Alternative Advent Calendars
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The countdown for many started in November, with the first sighting of mince pies in the shops. For others the excitement started on Stir Up Sunday when the Christmas puddings are steamed and sealed.
But the proper countdown starts at the beginning of December, with advent. It is one of the most important moments in the Christian calendar, marking a time of preparation before the birth of Jesus.
It was, initially, an ascetic time, marked with fasting and prayer, the lighting of candles and spiritual preparation in time for converts to prepare for baptism on Epiphany. It has since become associated with the anniversary of Christ’s birth on the 25th. But that’s not the only way advent has changed.
Advent calendars are now a staple in every kitchen, with little numbered doors marking each of the days before Christmas. It’s a tradition that dates back to the mid 19th century when German Protestants would make chalk marks on doors to count down to the 25th. The little cardboard calendars used to be just as simple, with pieces of verse or images representing an element of the Nativity story behind each door. But things are simple no longer.
First came the chocolate calendar, with a ‘treat’ behind each door, which meant that children no longer lingered in bed on a cold December morning. Then came the Lego calendar, swiftly followed by a high-end beauty product offering from Liberty, each door containing not frankincense or myrrh but a coveted cream, polish, perfume or make up. Now pretty much everyone selling anything markets their own advent calendar. With few bearing Christian imagery, they have all but relinquished the idea that they have anything to do with religion. And with an array of little luxuries behind the doors, from gin and craft beer to lipstick and bath bombs, Advent calendars are no longer the preserve of children. Indeed, we surely arrived at peak Advent when calendars for pets started appearing on the supermarket shelves?
While many bemoan the fact that Christmas has become an orgy of consumption, the advent calendar has metamorphosed too, into a rather suitable companion piece: a little decadent luxury to greet you every morning in the run up to the ultimate festival of indulgence.
But there has been a backlash against the way we have subverted this once thoughtful period of waiting and wonder into another opportunity for instant gratification. People are looking at other ways of marking this period of thoughtfulness which aren’t so indulgent.
The reverse advent calendar, for example, is becoming an increasingly popular idea. Instead of receiving, you give: the idea is that you collect one item a day in the run up to Christmas and then donate the lot on Christmas eve.
It’s not just for foodbanks, all charities are desperate for toys, gifts and very basic toiletries (not necessarily Liberty luxuries) at this time of year.
There are ways, too, of indulging yourself, without it involving a little gift every morning. You could join in the Advent running crew – who run every day in December up to Christmas. The online – and on the road - community has grown rapidly over the few years, partly because it’s so much easier to drag yourself out of bed for a run on a cold winter’s morning if you know you’re not alone.
A favourite in the office is to set up a random acts of kindness calendar and each day surprise someone with a thoughtful gesture – from telling silly jokes to doing random chores.
Because religious or not, doing something for someone else will improve your emotional well-being at this crazy time of year and bring back some meaning to a time of year which sometimes seems stripped bare of good tidings.