American Christians, most Catholics included, don't know how to celebrate Advent anymore. They don't even know what it is. For them, it's "the Christmas season," that time of mandatory jollity and expense that the unfortunate dread as much as the fortunate welcome. What used to be called "insane asylums," and are now called "behavioral-health units," get very busy this time of year.
The kickoff is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when the malls open during the wee hours for the biggest shopping day of the year. This year it was earlier and uglier than usual because Sony's PlayStation 3, oddly enough, had just hit the stores. There were campouts, scuffles, and scalping even as the holiday music played absurdly early in the background. Never yet have I seen such enthusiasm to acquire anything of true spiritual worth, such as indulgences. For residually spiritual reasons, this is also supposed to be a time when families get closer and good will more actively expressed to all; the gift-buying and parties were once meant to subserve that; now, they just as often spoil it. This year the sentimental "holiday-season" music got ubiquitous two weeks before Thanksgiving. All that does for me is stimulate me to greater solitude and silence by reminding me that the merchants have taken over this season with our full connivance. For most people, today is just one more shopping day. The pressure is on, after all. About that fact, Scrooge was right.
In 1991, the year I actually owned a house, I enjoyed annoying my neighbors by refusing to mount Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve and then refusing to take them down until Epiphany. That is because the Christmas season consists of twelve days, starting on...uh, Christmas. But "the twelve days of Christmas"—remembered by most only in the form of a song first composed as underground catechesis-in-code—are now mostly a time of winding down, in which people process the detritus of what they take to be the Christmas now past: the dead evergreen trees, the packaging and wrappings, the credit-card bills they would rather not view, the gifts to be returned in store lines almost as long as they were the week before Christmas. It's a depressing time relieved only by the socially-sanctioned opportunity to get drunk on New Year's Eve and sleep in on New Year's Day. But then there's that hangover on New Year's Day: a great day to make resolutions one won't keep....
It's better to start counteracting the secular rituals now by treating Advent as a time of contemplation and fasting, heightening our sense that God first visibly entered our lives as a baby, sharing our vulnerability, just as he later did on the Cross. God does not make life better by zapping all the bad stuff; he makes it better by being fully present to us amidst the bad stuff. If we spent more time praying and thinking about that, and less time buying and drinking, perhaps this wouldn't be called "the crazy season."