Words of ambiguous hopes and encouragement are hung from ceilings, printed in red, white, and green script, telling shoppers to “believe,” “celebrate,” or “imagine” something. In glitter, the words peace and hope adorn the windows of a card shop. I enter stores, looking for gifts for my family, and I leave before buying anything because all the smiling sales associates and the overpowering remixes of the same songs push me into myself and make me wish I could escape without making eye contact with one more person.

I can’t say I don’t enjoy a good rendition of “Blue Christmas” or that I don’t long for the kind of white Christmases I enjoyed as a kid in the Midwestern United States. I do. Every year, I get caught up in hoping for an enchantment of some kind to wrap me up and make me a more charitable and joyous person.

Yet I know that no amount of cinnamon-clove candles, peppermint mochas, plaid scarves, or billboards advertising snow could get me ready for the “Spirit of Christmas.” Whatever that obscurely benign ghoul might be, or where it might creep, I do not know; but I’ve been told I’d be better off if it possessed me.

This Christmas season, I’d like to be more specific about what spirits inhabit my home, and to do that I have to set aside thinking about such a nauseating portrayal of “Christmas” around Dallas to focus on Advent.

Today marks the first day in the season, and at lunch I lit the candle that stands for “hope.” When I think of how each candle stands for one word, I think of those vague but positive words in the mall, and I want more than that. I want to know for what I am supposed to be hoping. When spending time with family or friends can still feel empty, a charming but pathetic baby-in-a-manger scene isn’t going to cut it. Hoping for a baby seems too cute, too easy. I hate cute, easy things that are supposed to be meaningful because too often the meaning is covered with coos and the depth filled in with sparkling promises of magic.

In today’s reading [Isaiah 1:1-18], the prophet Isaiah bears the true torch to ignite our hope’s flame. Even though the LORD says He “cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly” of His people, He promises that “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” [Isaiah 1:13, 18]. We hope not for a child but to be forgiven. The “Spirit of Christmas,” by no uncertain means, calls for introspection and contrition.

I’d like to think I’d make the “nice” list this year, but the truth is that I never have and never will, except for the grace of God. I’m learning that it’s not about being good as much as it is about recognizing that you’ll always need to have your heart changed. The hope I have only comes with the humility that I need it.