Tuesday, November 29, 2011

This Advent, I'm waiting for Godot

It takes going into a CVS drugstore, asking an employee where they have their Advent calendars and being met with a blank stare and a quizzical "an Advent calendar?" to realize that yes, Virginia, we live in a post-Christian era and there is no Santa Claus. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a conservative evangelical trying to "put Christ back in Christmas." I have other reasons for shopping for an Advent calendar (more on this later), but still, I am shocked.

It's as if I went up to a hot-dog stand and asked for a frankfurter and got "a frankfurter?" as a startled reply. The glue that holds a society together is a body of common knowledge that needs no explanation.

It wasn't that long ago that most people knew—as they had for about 1,500 years—that Advent is the season before Christmas. Named from the Latin adventus, meaning "coming," the season is observed by Christian churches in preparation for the feast of the birth of Jesus, traditionally celebrated by a Mass on that day, known in medieval England as Christesmas.

You knew at least some part of this, right?

Of course, there never was a Santa Claus, and one could debate whether there was a Jesus of Nazareth. If there was, he was certainly born one unknown day. In the second century of our era those in the know thought he had been born in the summer, say June. The celebration of Christmas, one of the lesser and most recent of the feasts in the Christian calendar, was purposely assigned a day in the middle of solstice debauchery associated with pagan and Roman gods.

Just as Lent was marked early on as a period of expectation for Easter—historically the first and most important of the Christian feasts—Advent came into being as a period of awaiting Christmas, beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.

The Advent calendar is a Lutheran tradition, mostly for children. Physically it is a large rectangular card with 25 "windows," one for each day of December leading up to Christmas and one for the feast itself. Some have little boxes with candy or trinkets behind each window.

Like the Christmas tree it is not, strictly speaking, a Christian artifact. It's just, as a Jewish friend of mine said, one more item in a "heavily accessorized religion."

Why does someone who vaguely believes in God, go out looking for an Advent calendar? Because the idea of awaiting the birth of some presence of God is pleasant, even if it is only in one's heart, and even if it is based on an unproven, largely mythical, story. So sue me.

Now, does anyone know where I can find an Advent calendar?
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