Most years we've had an Advent calendar in the house for the kids. Over Thanksgiving weekend I went rummaging in my closet for the one we've used most recently and pulled it out. I know many people do all kinds of things with their calendars. Some families put small treats in pockets for the kids, or they move a little figure along, but ours is just the old fashioned kind with tiny paper doors that have small pictures pasted behind them. Landen enjoys the "where's Waldo" hunting that is required; we've discovered that he has the best eyes in the house for looking.
Then I saw a suggestion on Facebook that really appealed to us: a reverse Advent Calendar. The idea is to collect food or toiletry items and add them to a box, one each day. By Christmas the whole box can be donated to a local food pantry. I shopped for items, found others on my shelves, and put them in a place where Landen can choose the item for the day. After he opens the window on the paper calendar, he picks something to add to the box. He really likes doing this; we rarely have to remind him. But one day, as he added a package of cookies, he asked, "Did you get me one, too?" This whole project gives us a chance to talk about food insecurity in our community, and about how easy it is for any one of us to come up with small ways to help our neighbors.
One of our grandsons has been spending a lot of time with us. At 8 years old, his focus this time of year is Christmas, anticipating the presents that he might get. I remember clearly, and with fondness, my own excitement at that age. But in an effort to help him develop an appreciation for other joys of Advent we've been looking for opportunities to engage him in those experiences - music, light, stories, scents.
A local event that friends introduced to us is the fabulous collection of creches at Mariopolis Luminosa in Hyde Park. The campus is a center for the Focolare movement, an organization with Catholic roots that works toward unity and peace throughout the world. Every December they display over 200 creches from over 60 countries. Last week we took Landen there after school.
The creches are arranged by areas of origin - Europe, Middle East, Asia, North America, etc. Someone, a team, I imagine, spent a lot of time setting them up.The displays were artistically and thoughtfully done, using many natural elements - bark, driftwood, rocks, sand, grasses, pine cones, etc.as well as lights and glittery papers and fabrics.
We spent time looking at them, then enjoyed hot chocolate and cookies that were offered in a seating area. If you have young children, there is a table that has sturdy stuffed and wooden versions of the figures so that they can play with them.
We took each other to the ones that most impressed us. Landen particularly liked one from South America, made of bread dough. I was drawn most to a creche from Syria - a small peaceful scene, so poignant this year. And there was one from Long Island made of three little stones - quite abstract, but the shapes of the rocks captured the postures so well. The creches gave us a chance to talk about how Christmas is celebrated in other countries. And, of course, there is the story celebrated over and over in such a variety of ways. Some creches had only a few figures, others were very elaborate. Some were made with humble materials - bread, rocks, bits of hardware, straw. Others were more precious - Murano glass, porcelain.
The community members we met were warm, welcoming, interested in speaking with us. We felt like special guests. I think it will be a good memory for Landen to tuck away.
The exhibit is open every day through December 30, usually in the afternoons. Check the website for hours and directions.
Advent is one of my favorite seasons of the year. But without careful attention it can get lost in the drive to Christmas.
Over the years my practice has been to let go more and more of what I thought was necessary to prepare for Christmas as I experienced it growing up.
My mother was a hard act to follow. Even when we didn't have much money, she still made the holiday special. There was at least one toy each year that I can still remember opening that absolutely thrilled me. Four years old, my doll house. Five years old, my little record player ( I still have a couple of those 45 rpm records). Six years old, my Mary Martin doll that had real pierced ears. Seven years old, it was another doll with braids that looked a little like me. and at eight years, my mother had spent any spare moments she had when I was at school or after I'd gone to bed making clothes for two of my dolls, complete with a blue metal steamer trunk. I still have it.
She baked for weeks (and when we got a freezer, for months), putting cookies and goodies aside. We didn't always get a lot of new clothes for school - usually we still fit in the things we'd had when school let out in the summer. But by midwinter, we'd need underwear, pajamas, a new sweater - so those would be bought and wrapped. That way there were always plenty of presents under the tree. Our stockings would have a tangerine in the toe, a few nuts and chocolates, maybe a little bottle of bubble bath, or something fun but practical.
We accumulated more and more decorations. The tree would be fresh. The ornaments carefully stored from year to year would be hauled out. Daddy would test the lights and painstakingly search for the burned out bulb so the string would light up again. And Mom would put the tinsel on one strand at a time till the tree looked like it was covered in sheets of ice.
My dad's birthday is Christmas eve so we would have friends over for a party before we went to church late in the evening.
Mom would knock herself out cleaning, cooking, getting us to look presentable. Christmas morning we opened gifts, had a wonderful breakfast with homemade cinnamon rolls or other treats - and then we crashed.
We arrived at Christmas in an excited, frantically joyful, sometimes tearful state from fatigue and too many expectations. And, of course, when I got married and had my own children, I tried to follow what I knew. And I failed. I worked full time outside the home. I'm not as organized and disciplined as my mother. I got grumpy. I snapped at people when things weren't working out well. And then I began to let go.
And I discovered Advent. It is a whole season to enter into, instead of one day to aim toward. And there's nothing in it that demands all the craziness. It has taken 30 plus years to reach a place where it is a joy in itself. I no longer do all the baking, the decorating, the buying. Some of this luxury is a result of getting to a stage in life where I don't have to balance kids, job, house, and Christmas. Over the next few posts, I'll share some of what we're doing this year to be nourished by these days. And I'd love to hear what you might be doing. What have you learned over the years? How do you protect yourself so that you don't find your self exclaiming, "I can't wait till it's over!"