By Ryan J. Pemberton
“In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound,” C. S. Lewis once wrote about those who inhabit the island of Niatirb, “they have a great festival which they call Exmas, and for 50 days, they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe.”
“Exmas-cards,” with pictures of birds on branches, green prickly leaves, or men sleighing through snowy fields, are dutifully exchanged. “The Niatirbians,” Lewis notes, “are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival.” Niatirbians also exchange gifts—again, not out of joy or gratitude, but from obligation. These gifts are often odd, not the sort of thing anyone would buy for themselves. And so “the sellers of gifts no less than the purchasers become pale and weary. Any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb.”
Exhaustion is the familiar mark of the Exmas season. And when the day of Exmas finally arrives, the Niatirbians are so undone by their preparations that they struggle to rise from bed before noon.
But Lewis describes another festival, one celebrated by a smaller few on the same day. Having approached the holiday in a profoundly different way, those who celebrate Christmas rise early with deep joy and gather with loved ones for a feast. They also go to temple, surrounded by images of a woman with a newborn Child, adored by animals and shepherds alike.
How we get to Christmas shapes how we celebrate when it finally arrives. The Advent season—from Sunday, November 29 to Thursday, December 24 this year—offers a counter-cultural path to Christmas. Advent is an alternative to the exhausting, stress-ridden “Exmas Rush.” Here are some practical ideas for your worship community’s counter-cultural path to Christmas this Advent.
1. Write to the lonely
Rather than sending photo cards to family and friends, consider sending handwritten letters to those who might not otherwise hear from others this Advent. Inspired by the prison letters that make up much of our New Testament, Underground Ministries’ One Parish One Prisoner program matches church communities with a man or woman in a Washington State prison, building relationships of encouragement, trust, and growth through pen and paper. Like Advent, these letters can give birth to an incarnate hope of resurrection.
2. Rethink giving
Invite your congregation to participate in Advent Conspiracy or another alternative to “Exmas” gift exchanges. Combine the money normally spent on gifts with others in your church, partnering with Blood:Water, for example, to purchase a water well for those without access to clean water. Or think local: What needs in your community could be transformed with some compassion, time, and grateful hearts? Perhaps this looks like sponsoring a playground renovation project, offering a weekly meal for those facing food insecurity, or visiting your nearest nursing home to sing carols and visit with guests. The Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is inherently relational, gathering from near and far and across divides. Our gifts should reflect this relational good news.
3. Use candlelight
Many Christians light Advent wreaths in their homes or sanctuaries: four candles set in a circle of evergreen branches, with a white candle in the center. Each Sunday in Advent, an outer candle is lit, until the center candle is ignited on Christmas Eve—symbolizing our wait for the Light of life that is to come. Lighting each candle can be followed by an “O” Antiphon, short refrains read or sung, ending with a call for God’s coming. For example: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”1
Alternatively, invite church members to refrain from using electrical light once the sun sets for Advent. Instead, use candles as a reminder of the nearly one billion people without electricity 2 and to emphasize our present darkness, whetting our appetite for the Light of the world (John 8:12). “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,” Zechariah sings, moved by the Holy Spirit, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78–9). Like Zechariah’s song, this Advent practice reminds us of the in-breaking light of Christ that God is bringing into the present darkness.
However you enter into Christmas this year, may it reverse the grueling experience of “Exmas.” (Niatirb, you may have noticed, is Britain in reverse.) Instead of loneliness, may our Advent celebration offer relational love. Instead of exhaustion, renewal. And instead of stress, peace. In all of these ways, may God’s incarnate presence among us be made known more and more.
Ryan J. Pemberton (MA, University of Oxford; MTS, Duke Divinity School) is the author of Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again (Leafwood Publishers) and the Walking with C.S. Lewis companion guide (Lexham Press).
- Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, Bobby Gross (IVP), 42.
- Ritchie, Hannah. “Number of People in the World Without Electricity Falls Below One Billion.” OurWorldInData.org, January 18, 2019, Ourworldindata.org/number-of-people-in-the-world-without-electricity-access-falls-below-one-billion. Accessed July 15, 2020.