Advent, the season of watchful waiting, begins today.
Not in the official liturgical kind of way, which I think must start at church this Sunday, but in the childish kind of way. The one that begins with that first colorful and numbered cardboard door, opening the way to Christmas.
The Christmas season kicked off, when we were small, not with Black Friday, or even with the first Sunday of Advent, so much as with the hunt for the little door with the number 1 on the Advent calendar. The design on the front—a Christmas tree, Santa on his sleigh, or the Nativity scene—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 a four!” we would groan, convinced that despite decades of successful mass production, we alone had encountered the kind of sad and unlikely luck that would deliver a calendar one number and door short. Mom could always find the door, if we could just please just wait until she got a second.
Each opened door would reveal a treasure: a piece of molded chocolate which, sandwiched between the warm and welcoming surfaces of a watering mouth, would surrender its form, melting flat and rich upon the tongue. This slow and steady ritual—hunt, find, open, enjoy—was repeated each day, and meant that 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 to Christmas.
Advent calendars have been around a long time; I guess folks have long known how hard it is for children to wait. Everybody understands that 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. “When, when, when??” they beg, sometimes becoming angry after a time, until murmuring, they fall asleep.
Good thing this never happens with grown ups.
Someone who understood how hard it is for children to wait that thought up the Advent calendar. It was probably not one of the lofty elders of the church, the ones who have so often insisted, in ill-advised lectures to weary and secretly eye-rolling mothers, that it was their children’s insufficient understanding of the ecclesiastical marvel that made the waiting so hard. No. It was someone much more practical, maybe even a mom, someone who got that even if the anticipation and excitement of a pink candle in the third week of four ought to be sufficient sustenance for the wait of childhood advents, it just wasn’t. Someone who knew that children tended to lose heart, to feel they’d been waiting longer than they should be expected to. Someone who understood that what the needed was just a little interim gratification on the journey, a breadcrumb to let them know they were on the right path, getting closer, at least, to the Promise Fulfilled.
This is how and why I like to imagine the Advent calendar was born. To remind the childish heart that Christmas—the unlikeliest light in the darkest darkness, Emmanuel, which is God with us—will always meet the pilgrims right where they are. Even if that place is discouraged, tired, and downright grumpy, having been made to wait so very long. That each day, sometimes behind a hard-to-find door they are afraid might not even be there since they are so unlucky, there will be a little something to boost both their courage and their blood sugar. To provide a little sweetness in a wait for something that seems like it might never, ever come.
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 door with the number 1.