My English classes this week were reading Dylan Thomas’s short story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” which is a cute story about –well, the title’s kind of self-explanatory. But what I love about the story, besides Thomas’s use of the English language, especially in his imagery and his wit, is that it’s one of the few Christmas stories that I have read (or seen on TV) that doesn’t attempt to teach me any sort of lesson. Instead of Scrooge, etc. learning the “meaning of Christmas,” Dylan Thomas simply talks about the Christmases of his youth as a matter of fact. I’m not sure if my students enjoyed the story (most of them spent two days either bitching about the fact that they had to be in school when every other school district in the area had the entire week off, or attempting to sleep), but we had a great discussion about holiday traditions and why we enjoy them so much.
Over the course of this discussion, I brought up some of the things my family has done since I was a little kid. This included such time-honored traditions as my mother forcing my sister and I to sit at the top of our stairs and take a picture, getting a toothbrush in our stockings, and the long arduous process of opening the gifts under the tree. Furthermore, I talked about how when you get to be my age and you have a family on your own, you find yourself either starting new traditions or carrying on old traditions either by yourself or with your siblings or children. One such tradition has been holding on to the idea that while Christmas is a day, there is a whole Christmas season.
The idea of Advent has been around for at least a few hundred years and is marked in several ways by different religious denominations. I grew up attending the Lutheran church and the tradition there was that during the four Sunday services prior to Christmas, there would be an advent wreath, which is a wreath with five candles (four purple candles in a circle and a white one in the center), sitting near the altar. At the beginning of the service, the acolyte (which I think is what Catholics would call an “altar boy”) would light one of the purples candles (each a different shade of purple and I believe with a meaning, which I once knew, but my rejection of most things religious in my teens and twenties and suppression of Sunday School trauma led to this information being purged from my memories), with the white one for Christmas Eve/Day to signify the birth of Christ.
However, this wasn’t the only way I knew how to celebrate the Christmas season. There’s been the obvious running of the Christmas shopping gauntlet and a barrage of Christmas-themed television specials and movies (as well as short stories in my English classes), but the most important one, since I’ve been a kid, has been the PeA advent calendar.
Of German origin, the PeA advent calendar is a large board with an illustration–usually of Santa doing something nice for kids–with twenty-four doors on its front and a “you can color this” black and white drawing on the back (although I have never actually colored that drawing) and behind each door is a chocolate square embossed with the picture of an object you’d more than likely associate with Christmas–a toy, a candle, a candy cane–with Santa Claus himself being the Christmas Eve candy. They’re not a very expensive investment each year (a website says they cost $6.00 each but I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen them at Harris Teeter for about half that), and when you’re a little kid, you get really into opening up that day’s calendar door to see what is on that chocolate, and as you get closer and closer to the day when you can eat the Santa chocolate, which is twice the size of the other chocolates, staying patient is maddening.
Now I don’t think this would be that big of a deal to me if these chocolate calendars hadn’t been a family tradition for not only me and my sister but all of my cousins, at least on my dad’s side of the family. My grandmother, who was of German descent, was the person who bought all of us the advent calendar when we were kids. She would give them to our parents on Thanksgiving, which was the only time the entire family (more or less) was together at her house in New Hyde Park before Christmas Eve, which was when we’d see her again. My parents would hide the calendars from us until December 1, when my mother would staple ribbon to the top of each of them and hang them on the wall of the den, temporarily replacing a picture or a sconce. Each day, from December 1, usually before we headed off to school, Nancy and I would eat our chocolate and I remember that we always made a point of saying what was embossed on the chocolate before eating it, as if there was actually a difference between how the candle was going to taste as opposed to the sled from the day before.
I don’t know if it’s the best idea to give a little kid a piece of chocolate at 7:00 in the morning, but considering I see teenagers walking into my building with 20-oz. bottles of Mountain Dew and bottles of energy drink that are so huge they may as well be called “Teeth Rot”, I’m not going to fault my mother for allowing us a treat before heading out. Besides, I think that was a nice reward for the fact that we were patient and never even thought about simply cutting open the back of the calendar and ripping the plastic tray of chocolate out and eating it all at once, which is what one of my cousins supposedly did every single year.Because, you know, the waiting is the hardest part.
Although I have to say that I kinda think that was a little bit of bull that my mom concocted to guilt us into waiting. I mean, I wouldn’t put it past this particular cousin, but he always seemed to be the one connected to those mythical stories of naughty kids who snuck around and found all of the presents days before Christmas or opened the packages at 3:30 a.m. on Christmas Day while his parents slept–the implication, of course, being that if we ever did this not only did Santa or Jesus or whomever look badly upon us but it was the first step on the road to a life of crime. In fact, I think that if Lex Luthor hadn’t found his Christmas presents early and played with them before the 25th, he wouldn’t have become a criminal mastermind.
Anyway, my grandmother’s Thanksgiving present every year stuck with me enough that when I was in my twenties and found the calendar at the grocery store, I bought it for my girlfriend/wife, and now that our son is old enough to know what chocolate is, he’s been working on one of his own. In fact, we’ve found that the reward of having a “Christmas chocolate” as he calls it is enough to get him to eat all of his dinner, which is a practice that I’m sure someone on a Mommy blog or parenting message board would crucify me for (yeah, I know, wrong Christian holiday), but 3-year-olds cannot live on Goldfish alone and if that’s the way to get protien in him, then dammit, I’m doing it.
Besides, Christmas is such a child’s holiday that it’s very fun to be reminded of that. My son’s three years old, so everything is completely new to him and he still hasn’t lost the wonder of talking about when Santa is going to come and how he’s been a good boy so he hopes that Santa will bring him the train he asked for, and to know that his great-grandmother had something to do with that wonder makes it even more special.