I bristled at the first mention of Advent this year.
It seems it’s de rigueur to ‘do’ Advent these days; to mark the month that leads up to Christmas in some sort of reflective, thoughtful way.
“Well I’m not doing it,” I said aloud to no-one. But the sound that echoed back across the empty room sounded strangely like: ‘Bah Humbug’.
We tell ourselves we’re eschewing all the things we hate about Christmas – the commercialism, the excess, the pressure to spend endlessly in the quest to buy the perfect life. We try to calmly side-step all those things that just bring yet more emptiness, and instead embark on an effort to make more space in our lives for the stuff that really matters.
But I am rubbish at this, much as I wish that wasn’t true. So as friends around me revel in the joy of their Advent experiences, I go to bed grumbling at myself for all the things I haven’t done to make Advent special.
I could have filled the children’s Advent tree with paper notes – one for every day leading up to Christmas. I’d have scribbled an idea for something fun to do as a family together every evening, or maybe I’d just have written a little love letter to my lads. Instead the tree is gathering dust on a shelf in the untidy playroom. I could use Advent to finish knitting the scarf that I promised my boy last Christmas. Or was it the one before?
This is no joy-filled alternative Advent and it’s certainly no way to slide into Christmas, with a heart full of half-finished thoughts and a list of undone but well-intentioned tasks.
And the irony isn’t lost on me, that instead of investing in a deep, soulful season of inner quiet I am floundering, feeling like I’ve fallen at the first hurdle in my race to make Christmas somehow special, different, real.
Instead of soaking up the joy of a peaceful season filled with inner reflection I am grumpy and disgruntled. There’s no point filling the Advent tree now, I mutter, not remembering that late is always better than not at all.
I long to know the sense of anticipation that a friend and Advent fan speaks of so emphatically – she says it renders silent all the stress that Christmas has become synonymous with. But I’m just stressed because I haven’t managed to de-stress before the stress has even properly begun.
It’s all folly, of course, or can be if we’re not more careful.
Advent, like life, is not a competition. I don’t need to jostle for place and purpose in my quest to find the meaning concealed in this season – I just need to sit with a friend who gets it and ask her to teach me what she’s learned.
My house doesn’t need to be spotless before it can entertain the presence of a Christmas tree, I realise suddenly. If Advent is all about waiting in the darkness for the light to come, it surely doesn’t matter if part of my Advent-uring is marked by moments of gloom, disarray and inner disorder. If anything, that only makes my Advent all the more authentic. As long as I don’t stay in the darkness, and avoid the temptation to make it my home.
“Light is coming,” I say aloud, striking a match for a candle and searching for Carols on Spotify on a chilly Monday morning, instead of setting my face resolutely to the shocking onslaught that is the usual start to the week.
And so, almost as suddenly as it will end, my season of Advent has just begun. Three days late, and off to a wobbly start, but all the sweeter for its unlikely, uncertain, humble beginning.
My husband wakes me with hot coffee and mention of a thought-provoking little something that he has read. This cup has become my daily bread of sorts, and as I drink it in I am renewed. By caffeine, yes, but by so much more than that besides, so I drink it in on my first (third) day of Advent as if it is the elixir of life.
“Read me what you read,” I say, without looking at the clock or putting off my deeper instincts because of some lesser but more unbending requirement of our morning routine.
He reads, and tears slide silently down my cheeks as I busy myself hunting for the school dinner menu. I berate myself for being so quick to cry (and so slow to put things away in any sensible orderly fashion) but by the time he stops reading I’m not the only one in tears. There is no time left to dissect the moment (the school bell still rules, even when endeavouring to slow down for Advent) but I just let myself be confounded by unexpected, inexplicable emotions. And drink more coffee. And then we laugh, and it feels like I had forgotten how to breathe until that impromptu, smiling exhalation.
I might even fill the Advent tree today. I’ll chase out grumpiness and welcome in the peace that passes understanding. I’ll reset my default mental setting from ‘scarcity’ to one not of abundance but something much, much better – sufficiency. Truth be told, I’ll probably never finish knitting that darn scarf, though.
“Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace,” wrote a man called Edward Hays, silencing my Advent-critic and heralding my own season of learning what it means to wait and hope. To anticipate, with all the stretch that brings – from the tiny tingling fear that hope might not be fulfilled, to the buzz around my bones that I might yet see more than I can ask for or imagine.
We all need something to hope in.
We are all waiting.
These dark days of Advent aren’t without their difficulty, and making them come alive with real meaning is not as easy as some suggest, but they are days worth ‘doing’.
And worth doing with all your heart, however messy.