Advent, the season of watchful waiting, begins today.
Not in the official, liturgical, grown up kind of way, which I think must start this coming Sunday, but in the other, childish kind of way. The one that commences December 1st and that begins with that first little, colorful, and numbered cardboard door opening the way to Christmas.
It started, when we were small, with the hunt for the 1: on both the actual and the advent calendar, the early purchase of the second allowing for days of thorough searching ahead of time. This was mostly easy for those of us well-trained in the Hidden Pictures feature of the Highlights magazine at the doctor’s office. Still, the design on the front—a Christmas tree, Santa on his sleigh, or the Mom-preferred Nativity Scene (lest we become Materialistic and forget, even for a moment, the real Reason for the Season)—could make it hard to find the perforated lines of the tiny doors, the impossibly small black numbers. “Mom, really, I don’t think there’s an eight!” we would groan, convinced that despite decades of mass production, we alone had encountered the kind of sad and unlikely luck that might deliver a calendar with only 23 doors instead of 24. Mom could always find the door, if we could just please just wait until she got a second. The single piece of chocolate that followed would, when sandwiched between the warm and welcoming surfaces of a watering mouth surrendered its form, melting flat and rich upon the tongue. This slow and steady ritual—hunt, find, open, enjoy—began anew each day in a season in which there was never too much waiting until the next time. Little by little you went, and little by little you could make it the whole way.
Advent calendars have been around a long time; I guess folks have long known how hard it is for children to wait. Everybody understands when kids sometimes become impatient: they fidget, and are prone to pick fights in their flailing, their unhappiness. They sometimes lose hope, declaring loudly that whatever it is they are waiting for will never get arrive, begin, be over, get better. “When, when, when??” they beg, sometimes becoming angry after a time, until they fall asleep, murmuring, waiting.
Good thing this never happens with grown ups.
It was someone loving but practical, I bet, someone who understood children think and was willing to simply Work With That, who figured out that something else was needed to keep the sons and daughters engaged for the long haul. It was certainly not the lofty elders of the church, who insisted, in ill-advised lectures to the weary and secretly eye-rolling mothers, that it was their children’s insufficient understanding of the ecclesiastical marvel that was the problem at hand. Someone who got that no matter how much the grown ups thought that the anticipation and excitement of a pink candle in the third week of four ought to be sufficient sustenance for the long wait of childhood advents, it often didn’t feel like enough.
Children often felt they’d been waiting longer than they should, than they ought to be expected to. It was so hard to be patient and good, They were tired, and losing hope. They needed some interim gratification, something tangible, some daily breadcrumb to mark the way, assuring them that they were on the right path and getting a little closer, at least, to the Promise Fulfilled.
And so, I like to imagine, the Advent calendar was born. No matter if the design on the front is Santa or the manger, it meets the pilgrims right where we—I mean, they—are, keeping both their courage and their blood sugar up, providing the littlest bit of encouragement while they wait for something that seems like it might never come.
Silly kids. Thank God we grown ups are past all that now.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to put my glasses on. I’m having a little trouble finding the 1.