I’d forgotten about the magic of advent calendars until I was in Innsbruck, Austria last year for work. I was there just before Christmas, and this lovely city nestled in the alps was breathtaking. As I ambled through the downtown cobblestone streets one evening, each turn revealed more and more treasures. Buildings were decorated to reflect an old world version of Christmas instead of Disney plastic, and there was a sense of genuine amity even amidst the bustle of an outdoor Christmas mall and tiny, packed shops.
I stood before a five story building, and realized I was staring at an advent calendar come to life. Each window numbered, I remembered when as a child myself, and later with my sons, an advent calendar had signified the start of the season. Anticipation is a tall order for a child, and I sometimes wonder if in our rush to have it all we forget that it is also a good one.
Mom would buy a cardboard calendar each year, and we’d prop it in the dining room window. My favourite ones always had a Christmas tree on the front, and each window would reveal a different ornament. Some deep braiding of my mother’s British roots and my father’s German ones have held the image of a tree as my Christmas centre.
The weak winter sun would stream through the carefully removed door, as we’d fight over whose turn it was to open it. As we got old enough to count backwards from the glorious double -doored 24th, the youngest sister would wonder why the older ones were so graciously letting her have an extra turn as they calculated landing on that coveted square.
By the time Mom was buying one for my boys, they were stocking the calendars with little plugs of tasteless chocolate. I’d marvel that we’d been so happy with just some cardboard and glitter and expectation. When Christopher, then 6, opened all the doors, carefully removed all the chocolates and then closed them again, my Mom started buying the boys their own calendars.
You can’t rush ahead, I’d tell them, as they’d blink at me. Of course you can, they thought, behind those clear, clear eyes. I was torn between telling them that you shouldn’t rush through wonderful days and you can’t avoid the painful ones. If we could jump ahead and see behind each door, we’d waste each day worrying about another one.
As the stores became overrun with multiple versions in dump bins on the end of every aisle, I stared at dancing penguins and Mickey Mouse dressed as Santa Claus and instead ordered a beautiful wooden calendar from Oxfam. It blew up my budget that year, but it is a handcrafted 3D calendar with small wooden doors that conceal a space just big enough to hold some holiday magic.
That first year, I carefully loaded the calendar with a combination of tiny surprises, and told the boys they could take turns. By December 2nd, every candy had been emptied out of the calendar as two small boys shrugged and pointed at each other. I started filling it one day at a time, smiling as they dug past scrolled notes I’d lovingly written or miniature ornaments, looking only for jujubes and gumdrops.
In a few years, it was merely another decoration. The boys stopped rushing downstairs to dive behind its doors, and December became more about exams and shopping and a race to the finish, rather than seeking something I was reminded of last year amidst quiet beauty.