Looking for a menorah to place in my office in between the sliver Christmas display and the crimson pointsetta that signals the start the the holiday season for me – I found an advent calendar that I had ordered last year.
It had arrived so late that I’d packed it away in the plastic tub where I keep my holiday decorations: the ornaments my daughter has made over the years, ones I’ve been given by friends and ones I’ve gathered here and there – a humble collection I might add. “Perfect,” I thought. “For once I have an advent calendar in time to open the first window on December 1st and then a whole month of windows to look forward to.”
My mother used to find Advent calendars covered in glitter that fell like fairy dust when my sister and I took turns opening the windows each morning – shapes cut out like puzzle pieces in the bigger picture that was a nativity scene or a snow covered Christmas tree with rabbits and donkeys and sheep dotting the winter wonderland scene. This was before the edible calendars that made chocolate before breakfast part of the excitement. There they were, twenty four smaller windows leading up to the big window on Christmas day, each marked by a number – sometimes hard to find. Each day was exciting in itself but exponentially charged by the promise leading up to the big day, the denouement, the unveiling – the birth of baby Jesus. It was as though we were on the journey and part of the caravan following a star – full of the eager anticipation that, like hitting the enhance button, heightens everything.
The word Advent comes from the latin ad (to) and venire – come– like in the French venir and is related to the word adventure which, in latin meant a thing about to happen and, in it’s earliest meaning (before it took on the idea of risk, danger and a perilous undertaking) meant a wonder, a miracle and accounts of marvelous things.
The excitement builds. Something’s coming but it’s not quite here yet. Like children for whom a few days or a weeks is an agonizingly long time to wait – our sense of time is compressed and our present is pregnant with the promise of arrival, of fulfillment.
In the mean-time, there’s lots to do. In the church calendar it’s the beginning of a new liturgical year – a time of reflection and getting ready which makes me think of the three women I know who have just had babies – of showers and nesting and painting rooms. In our larger, diverse, secular world it’s a time of decorating and baking, of guavaberry and fruit cakes, of thinking of others, wrapping gifts for our own children and for those not so lucky this time around. As we approach the darkest of days –I squeal with delight when I turn a corner in my travels around the island and am surprised by displays of colored lights. Holiday recipes show up on my face book feed – for Christmas goodies and for Hannukah latkes (my favorites).
This morning I had to scan my advent calendar – now magnetized on my fridge – for the number 2 window. The scene is of the manger. The background is dark with candles lighting up the centerpiece – baby Jesus and the face of Mary who is leaning down to cover him up. On the dark brown background the black numbers are hard to see and I wondered for a minute if they forgot to cut out a number two window but kept scanning the dark background – like searching for Waldo in the manger – until my little eye spied it and I gleefully opened it up to a picture of angel Gabriel announcing the good news to Mary and setting her up for 9 months of waiting like my friends Tammi, and Fedora and Ginny who all just gave birth to sons.
There’s nothing like having something to look forward to in the future to brighten up the present. By having something to look forward to, no matter what your circumstances, you bring happiness into your life well before the event actually takes place. In fact, sometimes the happiness in anticipation is greater than the happiness actually experienced in the moment.
Anticipating positive events sustains the output of dopamine (the happy chemical) into the brain’s chemical pathways. It doesn’t matter if you’re an optimist or a pessimist – our brains are wired to anticipate happy experiences. Since we are wired to anticipate positive events affirming this anticipation keeps the dopamine going, keeps us happily looking forward to, getting ready, preparing – even if what we are looking forward to is days, weeks or months away, which explains the appeal and the power of the advent calendar or checking off days until payday, graduation, a wedding, a birth or whatever you long for.
As holidays come and go reflecting the seasons of the years and of our lives – each calls upon us to focus on what matters most, on gratitude, on new beginnings and the promise of salvation, on the spreading of the light, on love and we get embrace it in our own ways as determined by our beliefs, our traditions, our cultures and our families where everything is concentrated and shimmering and very present in our hearts and minds.
Maybe we can’t hold all of this all at once always so it’s good to have a focus for a time and then to move on to the next focus but I am often left feeling that I’m not done with gratitude by the time advent is upon us and not done with eager anticipation when christmas day arrives and not done with love when the valentine’s day roses are wilted. The challenge for me and I think for many of us is to keep it all alive and to use these special occasions as reminders in case we may have forgotten (and we do forget) – we do need reminders. In the stories that we retell and the celebrations that we carry forth from ancient times we become more awake, more conscious, more loving, more giving, more grateful.
After opening the first window of my advent calendar yesterday I opened the hymn book that has sat on my piano for the past couple of years and opened it to my favorite advent hymn – O come o come Emmanuel. I love that Emmanuel in Hebrew means, “God is within us”, I love the eastern tones of the music and I realized I had never paid close attention to the last of it’s seven verses:
O come, desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind:
Bid thou our sad divisions cease
And be thyself our King of Peace
Rejoice, Rejoice Emmanuel
Shall come to thee O Israel.