The season started slower when I was growing up. No radio stations blaring “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” the day after Halloween. No one smugly announcing at the Labor Day picnic that all their Christmas shopping is finished. We celebrated holidays as they came, rather than racing ahead to the next event before the dishes were put away from the last one.
Instead of the Elf on the Shelf, I grew up with Advent calendars, those sparkly European-looking pictures with little doors you opened on each day of December’s dwindling light. The largest door was opened on Dec. 24 to a radiant manger scene, not a Christmas tree with presents. Advent calendars symbolized anticipation and patience. They taught me the meaning of waiting. I’m not sure what Elf on the Shelf teaches other than that questionable behavior is ok, as long as you don’t get caught. Sounds like the mantra of the world right now.
I was wound up from the day I opened the first door on the Advent calendar. In early December, my mother would unlock the closet built into the wall beside the stairs, and pull out boxes that said Fels Naptha and Rinso, which now held gaudy Christmas balls, rolls of wrapping paper and nubby half-burned candles. I loved unpacking it all again, while the music of the latest Firestone Christmas album played on our stereo.
Even as a child, I felt the underlying mystery, the sense that we were about to celebrate something beyond our understanding, and that excited me as much as the hope of seeing a turquoise Western Flyer bicycle parked in front of the tree on Christmas morning. Fifty-plus years later, I still feel that same sense of wonder, that same anticipation as I bring the first box of decorations up from the basement, noting that my knees are a bit creakier than they were last year.
Subtlety was not a priority in our decorating. We draped laurel around our front door, entwined with twinkle lights and topped with a trio of red plastic lighted bells we bought in Sears’ Christmas department. Our porch pirates consisted of neighborhood hoodlums who occasionally stole light bulbs from outdoor displays, but never more than that. (“Punk-ism is rampant in this town, just rampant!” was one of my dad’s frequent comments.) Red velvet wreaths encased in silver tinsel hung on the front windows above those ubiquitous 1960’s plastic candles with the orange bulbs. A glittery sphere suspended from the doorframe between our living and dining room held a sprig of real mistletoe. Our manger set came from Woolworth’s. A few of the figures still have their price tags that say 29 cents.
The tree never appeared until the week before Christmas because my dad, who sold insurance for living, had an inordinate fear of some indiscreet activity in the light connections causing our tree to burst into flames and burn down the house. Considering the condition of some of our light sets, his concern was legitimate.
In those days, trees did not have convenient little holes drilled in the bottom that magically slid onto a spike protruding from the stand. Oh no. These trees were placed in red metal bowls topped with a round bracket through which four screws were forced into the trunk. Not an easy process and one which my mother had to deal with since my father had no mechanical skills whatsoever. Rarely did this apparatus hold the tree straight so additional wiring into the wall was usually required. My dad would walk around muttering, “Next year, we’re getting a tree on a window shade. Pull it down in December and leave it rolled up the rest of the year.” Meanwhile, my mother rustled around under the tree saying more unpleasant words.
Now that I’m retired, and not dealing with 20-plus holiday musical performances, the pace of the season has once again slowed a bit. We peruse the tree lot on a blissfully uncrowded Monday afternoon. I decorate our home over the course of a week. An old friend and I recently spent a beautiful winter day shopping for gifts in a nearby small town, enjoying lunch at a cozy restaurant, talking to the shop-owners and re-discovering that not everything wonderful can be found on-line.
Last week I took wreaths to the cemetery to place in front of the graves of those who used to gather around our holiday table. I remember coming here with my mother when I was a child, so I keep making the trek. At my parents’ grave, I tell them I am writing and working hard for the church and still singing and that I miss them terribly, but I’m healthy and happy and blessed. Before I turn to leave, I give the wreath bracket one final push into the ground to make sure it will stay anchored, straighten the bow, and wish them a Merry Christmas in heaven.
I no longer open an Advent calendar door each day (although that habit lasted into my young adult years) but I still savor these days leading up to Christmas. I like the fact that our denomination sings Advent hymns and that we don’t throw open the doors on full-blown Christmas until that fourth Advent candle has been lit. Our church is admittedly a bit austere during December but then when the greens are hung, and the poinsettias banked against the rood screen and the lights go up with the first opening chords of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” it is sudden and breath-taking and glorious, much like I imagine it was when that star first appeared to those long-ago shepherds.
My grandmother’s hand-painted ceramic crèche, (the “good” crèche as opposed to the one from the five and ten) is displayed in our living room on what was once her desk. She and my grandfather were great proponents of liturgical correctness, so during Advent, the manger bed remained empty. In an alcove of the desk rests a tiny Carolina soap box labeled “Baby Jesus” in my grandmother’s handwriting. On Christmas Eve, as close to the stoke of midnight as possible, I remove the baby from his womb of cardboard and tissue paper and gently place him in the manger. The Savior is born, the waiting is over, the world’s darkness has turned to light. Would that it be so.