I grew up with Advent as a central part of my family’s Christmas. It was part of our cultural heritage and my memories of it centre on the four, weekly sessions of sitting around the advent wreath, Christmas music playing, dreamily burning little sprigs of pine on the available candle light so that the sweet smell of popping pine needles filled the house and we had to replenish our wreath for the next Sunday session. It was intoxicating. My sister and I also had the advent calendar with its little treats each day – a chocolate, a bouncy ball, a matchbox car (back when they still actually fitted into matchboxes; before the cars got big and the matchboxes got small).
I like traditions. I think they are an important part of remembering who you are, but in my attempts to continue the European flavour with my own children, I have come to an impasse. Each year for the past three or four, I have tried a different strategy – one countdown that we all share, one little treat for each person each day, a ritualised slow-reveal of a Christmas image – but each one has failed. Dismally. This year I decided to “downgrade” and went for the Aldi chocolate calendar for each child (so they each had something to count down on) and one carefully chosen Christmas book that we could share each day, to give us the quiet together time thinking about the nice Christmas messages that I hope I can reinforce for my children (I don’t think they are ready to burn pine responsibly yet). But even this has descended into a constant nagging about “when can I have my chocolate?”, “why can’t I have two?”, “How come his chocolate is bigger than mine?”, “I want to choose the book!”, “It’s my book!”, bla, bla, bla… The paper covering the books is wrapped in is ripped and thrown on the floor, the books are snatched, the quiet reading time is filled with cries of “get off my feet!”, “I’m getting squashed!”, “I can’t seeeeeeee!”, and invariably it ends with the book being tossed aside in preference for chasing each other with imaginary swords. It leaves me with the distinct feeling that their building expectation has little to do with the impending birth of Christ and a sense of reverence, and more to do with the impending day of “getting stuff” and a sense of entitlement.
In dismay, I asked myself this morning, what I am trying to teach my children about this time of year. And it occurred to me that they are learning three things with the advent tradition as it currently stands: 1) To be forever looking ahead at what tomorrow will bring; 2) That you get stuff for no real reason and with no real effort; 3) That Christmas is about the accumulation of stuff, preferably bigger and better than the stuff your siblings get. Perhaps it is just that my children are too small to be able to put the countdown into perspective, but I fear that if I allow these misconceptions to continue that they will never be able to.
And so, next year I will try a new approach – my fifth and final attempt. Should it too, fail, the tradition of counting down to Christmas will die and I will officially become as much of a Christmas Grinch as I am a Halloween Grinch.
Next year I will go back to the four Sundays before Christmas and frame them as a time to “prepare” for a celebration of giving and sharing. Sunday 1 will be dedicated to putting up the tree and getting out the dusty old carols to hum along to. Sunday 2 will be about preparing lists of gifts to give to family and planning Christmas craft projects for the weeks ahead. Sunday 3 will be dedicated to clearing out toys and selecting items to give to those less fortunate. And Sunday 4 will be about wrapping gifts, making cards, baking treats to share with neighbours. And all the while, I will be avoiding all shopping centres, Santa photos, catalogues and the like, while reminding them that I love and honour the Christ within each of their precious little hearts, and that I hope, with my love, that their light might grow to fill the world with joy… not just stuff.
I’ll let you know how it goes!