A few weeks ago, I curled up on my couch with popcorn and Junior Mints to watch a cartoon classic: “Kung Fu Panda.”

Ask any kid who grew up watching this Disney movie: it is absolutely amazing. It’s visually appealing, hilariously fun and stars Jack Black (who doesn’t love Jack Black?) as the main voice actor for Po, a kind but clumsy panda whose life-long enthusiasm for karate has yielded very little skill.

More importantly, the film contains the sweetest lesson that is, oddly enough, fitting for the Christmas season.

During the film, Master Shifu (a stubborn but wise kung fu teacher) struggles to accept Po as a student, who was placed in his elite fighting squad by his own teacher, the even wiser Master Oogway. Presumed to be a mistake by his successor, Po’s placement into Shifu’s care was no accident. And Oogway urges his pupil to stop trying to fix his circumstances based on what they aren’t, instead of embracing them for what they are.

While I’m certainly no kung fu master (I consistently trip falling up the stairs), I understand Master Shifu’s struggle with appreciating the present. Every year, each Christmas season feels less genuine than the last. The tree goes up, the lights go on, and I look around going, “Where is it? Where is that feeling of Christmas?”

This, of course, is no new lesson: from children’s books to Hallmark romance films to our Sunday homilies in church, we’re reminded that the genesis of Advent and Christmas doesn’t come from Amazon or items in our home but from our faith and loved ones. Unfortunately for me, and most adults in the U.S., I’ve spent years being conditioned to associate the holidays with tangible goodies, and those tangible goodies with the feelings of Christmas.

And as childhood fades, many adults start to notice this lack of “Christmassy” feels. I used to feel it when holiday music would play on the radio, or when decorating my Christmas tree in twinkling lights. It’s an emotion I never had to look for growing up, but now its presence — if it’s there at all — often feels strained. 

At first, I wanted to stomp my feet and shake my fist at the North Pole, cursing the lack of Christmassy vibes. But what good would that do? Shifu could stomp and curse all he wanted, but at the end of the day his student was a clumsy panda. How would it help me to be mad over something I couldn’t change?

Instead of fighting to bring back the Christmassy emotions associated with commercial and secular traditions, I think it’s time we embrace the lack of it. In doing so, we’re allowing ourselves to shift more toward what the holiday is really about: a celebration of Christ’s birth.

It feels like the world is pulling that way too. With supply-chain shortages throwing online gift purchasing into a tizzy and many families still coping with the mental aftermath of a pandemic, this holiday season seems to be pushing us to embrace the faith and focus on our loved ones and those in need. We just finished “The Year of St. Joseph,” who was known as “the mirror of patience,” and Pope Francis’ naming of the year could not have been more fitting, as we can call on that patience during this time of transition.

As we approach the last week of Advent, we can take this time to focus on the things in our faith that bring us that feeling of joy and nostalgia: times praying with our family, attending Christmas Eve Mass or putting up the Nativity around the house. These quintessential moments of the season were right in front of me the whole time, I just didn’t take the time to embrace them.

I’ll always have a love for the secular traditions of the holiday, but the waning of their magic — while hard to let go of — seems like God’s way of making room for a better, more real experience of the holiday season. And isn’t that what Advent is all about: to let go and let God.

As long as it doesn’t end with me in a dojo this Christmas, I think we’re all going to have a great holiday season.