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The 24 Carat Countdown? In Search of an Authentic Advent

27 Nov 2015

Being Advent Sunday this week, I was intrigued to find in my inbox an advert for a gin advent calendar. So I clicked on the link. Gin? I clearly lack ambition. Why not upgrade to a malt whisky one (£300), or detox with a Jo Malone one (£400)? But hang on, if we’re going to throw money at the thing, why stop there? Harrods sells a Wedgwood Advent House, with a Jasperware ornament behind each door, for a mere £12,000. Or maybe the Porsche one for a cool $1m? But diamonds are a girl’s best friend, so maybe I’ll settle for the legendary Octagon Blue advent calendar. A bit steep at £1.7million, but it comes with 24 precious diamonds, one for each day that we wait for the birth of a baby in a manger.

Of course we should be outraged by these trifles, representing as they do the apotheosis of consumerism. But this year I’d invite you not to get mad, but get even. What would an outrageously Christian advent calendar look like?

Let’s go back a few paces. The liturgical season of advent is about preparing for the arrival of Christ, not only to commemorate the historic Messiah, born in Bethlehem, but in expectation of his future return. The triumph of advent calendars and their antecedents was that they encouraged the private practice of observing advent in the home, rather than just through church services on Advent Sundays. These days, the old traditions of burning advent candles, or making chalk strokes on the doors or floors, have transmuted into chocolate calendars adorned with the latest Disney sensation. We use the 24 windows as a ‘shopping days’ countdown, and the promise of chocolate as a way of guaranteeing good behaviour at the breakfast table.

So let’s get real. What could you do with your family this year to get spiritually ready for Christmas? One thing you could do is download an app or subscribe to a service that will email you advent readings every day. One step up from this is the Bible Society’s brilliant initiative, the Advent Challenge. It’s a virtual advent calendar, with an email each day containing a suggested action, like taking a donation to a charity shop or foodbank, offering to babysit for someone who could do with a rest, or giving someone an unexpected present. Domestically, a friend of mine with small children has a calendar with drawers, but the sweet inside has to be earned by obeying an accompanying instruction about tidying a bedroom or helping with the dishes. Or you could encourage your children to find 24 toys they could give away, in preparation for the Christmas onslaught.

My old parish in London is observing the Posada this year. It’s a tradition originating in Mexico, in which characters from the Nativity travel from house to house, recalling the journeys of Mary and Joseph, and the visitors to Bethlehem. During advent, parishioners take it in turns to host figures from the crib for a night in their home, sharing handover refreshments and prayers each time the figures transfer. Could your parish try that?

But perhaps I have an even greater challenge for you. Could you restrict your entire Christmas shop to only those purchases that would rejoice Christ’s heart? At the risk of succumbing to the consumer appropriation of advent, here is my list of 10 ways to make your present-giving more holy.

  1. Make an advent box for a lonely friend – wrap up 24 tiny items so they have one to open each day. Leaving them un-numbered adds to the sense of serendipity!
  2. When you write your Christmas list, instead of present suggestions, write down for each person the thing that you know would bring them most joy. How could you help with this?
  3. Identify your 5 favourite local shops and try to do 80% of your Christmas shopping there. Remember, the New Economics Foundation reckons that for every £1 spent in a chain store, 36p stays local, but if you spend your pound in a local business, it’s worth £1.76 to the local economy.
  4. If you do most of your shopping online and want to vary the suppliers you use, the Ethical Consumer organisation has a list of ‘alternatives to Amazon’ for everything from books, to toys, to music.
  5. Re-gift last year’s unwanted loo-book, and twin the recipient’s loo with one in Burundi, Cambodia, or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  6. Buy or make your youngest relatives some animals and send a real version of them to a poor community through Oxfam Unwrapped or Send a Cow.
  7. Give life by planting a tree or dedicating one, either at home or as part of a community initiative. You could accompany your gift with a leaf swatch book to help the recipient learn about trees.
  8. If you want to include the growing number of refugees in your Christmas giving, there are a number of gift list initiatives that are designed to focus largesse on practical items. Companies like Leisure Fayre are offering a 20% discount and freepost on your donations of sleeping bags and blankets.
  9. If you also want to help poor families experience a bountiful Christmas, it’s quite easy to add foodbank items to your online shop, and providers like Ocado will even match your donation.
  10. We’ve all wiped away a tear watching the John Lewis advert. But is there anyone in your community who will be alone on Christmas day? Can your parish rally round, or at least make sure they are visited by carol singers? Or get involved with the Community Christmas scheme.

The Wise Men bought gifts, and money may be plentiful or scarce for you. But the Wise Men also gave their time, leaving their homes to seek out the Christchild. When people ask you how you are, do you say ‘Oooh, busy!’ in a slightly harassed but triumphant way? We’re all very busy these days. And it’s breaking British rules to answer that question truthfully. But maybe this advent you could reflect on that busyness. Time marches on, and you won’t get more of it. But you are sovereign of the time you do have, even if you don’t have as much discretion over it as you would like. So have a good look at how you are spending your precious life-span this advent. If you were to be given 5 minutes more every day, into which activity or relationship would you invest it? Maybe it’s reading to the children. Or calling a lonely relative. Or writing. Or praying. See if you can spare those extra 5 minutes this advent.

Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

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