One of my fond childhood memories at this time of the years was to open little doors on an advent calendar. For those of you not familiar with these, advent calendars in days of old were made from paper and cardboard and had twenty-five little printed doors or windows. Each day of December we could open the door that corresponded to the date. Once opened, we could see a little festive or bible scene. And that was it.
So what was the point? In those days the celebration of Christmas started, well, on Christmas eve! Unlike these days when some folks have already started decorating before Halloween, several decades ago there was a different disciplined rhythm to the holiday season. Yet children then, as now, could hardly wait for Christmas itself. So advent calendars were one way to help children grasp the concept of waiting and the anticipation grew as we opened each window of the calendar.
Today I’ve seen variations of the advent calendar that cater more to consumerism than to watchful waiting. There are three dimensional calendars that have different treats inside so that when each door is opened, the child is rewarded with a daily gift. The treats can include chocolates, Legos, or Star Wars figurines. There is even an adult version that promises a mini bottle of wine each day.
Alas these treat-a-day creations defeat the original purpose of advent calendars. It was a simpler time and we had yet to be “wired” to the addictive behaviors we are saddled with today. (At our family thanksgiving there were some minutes where every person was looking at a cell phone. We couldn’t wait til the day was over to check messages or send out Thanksgiving photos.) Waiting in anticipation is becoming a lost art. Advent calendars of old were helpful guides to waiting and enjoying the prospect of joys to come. We realized that life was not complete yet but that there would be a time of fulfillment in the future.
This waiting in wonder has deep spiritual roots. The bible tells of the anticipation of the Jewish people for the coming of the Messiah. And while Christians believe the Messiah has already come in the person of Jesus, whose birth they celebrate at Christmas, they are also waiting for him to come again so humanity will experience the fulfillment of a complete relationship with God. The waiting for God to come into our lives is part of the human adventure and ought not be medicated away with a daily drip of our favorite “drug.” The desire for things often masks our deeper desire for God.
I’m certainly not against chocolate or wine, or children’s toys. I just believe that healthy living embraces our incompleteness and our longings. Advent can be a time when we experience holy darkness and divine anticipation. It is in the waiting that we can discover where our heart is being attracted. It is during the waiting that we can choose changes that make us more healthy and wise.
Here’s an advent idea that can be used instead of the commercial advent calendar. (Or if you have already employed the treat-a-day calendar, this can be done just before each window is opened.) Write a saying for each day on a slip of paper, fold it and place it in a bowl. Then have your child pick one a day. The sayings can be in the form of an affirmation (“You are a gift to our family.”), a question (“What are you most thankful for today?”) or a suggestion (“Do a kind deed for someone who needs some help today.”) These kinds of sayings can help kids (and us adults too) be more introspective, grateful and kind. The graces that come from this kind of activity are bound to have a longer lasting effect than the mere acquisition of another Lego.