My mom went all out for Christmas decorating at our house. Practically every horizontal surface had fiberglass angel hair covering small twinkle lights with the nativity and snowmen and other Christmas figurines. Sparkly snowflakes hung in the picture window framed by more twinkle lights. Vases would be filled with special holiday silk flowers and shiny beads and, of course, even more twinkle lights. Every light fixture in the house could be off and there was this softly colored glow that felt warm and special.
Keeping the Christ in Christmas was always very important to her. We attended church every Sunday so it was easy to incorporate the traditions we saw there into our home. Every year one of the earliest signs of Christmas, often even before the tree or the twinkle lights, was the Advent wreath on our kitchen table. Four Sundays before Christmas the church put up their huge Advent wreath, three purple candles and a pink candle in a wreath of evergreens, and we put out our Advent wreath at home, the four colored candles often left over from year to year in a modest and very used brass candle circle. The first week just one purple candle was lit. The second week a second purple candle was lit. The third week the pink candle was added and the fourth week the fourth and final purple. Every night at dinner the candle(s) would be lit.
Similarly, at the beginning of the month a colorful poster board Advent calendar would be nailed into the wood panel wall behind our kitchen table. Our parents had to be at work very early in the morning so it was usually quite a chore to get us out of bed and down to breakfast. But during Advent, my sister and I took turns opening the tiny numbered doors each day. The years we had an Advent calendar with little chocolates behind the numbered doors were the best, but even when there was no chocolate there was a teeny tiny picture that got better and better as the days counted down.
If someone had quizzed us about what Advent was or why we had these traditions, I suppose I would have said something like “it’s the countdown to Baby Jesus being born.” Obviously, I know now that the tradition and symbolism go much deeper than that. I fell away from the church before taking care to learn the deeper meanings and since my beliefs are different now, I won’t even try to talk intelligently about what those meanings are. Generally, Advent is a time of preparation and planning but patience for the goodness to come.
So much of what I love about Christmas is about the traditions, the things you do every single year. When I started attending a Unitarian Universalist church, a place that does not have a single doctrinal (i.e. biblical) foundation and openly welcomes atheists I just assumed that many of the traditions I became accustomed to in that were based in my church would never be a part of my adult life. Color me surprised to listen to a sermon last December all about the tradition of the Advent wreath and the importance of incorporating this, or something like it, into your family’s rituals.
December is the darkest month and as Christians are waiting for the birth of God’s s-o-n, those who are not of this faith are waiting in anticipation for the s-u-n to come back. The candles can symbolize light triumphing over darkness. They can also symbolize the cardinal directions or the elements of earth, air, fire, and water all acting in tandem with each other to create balance in our world. In the Christian tradition, the candles represent: Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. Focusing on one of these each week serves as a check in an often ties into a gratitude practice and that’s what I am going to do to honor the Advent tradition this year.
Week 1: Hope. Hope is a funny thing. I am notoriously impatient so hope has always felt more like dark desperate terror-filled demands than some magical beacon of light out there in the distance somewhere. My sense is that the only difference between desperation and hope is the fear of powerlessness. Hope is something you want or a vision you have that you aspire to, though you are perfectly happy with what you have now and would be happy even if that vision never comes to be. Desperation is the fear that you won’t reach that vision, and that life will be somehow less than because of it. I have lived my life largely in desperation. The things I do, I do because I don’t know or don’t like what life looks like if I don’t.
What’s the antidote? Acceptance I suppose. Accepting one’s powerlessness. Giving up control. I’ve written how 2018 has been a difficult year, and it has. Dealing with the hope, and then the expectation, of having a baby. There was a turning point midway through the year. I’d picked a fight with Noel for not doing everything I thought he could do to pull his weight. I realized immediately after that this exact fight was precisely what I had always said in my mind I wouldn’t let happen. I’m not the person who wants a child for having a child’s sake: I want a child that is the product of a strong, loving, healthy relationship. We had to do things differently. We are still figuring out that balance of trying but not trying and all the while not losing the essence of what makes us us. I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time. Things feel easier. The things I need to do to try for baby are the things I don’t mind doing that are now just part of the routine. Physically and mentally I feel great. Acupuncture, herbs, whole foods, more sleep, less stress, more restorative activity, it’s all working to keep me feeling strong and fit. And most of all, I don’t feel alone in this. I have a partner and people who care about me who have been wonderful. So, yes, I want the vision of my future to come true but that can’t be all of my hope. My hope must rest in the refuge of all that is good now.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
-T.S. Eliot, Wait Without Hope
I will not see this month of darkness and waiting as something to merely get through. I will accept the darkness and fight against my impatience to accept this time of rest and introspection. Without winter’s blustery cold, the warmth of the summer sun would not feel so sweet. Perhaps the hope I’ve place in my vision of the future falls woefully short of what is really meant to be. Afterall, Adventus means arrival.