Advent

twenty-four

When I was a child I found it absolutely thrilling to open the ‘number 24’ on my Advent calendar. That final window was bigger than the rest and it alone had two doors instead of one. Some years the tension got too much and I would cheat and take a peep several days early.

I’m not sure why I was so excited, since those two flaps always revealed the same thing: a little symmetrical tableau of the holy family, complete with well behaved ox and ass. Usually there was a halo of light emanating from the ‘manger’ – actually more like a cradle than something that animals would eat out of – and sometimes there were stars and angels in the sky, bathing the scene in a yellowy wash.

Many years later, I can see how this sanitised version of the nativity feeds the tyrannical view that Christmas is a time of perfection. Perhaps as a child that is what I wanted; as adults we need to be ruthless about confronting the fact that it is impossible.

We might laugh at these blatantly posed images but the same messages still bombard us today, whether it is from the endless parade of TV chefs doing Christmas specials, or the smug and slender models who smile out of the windows of every high street clothes store.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the primary sources suggest a radically different scene for the first Christmas. I do not think it was very neat and tidy in the outhouse where Jesus was born. It is unlikely that a teenager who had just given birth looked particularly glamorous. Not all of Mary’s relatives would have been thrilled that she’d conceived out of wedlock.

I hope everyone reading this has a brilliant Christmas, but if your turkey is dry or your children squabble, or if you’re secretly feeling really sad inside, just remember this: nobody ever said on their deathbed that they wished they’d made more effort to live like an advert.

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seventeen

Julian and I have been in our current house longer than any other since we were married. One of its main advantages is that it is within walking distance of a beautiful valley that is criss-crossed with footpaths. Regularly walking these paths has been a great way of reconnecting with the natural world, something we really missed when we lived in London.

Every season has its landmarks in this valley, whether it is the wild garlic that sprouts all along the riverbanks in spring, or the way the horse chestnuts gradually shift from green to orange, the first heralds of autumn.

Not all the landmarks are entirely natural, though. If you take the path up the valley at this time of year, you come to a cherry tree that has mysteriously grown decorations. I have asked several people but still have not managed to find out who hangs these baubles. Some of them are quite high up: it is obviously a task requiring considerable effort.

Every year I enjoy the surprise I get as I round the curve in the valley and see the tree sparkling with baubles for the first time. I like to speculate that they are a way of remembering someone special, perhaps a friend or a family member who loved these paths as we do and whose memory lives on in the joyful spontaneity of a decorated tree that grows in the wild.

sixteen

Today I bring you another Advent sonnet from Malcolm Guite. The title O Oriens translates as ‘O Dayspring’ and the line from Dante means ‘I saw light in the form of a river’. Malcolm writes movingly about the background to this sonnet on his blog here.

View across the Mawddach estuary, Snowdonia. Picture by Benjamin Dobson

O Oriens

E vidi lume in forme de riviera Paradiso XXX; 61

First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water
As though behind the sky itself they traced

The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.

Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream…
So every trace of light begins a grace

In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling;
“Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream

For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking”.

Malcolm Guite

Cowbar Nab, north Yorkshire. Picture by Julian Dobson

thirteen

So today I have a Christmas card dilemma.

Last year, we decided to send ‘real’ cards only to friends and relations who are averse to modern technology. Everyone else got a cheery email and a pdf of our annual Christmas letter. We saved a lot of money on cards and stamps and used most of it to twin our toilet. Toilet Twinning is a most excellent charity that is tackling the shocking fact that forty per cent of people in the world do not have access to a safe, clean and hygienic place to go to the loo. (Just think about that. I have been at home, at university and at work today and have used at least five different loos, all of which were regularly cleaned and came with handbasins as standard.)

In deciding to make electronic contact at Christmas, we also felt we were making a very small contribution to cutting back on the amount of paper and card that is consumed at this time of year.

The problem was that the majority of people we contacted this way did not respond. It was as if our failure to send a card meant that we were deleted from their Christmas lists. Like a lot of people who are past the first flush (whoops, no pun intended) of youth, we do have quite a few friendships which rely on Christmas cards to keep them alive. I know that might sound as if they are not important, but actually they represent relationships that we don’t want to abandon. They were born out of significant shared experiences and while they may have abated since we had our children or moved ‘up north’, they could easily revert to being more active as circumstances change.

