Advent, Mental Health, and the Importance of Seasons
A few days before Thanksgiving, a friend and I were discussing how much the Mariah Carey memes and GIFs were responsible for the early onset of Christmas culture. It feels like it gets earlier every year. It’s as though I start drinking a pumpkin spiced latte only to have it turn
into a peppermint mocha before I am even finished. Thanksgiving, once again, fights for its place as a legitimate holiday and not just an opening act for Christmas. To be fair, I’ve always been a bit grouchy about this. My college students knew that one of my strict rules was to protest any premature playing of Christmas music in my office space. But there was one year, when I was not.
In 2020, I relented. It has been such a hard year for so many people; so much death, injustice, isolation, and uncertainty. By that November, I didn’t really care if Christmas started early. It seemed like a good time to make an exception and allow some joy and lights. In fact, my whole posture changed because of the connection between Christmas culture and mental health. I, alongside so many others, surmised that our tired souls and overworked anxiety was in need of a reprieve. And while it felt like a good year to make the exception, I have noticed that even outside of a pandemic, people often connect Christmas culture with mental health. In fact, I am more and more optimistic about the assertion that this is a significant underlying reason why so many jump onto Christmas as soon as possible. The yard skeletons go back into storage and the inflatable Santa comes right out to take its place.
“We need this,” we tell ourselves. “It’s getting so cold and dark. Put up the tree, quick, before seasonal depression sets in!”
This is why I want to make a sincere plea for Advent.
Advent was a tangential part of my upbringing and often mingled in as a part of the normal Christmas season. We only really got serious about Advent when we learned about the Christian Liturgical Calendar via our Anglican denomination. (And I can’t lie; Fleming Rutledge had a lot to do with it too.) But we began to think about Advent, not just as the spiritual side of Christmas season, but as a season all its own. And I think you should too.
Those of us who work with emerging adults have been troubled by a pattern we see with a lack of resilience. It began well before the pandemic, but these past three years have certainly exacerbated what was already happening. Most of us, but young people especially, are losing our ability to cope with difficult circumstances. In student affairs in Higher-Education, we used to have systems that would catch students when they exhibited the warning signs of trouble. Now, those systems are all but useless. Students do not gradually spiral; they go from zero to sixty in a blink. Currently, we have developed new systems and are shoring up our mental health services out of a dire necessity.
I would not presume to diagnose all the varying factors that have and continue to contribute to this malady. However, I do know that Advent presents an opportunity that we can capitalize on right now. Perhaps what our mental health needs isn’t the immediate novacane of carols and holiday movies. Perhaps we could use a season that meaningfully takes us on a journey that ends with twelve days of festivity and celebration.
Fleming Rutledge reminds us that advent begins in the dark. It is a season that is marked by waiting and mounting anticipation. It does not start with lights and eggnog. It begins with hard look at what is broken and lacking and shadowy. The Advent season is piqued with themes of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. It is a time to meditate on where we are and what is coming. Advent is not always easy. It can be a bit sober and quiet. Advent starts with one solitary candle in a sea of darkness, but slowly, week after week, there is more and more light until the angel choir of Christmas morning. It is a season that invites us to rest in a way that is not overstimulating or busy. Advent does not come with all the trappings of the Christmas season. It is simpler and slower. But it also requires some resilience.
Advent does not come with all the trappings of the Christmas season. It is simpler and slower. But it also requires some resilience.
I used to be a tree-is-up-house-is-decorated-Santa-showed-up-at-the-end-of-the-Macys-Parade-and-now-Christmas-has started person. I love me some Christmas and I have the playlists to prove it! This is not a request to quell the beautiful joy that is the Christmas season, but I also want to extend an invitation to all of us. Where is your head this holiday season? Are there Christmas things you are doing because of the veneer of joy you are hoping it will bring? Will it be able to last week after week?
You may be fine. You may just be a Christmasy kinda person and this whole suggestion has got your defenses up. Fair enough.
But Advent is not in place of Christmas, nor does it diminish Christmas. In fact, I affirm that it actually makes Christmas even better. What do you have to lose? Maybe our attention to Advent (or Lent before Easter) is exactly what we need to reinstate the mental and emotional fortitude we need. Maybe we need a space in the dark to acknowledge our sorrow and be honest about injustice. The Incarnation that is Christ is good news but it lessens if we are unable to face the reasons why it is such good news. Advent is a gift to our mental and emotional health because it asks us to be honest participants in a spiritual journey that leads us to joy and light. We are taking such a journey. We invite you to come along.
If you are new to Advent, there are number of great places to start. Some of my favorites are below:
1. Watch for the Light (I read through this one EVERY year)
2. Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus by Fleming Rutledge
3. 24/7 Prayer International has a number of resources we have used over the years.
There is a church calendar project that just launched through IVP called The Fullness of Time Series that will have an Advent book by Tish Harrison Warren. But, also check with your church, seminary, or other Christian institutions. More and more places are putting out their own Advent devotionals.