It’s not always easy to stop doing. I think this is true for most of us living in the modern world. I know it’s true of me as a busy mom.
The chores that need to be done in my home are overwhelming. The needs of my children seem infinite.
In the moments when I finally get to sit down or collapse in bed after a long day, it’s just as difficult to quiet my mind, even if my body is at rest. There are so many things that need to be done and organized and scheduled.
My to-do list is endless. The house. The kids. The deadlines.
But as I prepare my heart and my home for another Advent season, my memory fills with a conversation I had with my Gram several years ago. She sat in her customary chair in the living room, watching our tiny children decorate the Christmas tree with joyful abandon. And as she watched, she reminisced.
At 95, her dementia was, by that time, quite advanced. Her memory was spotty at best about the recent past. Parts of her long-term memory were beginning to fade, as well. But holidays can be powerful triggers, and she was telling us about her father, and how he would always insist on decorating the Christmas tree himself.
Gram had already told the story once, so I sought to gently switch the mental loop she was on by asking about her mother.
She stopped. She sat. She paused long.
She shook her head and smiled, admitting that she didn’t remember any specifics.
And then she said something incredibly profound, “She was just there.”
After another long pause came the finish to the sentence: “and that made everything better.”
That simple sentence stopped me in my tracks. The certainty of her mother’s presence had so powerfully imprinted itself on Gram’s memory that it outlasted many other memories, both large and small. When everything else had fallen away — all of the words spoken and actions taken, the gestures that once would have been so familiar, the face that she had known, as well as her own, all of them were gone.
Only presence remained.
Sometimes, the Christmas season can become overwhelming — the pressure to create memories, to meet expectations for the Pinterest-perfect craft or the Instagram-worthy cookies. But Advent is meant to prepare us for the presence of the Son of God come to earth. And for me, thanks to my Gram, it has become a time to practice being present myself, to my family, and to the Lord, so that my heart is prepared for Christmas.
Keeping Gram’s wisdom in mind, here are a few ways I am going to cultivate the practice of presence this Advent.
Though during the season of Advent, Catholics are encouraged to dive deeper into prayer, service and repentance, the season often brings with it an avalanche of opportunities to do so alongside the equally extensive list of invitations to more secular holiday celebrations.
I have learned over the years that as I start trying to do everything, my kids feel tired and cranky when Christmas arrives, and I feel burnt out, not replenished by the time Advent is over. It’s hard to be fully present to anything when you’re rushing from one event to another.
To figure out how to best schedule our family’s time during Advent, I’ve started asking myself some questions: What fills me up? What makes my children experience the joys of the season? What does my husband need to feel loved? By paying attention to how we all feel and experience love, I’m able to better plan a season that will open everyone better to Christ.
This year, I’ll lean toward small, intimate gatherings over large events because my kids are young and all of us get overstimulated. My husband is in a season of his career where he is working long hours, so I’ll make sure to keep our weekends light, allowing more quality time at home.
Simplifying our schedule makes it possible to prioritize the traditions and events that matter the most to us. For example, my middle child loves Christmas music and decorations, so we choose to decorate as a family the weekend after Thanksgiving. Getting a tree and putting out the ornaments are a big occasion because of how much she loves it. It is a priority to us because it allows us to connect with her.
The Danish concept of hygge, a sense of coziness that creates feelings of contentment and peace, makes winter bearable here in Michigan. During Advent, I’m making the active choice to lean into that coziness, stopping myself from the constant multitasking that makes up the majority of my days. Instead, I’ll settle into more time playing, more time observing, more time listening.
Sometimes that means we are literally cozy — hot cocoa and cuddles become a priority and we read all of the books on repeat. But sometimes, it means that we are just at home, together, without anything special planned. Those are the moments that offer the greatest opportunity, and also the greatest challenge, for me to be simply and actively present, even if it doesn’t look or feel as productive as checking more items off my to-do list.
After paring back our schedule and training my heart and mind to settle in, I am more ready to deepen my prayer life and prepare a place for the child Jesus, and I have found that my children are as well. Just like in the other areas of our Advent plans, I’ve found that keeping things simple allows me to focus and be more fully present to what our family has intentionally chosen.
As a family, we center our Advent prayers around the dinner table — when we will light the wreath and tell the stories of the Jesse tree. The older kids take turns lighting the candles and everyone has learned the verses of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It has become a grounding ritual for our family during Advent, and it fosters dinner conversation that gives my husband and me chances to teach tenets of the Faith and share pieces of our own journeys.
We will also make time to go to adoration and confession this Advent. Adoration has long been a staple of my prayer life, but in this season of parenting, a weekly adoration hour isn’t always possible. This Advent, I’m re-committing to visit Christ in the Blessed Sacrament more often, both alone and with my children.
Last year, my husband and I used the season of Advent to reinvigorate our prayer life as a couple using the “Oriens” (OSV, $19.95) Advent devotional. We’re planning to do the same this year, leaning into prayer as a couple and taking time to grow together.
As we journey through Advent, I am mindful that, while this is a season of expectation, not performance, it doesn’t mean that it should be any less intentional or any less meaningful. I would argue that the opposite is true.
Someday, I will be gone and my children grown old. Their memories, now sharp and precise, will fade as Gram’s did. I hope that the indelible mark of my presence remains.
Colleen Pressprich is the author of “The Women Doctors of the Church” (OSV, $16.95). She writes from Michigan.