So yesterday I went out and bought several boxes of cards from the local Oxfam shop and tomorrow I will go and spend a fair bit on stamps at the Post Office and we will probably stay up far too late writing these cards in order to catch the last date for second class post on Saturday.

It is so difficult to cut back on consumption at this time of year and not appear Scrooge-like. I would be interested to hear what other people do. Were we being mean when we sent the emails and pdfs? Is the consumption of paper offset by the benefits of using charity cards? Are Christmas cards in fact a dying tradition? If you regularly communicate with distant friends via Facebook or Skype, etc,  is there even any point in them any more?

nine

I never knew some churches have a tradition of lighting a pink candle on the third Sunday in Advent. Apparently this is because the pink stands for joy and the third Sunday is known as ‘Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday’.

Hurrah – I really like pink and it is so nice to see it being used for something other than what the Pinkstinks campaign so aptly labels ‘sexualised, colour-coded, passive-princess crap’.

I found out about pink candles from this rather jolly film.

Picture by Jonathunder. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence

eight

A sheep is a good thing to have on an Advent calendar but the weather has been far too horrible for me to go out and get a picture of one. So hurrah for these badges from Felicity Ford’s Etsy shop – they arrived today, beautifully presented with this lovely sheep stamp.

Felicity Ford wrote a really thought-provoking blog post yesterday about the relationship between wool and time. As I admired my new badges and thought about how I would write about them, I suddenly realised that her post that had already raised so many issues was particularly relevant to the Advent season.

Felix writes: ‘Wool is produced through the slow activity of grazing, and the alchemy by which grass is turned over weeks and months into the fleece of the sheep

You can’t hurry wool.’

She then raises some searching questions about how, in that case, it is possible for chain stores to sell wool items at knock-down prices.

‘I went to the High Street last weekend and I saw 3 for 2 offers on knitwear in a well-known retail outfit, and I realised that – however much their storefront alludes to ancient knitting traditions – their 3 for 2 offer markedly does not. For … sheep cannot be fed on a 3 for 2 basis; … wool cannot be baled on a 3 for 2 basis; … in the UK at least it is not possible for a scarf to be produced as part of a BOGOF deal unless you are hurrying wool to the shelves. And what do we know about wool? That you can’t hurry wool.’

So the high street tells us a lie and the lie is that you can have wool cheaply and you can have it when you want it. And then it presents the lie in cheerful colours scattered with words like ‘joy’ and ‘gift’ (see Felix’s photos for the proof) – and therein is another lie. Which is that if you acquire this discount wool, you will be full of joy and you will be able to spread joy and you will have a gift in your hands, either for yourself (presumably because you’re worth it) or  – marvellously – for somebody else. What’s not to like?

Well, the fact that all this is nonsense. There are a variety of ways to get real wool from real sheep onto the shelves at this price, as Felix points out. Either someone has not been paid at all, or everyone involved in the slow process of producing wool has been paid less than the minimum wage, or the garments on display don’t actually contain much real wool.

Where is the ‘joy’ in this? Who wants a ‘gift’ for themselves or for others that is wrapped up in a tissue of lies and injustice?

The word ‘advent’ means ‘coming’. It is a season in which Christians wait expectantly for the birth of Jesus.

You can’t hurry a baby.

Yet somehow over the years this once holy time of waiting and preparation has morphed into a season of rush and over-consumption. And the more we accumulate and the faster we want it, so the more the injustices pile up

And in the run-up to Christmas, these injustices increase in the name of the one who said:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Luke 4: 18-19

I have been a Christian for quite a few years and I have been slow to grasp this, but if I could wish for one thing right now it would be that more people both inside and outside the Church could really understand that the Bible reveals a God who gets angry when farmers are forced to sell fleeces at rock-bottom prices so that high street stores can provide consumers with cheap products to give as gifts.

Especially, I would dare to suggest, at Christmas.