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.
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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