I loved helping my mother unpack the Christmas decorations each year; loved the very look and smell of the worn old cardboard boxes that held our family treasures. I’d unwrap the newspapers used for cushioning the nativity figures and from between the creases would tumble flakes of gold and silver.
The glitter didn’t come from the Holy Family, of course; Bethlehem stables didn’t run to such finery. No, the shiny flecks were the detritus left behind by the increasingly tired Advent calendars that were faithfully packed away each Christmas. There were two or three of them, and each year one would be elected to help us count down to the wondrous morning of December 25.
It is thanks to these old friends that I have never given into my own children’s pleadings for a chocolate-based advent calendar. In the true spirit of cantankerous old women everywhere, I grumble about ‘kids these days’, and how back in the ‘good old days’ we didn’t require a chocolate to make things jolly.
No (I would explain, misty-eyed), Uncle John, Auntie Sue and I would cluster around the calendar that had been taped onto the broom closet door. The numbered calendar windows were shut semi-securely; years of use had weakened their paper ‘hinges’, so Grandma Chris would have bolted them closed with broken-up toothpicks.
Searching through the winter scene and finding the door for the appropriate date was the first bit of fun; guessing what picture lay behind the door was the next; and the thrill of being right (and thereby winning the privilege of being the person to open the door the next night) was indescribable.
I agonized over my guess. Would the tiny picture relate thematically to the scene on the outside of the calendar, or be quite separate? Would it be biblical or secular? Had that brief flash I’d glimpsed when the door had been knocked askew ‘accidentally’ been the foot of an elf?
There was strategizing, too; sometimes people chose to pick the same thing over and over again, certain it would eventually turn up. But repeating “It’s a star. It’s a star. It’s a star” every evening for weeks would inevitably get boring, and we’d finally venture another guess. You can imagine the gut-wrenching horror when the little square cut-out revealed a bright yellow star the night you finally mustered up the derring-do to change your answer to ‘holly.’
So I felt it was unacceptable for my kids to simply go for the cheap chocolate hit. Nope, they were going to do it like we did in the good old days.
Which worked, for a while. I searched out calendars that reminded me of my youth; those German ones with snowy villages and candles in the windows. Any calendar that showed any sign it might not feature the nativity scene on Dec. 24th was summarily rejected, with much muttering and head-shaking.
And once we (okay, once I) had picked out an appropriate calendar, we clustered about and opened the doors together. And we lit the Advent wreath, another favourite tradition, on Sundays. All was right in the world.
But then everything got more complicated. I went through a quilting stage, and sewed up a fabric wall hanging that features a tree, onto which is hung a small ornament each day throughout December. I was quite pleased with it.
And then I sold children’s books for a while, and brought home an Advent board book, out of which pop 24 cardboard figures and structures that eventually make up the whole nativity scene. And then there was a Danish book that was meant to be read one section at a time throughout the month.
Adding to the complexities, I heard it was more meaningful to stagger the arrival of the nativity scene figures all through December, culminating in the wise men’s grand entrance on January 6th.
Soon the coordination of all our Advent-related activities became trying, to say the least. Just remembering to fit them all in, let alone keep track of whose turn it was to open the door, light the candle, read the book, advance the camel, or hang the ornament was well beyond me. And in the midst of all the chaos, our cheerful little Advent calendar gradually became neglected, until we were six doors behind and no one seemed to care.
So this year, I’m going to do what I originally promised my children, and return to that simpler time I kept harping about. This Advent won’t be spent trying to fit in every holiday movie, creating new home decor or force-feeding the boys new festive traditions. I won’t even buy the wooden advent train in the L.L. Bean catalogue that, in popular parlance, I’ve been ‘jonesing’ for.
We’ll get back to our glittery advent calendar posted on the kitchen wall, and look forward to meeting around it every night after supper. We’ll share the fun of waiting for Christmas - and maybe, just maybe, we’ll share some chocolate as well.
Peggy Trendell-Jensen worships at St. Catherine, North Vancouver.