Advent – the season of watchful waiting -starts 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. The one that begins with that first little, colorful, cardboard, numbered door opening the way to Christmas.
It started each year, when we were small, with the hunt for the 1, on both the actual and then 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, threatening to derail the whole deal. Mom could always find the door, if we could just please wait until she got a second. And the one allowed piece of chocolate quickly followed, sandwiched between the warm and welcoming surfaces of a watering mouth until it surrendered its form, melting flat and rich upon the tongue. The slow and steady ritual – hunt, find, open, enjoy – began anew each day, and this was 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 they 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 waiting, murmuring in their sleep, half-listening for the answer.
Good thing this never happens with grown ups.
It was someone loving but practical, I bet – someone who understood how children think but didn’t judge, someone who 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 of the Prophecy Fulfilled that was the problem at hand. Someone who got that no matter how much everyone pretended that the duck-duck-goose game of candle-watching – In Which the anticipation and excitement of the pink candle in the third week was deemed to be sufficient sustenance for a childhood’s eternity of waiting for the desires of one’s heart to be fulfilled – it often didn’t feel like enough.
The children often felt they’d been waiting longer than they had planned and maybe longer than they could be expected to; it was so hard to be patient and good, and often 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, and for this it exists today. No matter what the design on the front, it reminds us all, meeting the pilgrims right where we – I mean, they – are, keeping their courage (as well as their blood sugar!) up for the journey, 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.