Christmas has shrunk. It’s down to a day now, and the partridge in the pear tree is lonely for his 11 lovely gift-idea friends. The season of Christmas, the Twelve Days of Christmas, comes and goes altogether on the 25th now. We’re losing the Advent build-up to it too – the spiritual waiting that adds the holy to the holly.

Advent is a counter-culture way of making you slow down. Fasting comes before feasting, praying before partying. No fair singing “Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come” till Christmas actually comes.

In Yule days of yore, folk waited for Christmas Eve to put up the tree, then left it up through the 12 days of Christmas and tossed it into the church bonfire January 6 (Epipharty).

Nowadays, Christmas season unofficially begins with shopping season, the day after Thanksgiving, and ends with the last returns at the mall. Stockings are hung with care before December. Presents appear under the tree all month long.

Christmas is an end instead of a beginning.

What’s lost in our re-calendaring starves the soul. Creative waiting nurtures hope. Delaying gratification increases appreciation. Extending celebration stretches joy.

Waiting and celebration are spiritual disciplines with practical effects. We wait year-round for traffic lights to change, for lab reports or test scores, for word on the partnership vote, for our first driver’s license, for our 16-year-old driver to get home safely from the dance, for the baby to be born. We throw parties and send gifts to raise the pitch of good news.

Advent and Christmas are practice for life. One teaches patience, the other joy.

Waiting for the baby to be born, the Christ child, is the deliberate amnesia of Advent. We let ourselves half-forget Bethlehem, so we can more fully experience the marvel of it in time.

Then we drag out the celebration for more than one exhausting day to jump-start our whole year. Hanukkah works this way too. Each day, Jewish families light a candle until the menorah is eight full. The family knows it all will be, but they practice forgetfulness in order to remember better the miracle of one day’s oil burning in the Temple lamps for eight days.

Gifts are given, one each day. Letting the season linger, waiting one’s way through it, teaches that trust is rewarded, joy is a gift. Stretch out your Christmas this year. Wait and celebrate both. Spend as much time in church as you do in stores. Don’t open gifts before Christmas. Leave up the tree through New Year’s, at least.

Pray that every gift given and received will hint at the divine love that caused the season.