with Adriene are wonderful online resources. All provide at least a few free classes to start and then more videos and tutorials with an affordable online membership. Whether you prefer a fast-paced, intense class or one that is gentle and slow, you can find a yoga style that meets your needs.
5. Limit social media.
The constant influx of new pictures and status updates on Facebook can amplify feelings of loneliness, low self-esteem or anxiety. Research indicates that regular use of social media makes people susceptible to seeking approval, acceptance and even love from the online world, which over time has the opposite effect of creating sensations of disconnect.
If you find that you are constantly checking social media, distance yourself from your device. Call a friend, open your Bible or go outside for a walk. Make conversation with the person next to you in line at the coffee shop. Notice the sights, smells and sounds around you. Resist the urge to scroll and find a way to reconnect with yourself, others and God.
6. Focus on presence, not presents.
Secular culture sends a strong message that suggests what you buy represents who you are. This is false, which is vital to remember at this time of year. Remember your baptism and find peace and comfort in your identity as a child of God.
To disconnect from consumerism, consider ways you could share your presence with others instead of handing them a wrapped item. While the art of giving and receiving thoughtful gifts can certainly be a meaningful, beautiful ritual during the holidays, nothing beats the power of showing up, conversing face-to-face and being there for loved ones or your community.
Multiple demands on our minds and time can cause us to rush through the holidays without recognizing the holy and sacred. This year give yourself permission to slow down and pay attention to the traces of faith all around you. And above all, allow yourself to trust and anticipate the radical love and compassion that Jesus brings, this Advent and every day.