Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sweet Expectations…

I wasn’t expecting to find an Advent Calendar for sale at Starbucks recently. Honestly, I don’t anticipate seeing them peddled most anywhere these days. They strike me as artifacts from earlier eras, when Church had more sway over American pocketbooks. But society has changed. Religiously, we’ve grown more fragmented, diverse, and less invested. To discover, therefore, that cosmopolitan Starbucks chases profit from Advent Calendars seemed odd, though also lovely, in a quaint, nostalgic way.

My first Advent Calendars were gifts from faithful Grandma Ray. Sure like seasons, every November a package would arrive from Chicago with my name on it. I’d open the seal with delight. Inside was a card, perhaps five whole dollars, and my new Advent Calendar, typically a decorated sheet of cardboard with perforated windows. All were numbered. Each corresponded to one day in the season of waiting for Jesus’s birth. Occasionally, Grandma outdid herself, and the calendar wasn’t flat and boring, but a 3-D pop-up house, or castle. 

Yet the instructions were always to open one window per day – no peeking! – until Christmas arrived. I loved those calendars, and not only because their annual arrival re-communicated Grandma’s love.

The daily discovery enhanced our seasonal waiting, beyond simply distracting from dreams of Santa’s sled. You see, the windows, when opened (and we usually did it together as family), told part of the Christmas story or said something affirming about God, or life. Reading those messages, then, focused attention on stuff like meaning, not that I thought about “meaning” at age seven. Rather, I’d talk with Mom about love, or with Dad about joy, depending on what we found behind the window that day. This Advent Calendar ritual helped us wait for Christmas less greedily, more significantly.

The Starbucks calendar, as one might expect, wasn’t decorative cardboard destined for family kitchen tables. It was a wall hanging, twenty-five tins of various sizes glued on, each numbered…and taunting. Because behind every lid, the Advent devotee found a chocolate, or a candy. The advertisement explained, “Something sweet for each day,” promising to make your holiday waiting more bearable.

The Grinch in me wants to call that cheating. It’s like having your Christmas candy and eating it too early. It’s like replacing the season of waiting with twenty-five days of Christmas, gifts consumed before the pear tree’s partridge even arrives. Sure, a tiny toffee on December 15 isn’t a Christmas gift on par with the soft sweater I hope my wife surprises me with (Honey, you reading?). Nevertheless, replacing the meaningful words I experienced in childhood with tangible things changes an Advent Calendar’s function. It doesn’t prepare one for Christmas, or do something different than Christmas, really. It merely extends Christmas earlier.

But the Grinch in me isn’t the only part of my admittedly multiple-personality soul. In fact, as a pastor and Christian- and, more basically, a human- I should want more Christmas, more often, for more people. Not in the sense that I want everyone to be Christian. Interfaith diversity remains an American development I celebrate. Rather, it’s that infectious hope, that optimism, that abandonment of cynicism that arrives annually during the holidays that I’d love to discover more often in my neighbors’ attitude, in my own mind and heart.

Indeed, snide observers in recent years have disparaged “Christmas Creep,” as if it’s an obviously bad phenomenon. Holiday sales starting ever earlier. Cards arriving sooner. Festive sweaters worn longer (well, perhaps that’s a problem). And much of their criticism’s valid, given crass commercialization of religious observance and family tradition. But I’ve sometimes noticed too a sneaking encroachment of holiday cheer into our oft-depressed culture. What of when seasonal love crowds out the sadly hip detachment that threatens our collective well-being? A sweet-a-day from Starbucks during December won’t solve those dilemmas. But they may longer delay a return to dreary normal. And I’d like to think that’s a valuable contribution, one Grandma Ray would celebrate, were she still around to send me packages. Preferably, another cardboard castle would arrive. But I’d take sweets-holding tins. And since I don’t like chocolate, I’d share that joy with neighbors, like Christmas arrived already.

Maybe it would linger awhile.

Grace and Peace,

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