A couple of weeks ago my home institution announced the latest way the economic downturn would affect us: they canceled the annual Christmas banquet for faculty and staff. Given budget shortfalls and belt-tightening that has happened across the college, this made good sense to everyone I talked to. And today on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Jenny Gold reported that this was a growing trend across industry in the US this year. As she opened:
You may not have to worry about the awkward encounter with your boss at the office holiday bash this year. Scores of U.S. businesses plan to forgo their annual holiday party as a response to the slumping economy. That means no top-shelf scotch, no co-workers getting down on the dance floor, no heaping platters of hors d’oeuvres.
(Alas, the annual Christmas banquet at Calvin College has never included any of these things, except for the awkward encounters with top-level administrators.)
But these cancelations might be their own kind of gift. Indeed, they might provide an opportunity to remember that Advent is, in fact, a penitential season. As I pointed out last year, the Christian liturgical year is in tension with the Hallmark calendar. While “the holiday season”–with its parties, feasting, and consumer indulgence–ramps up around Thanksgiving (or earlier!), Advent is a season of expectant waiting and penitential reflection on why we need the Savior we await. As Joseph Bottum rightly notes in his lament, “The End of Advent,”
What Advent is, really, is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation and channeling it toward its goal. There’s a flicker of rose on the third Sunday—Gaudete!, that day’s Mass begins: Rejoice!—but then it’s back to the dark purple that is the mark of the season in liturgical churches. And what those somber vestments symbolize is the deeply penitential design of Advent. Nothing we can do earns us the gift of Christmas, any more than Lent earns us Easter. But a season of contrition and sacrifice prepares us to understand and feel something about just how great the gift is when at last the day itself arrives.
The cancelation of the corporate Christmas party in the opening weeks of December might be a tiny opportunity to participate in this discipline, which looks forward to the inbreaking of the Feast. Granted, our economic situation isn’t likely to change much in Christmastide, but perhaps our Advent denials can store up for a brief Christmastide abundance.