Takim Williams doesn't need anyone to tell him that Christmas begins long before Dec. 25. Christmas paraphernalia deck the stores around Princeton, where the first traces of red and green crept their way in even before Thanksgiving.
Although the days leading up to Christmas largely consist of shopping, holiday movie marathons, and an endless stream of radio carols, more Christians are emphasizing the traditional meaning of the pre-Christmas season: preparation for the birth of Christ-a time also known as Advent.
The renewed interest in Advent observances is in part a reaction to the secular takeover of a sacred celebration.
"In my own personal experience, very few people are aware of the Advent period," Williams, a freshman at Princeton, said. "It's all about Christmas Eve and Christmas day."
Advent is meant to remind us that Christ is coming back--like Israel waited for its long expected Messiah, said Ben Milner, pastor of Salem Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"But it's mostly about Santa and shopping and toys and egg nog and bad secular 'holiday' music and mistletoe," he said. "At best it's about family, which falls far short of the true meaning."
Ignorance about Advent is particularly prevalent on college campuses, said Rachel Roth, a sophomore at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.: "No one cares about Advent. They know what it is, but they aren't doing it."
Until her freshman year of college, Roth didn't care about Advent either, she said. But sitting in a church service as an adult, she began to think about its meaning.
"It struck me that Advent was different from any time of the year because it's a special time when we can meet Christ intimately in our suffering," she said. "It's like Christian life on steroids for a month."
But for many students, Advent is a time overshadowed by exams and broken up by traveling home for the holidays.
"Back home, we talk about it at church and do the Advent wreath, but we don't do that here because we only have a few Sundays," said Laura Jurotich, a sophomore at Wake Forest. The school hosts plenty of Christmas events, including a Christmas tree lighting and holiday music concerts, but nothing Advent-specific.
Instead, Advent celebration is left up to campus ministries. Wesley, the campus ministry Jurotich attends, recently hosted an Advent celebration that focused on worship. Surrounded by fellow students in tacky Christmas sweaters, Jurotich sang "Joy to the World" with a candle held high in the air. The group sang only Christmas songs at their last meeting of the semester and added something special to the service--communion.
The celebration was meaningful, Jurotich said. But the vibe was very different from a traditional church's celebration of Advent.
Most traditional churches hold fast to the liturgy of Advent, said Pete Shults, pastor of Cross Point Fellowship in Hurley, N.Y. Often congregations light advent wreaths and pastors' sermons focus specifically on the birth of Christ. At Cross Point, members take the time before Christmas to focus even more than usual on international missions.
All year the church teaches the Bible, but the days leading up to Christmas provide a unique opportunity to connect knowing Christ more fully with international missions, Shults said. Advent is an opportunity to refocus on seeking and saving the lost-which is the reason Christ came, he said.
Gathering in prayer around the Christmas tree and inviting members of the church community into the home are great ways to celebrate Advent, Milner said: "I've talked to several people about making a concerted effort to say 'Merry Christmas' instead of 'Happy holidays.' It separates the believers from the nominal."
Remembering that Santa was Coke's twist on St. Nick and reading and meditating on Christ's birth instead of focusing on the holiday's secular trappings also helps to preserve the meaning of Advent, he said.
And taking time to meditate on the reason for Christ's birth is exactly what Roth believes Advent is all about-a focus that could be better reflected through more traditional celebrations, she said: "Christmas trees and presents are fun, but it's not what this season means to me."