Advent is coming, though today (December 1) it is not actually here, in spite of what the Advent calendars say. But while there's been Christmas merchandise in the shops since October, it's this weekend that seems to mark the start of the secular season. We're in danger of being overwhelmed by Christmas food and drink, Christmas markets, lights, trees and sleighbells.
At one level, why not? Lights on water are lovely; many a brutalist city centre has been enlightened and enlivened by a civic winter wonderland; and we all need cheering up.
After some years as a minister spent preaching about 'the real meaning of Christmas', I came to the conclusion that I was missing something. Because what we're seeing in shops isn't just an orgy of consumerism, driven by hard-nosed and ice-hearted business people – though it is that. No: the astonishing superfluity of things to buy, all made as attractive to shoppers as humanly possible, says something about the human desire for plenty. It's because we don't need these things that permission to buy them anyway is so important.
It's a biblical vision: 'In that day the mountains will drip new wine, and the hills will flow with milk; all the ravines of Judah will run with water,' says Joel 3:18; 'The Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; a banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined, aged wine,' says Isaiah 25:6. These verses are not about greed, but about honest pleasure in having so much that you never need to worry about being in need again.
This season also speaks to our desire for a world transformed by beauty. Is a Christmas market tacky? Probably. Do we get fed up of those carols on an endless loop? Certainly. But they speak to our desire for something better. That's why when a town like Derby gets it wrong (it cordoned off its Christmas tree with crash barriers and it's not a good look) people are so cross. We want to walk into our town and be transported into fairyland, just for an hour or so – and there's nothing remotely wrong with that.
This Advent season will always mean something more to Christians. We'll be reminded in church what we are looking forward to. Christ is coming, not just Christmas. But commercialism can be an ally, not a threat. We don't help ourselves by complaining about it. Instead, we can recognise it for what it is: a reaching out for beauty, plenty and security.
The best evangelists work with the grain of human desire. Advent offers us the chance to speak of the beauty of Christ and the reality that lies beyond the illusions.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods