Advent is supposed to be a season for spiritual growth and reflection. Too often, we arrive at Christmas Eve frazzled and in a spiritual desert.

Advent is full of opportunities for spiritual nourishment. There are community celebrations and family gatherings, beautiful Church services and stunning displays proclaiming the Christmas message.

Working against us, there’s the pressure of prepping for annual leave, school graduations, obligatory office parties, shopping, family tension and budget blowouts.

Among it all, the season is loaded with deeply held expectations about family traditions, how to spend Christmas Day, and what to do on the holidays – all of which can quickly lead to arguments and hurt between husband and wife.

One hot potato for us was decisions around presents and spending. One present or many for each child? Toys and indulgences or practical things for the new school year? Wrapped individually or stuffed in a Santa-sack (aka repurposed pillowcase)?

Christmas Eve, too, often found us grumpy as we wrapped gifts for the following day.

Some of our differences didn’t wait for Christmas Day to emerge. A live tree or a reusable artificial one? Homemade decorations or delicate (pricey) ornaments?

And how many lights are too many? For Byron, the question is as stupid as putting a limit on hugs. For Francine… lights are just not the highest priority.

Advent Plans… and Failures

Over the years, we tried lots of Advent family traditions to help us re-centre ahead of Christmas. We tried the Jesse Tree, an Advent wreath, a Journey to Bethlehem, and various prayers, crafts and activities.

Although we usually started well, somehow, we got derailed by busyness and disruptions before we arrived at Christmas Eve. Our home, work and family life just never had the stability for daily routines longer than a week.

Invariably, we felt like Advent failures.

Then, one year, we took a short vacation the week before Christmas. At one level, it seemed crazy, but in fact, it was brilliant! It pulled us out of the party-go-round and out of the consumer trap (shopping expands to fill the time available).

It gave us all a breather and time to connect as a family. We returned home refreshed and focused. The necessary shopping, cooking, wrapping and parish activities all got done, and with less anxiety.

In many ways, it was an Advent retreat. We retreated from busyness, from unnecessary distraction, from pre-Christmas gorging and life-sapping social obligations. It was a much-needed work and technology detox.

And in the space that opened up, we filled it with sunshine, rest, meandering conversations, and family memories. It was deeply, humanly nourishing and created the space needed to connect. At one level, it did not appear to be overly spiritual, but in fact, it was.

Retreat to Advance

We did that for three or four years, and truly, those were our best Christmases. The ones where we felt ready to celebrate the gift of Christ’s birth rather than feeling ambushed by its ‘here already?!’ arrival.

We were more patient with the children, more tolerant of difficult relatives, kinder to each other. It felt like we could breathe and savour and just enjoy the wonder of everything that Christmas means.

When it comes to nourishing our relationships, doing more is often exactly the wrong thing. Sometimes we need to do less, to retreat so as to advance. Relationships need space and time, and when we slow down, all our relationships have a chance of deepening, including the one with Him.


Originally published at SmartLoving. Photo by Danik Prihodko.

About the Author: Byron and Francine Pirola

Married for 25 years, with 5 children, Byron & Francine Pirola are the founders and co-authors of the SmartLoving Series – marriage enrichment and marriage preparation courses designed to help build successful and resilient marriages. International speakers and authors of numerous articles on marriage, more than 3000 couples have attended their programs, workshops and conferences in Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain Byron & Francine are Executive Directors of the Marriage Resource Centre from which they run SmartLoving programs and produce digital resources. Francine graduated from Fordham University with a Masters in Religion and Religious Education. Byron is a founding partner of the strategic consulting firm, Port Jackson Partners Limited, and a Director of both listed and unlisted companies. He holds a PhD from the Commonwealth Centre for Gene Technology, Adelaide University.

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