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Keeping Advent


An Excerpt from "The Christmas Plains"


Maybe that’s what has happened to Christmas, in the days since Dickens bestrode the season. The ideas and the emotions have all broken free and smashed their way across the fields. From Longfellow’s I heard the bells on Christmas Day / Their old, familiar carols play to Irving Berlin’s I’m dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know, there has been, for a long time now, something oddly backward looking about Christmas lyrics—some nostalgia that insists on substituting its melancholy for the somber contrition and sorrow of Advent. In the same way, childhood memoirs have become the dominant form of Christmas writing. Often beautiful—from Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales to Lillian Smith’s Memories of a Large Christmas—those stories nonetheless deploy their golden-hued Christmassy emotions only toward the past: a kind of contrite feeling without the structure of Advent’s contrition; all the regret and sense of absence cast back to what has been and never will be again.
Meanwhile, weirdly, the forward-looking parts of Advent have also escaped the discipline of the season. In certain ways, the season has become little except anticipation—anticipation run amuck, like children so sick with expectation that the reality can never be satisfying when it finally arrives. This, too, is something broken off from the liturgical year: another group of adventual feelings without the Advent that gave them form, another set of Christmas ideas set loose to drive themselves mad.

Back in the early 1890s, William Dean Howells published a funny little fable called “Christmas Every Day.” Once upon a time, the story begins, “there was a little girl who liked Christmas so much that she wanted it to be Christmas every day in the year.” What’s more, she found a fairy to grant her wish, and she was delighted when Christmas came again on December 26, and December 27, and December 28.

Of course, “after it had gone on about three or four months, the little girl, whenever she came into the room in the morning and saw those great ugly, lumpy stockings dangling at the fireplace, and the disgusting presents around everywhere, used to sit down and burst out crying. In six months she was perfectly exhausted, she couldn’t even cry anymore.” By October, “people didn’t carry presents around nicely anymore. They flung them over the fence or through the window, and, instead of taking great pains to write ‘For dear Papa,’ or ‘Mama’ or ‘Brother,’ or ‘Sister,’ they used to write, ‘Take it, you horrid old thing!’ and then go and bang it against the front door.”

These days, by the time Christmas actually rolls around, it feels as though this is very nearly what we’ve had: Christmas every day, at least since Thanksgiving. Often it starts even earlier. This year I started receiving the glossy catalogues of Christmas clothing and seasonal bric-a-brac in September, and there were Christmas-shopping ads on the highway billboards before Halloween. The anticipatory elements reach a crescendo by early December, and their constant scream makes the sudden quiet of Christmas Day almost a relief from the Christmas season.

I don’t remember quite this much opposition, the battle between Christmas and the Christmas season, when I was young. When I was little (ah, the nostalgia of the childhood memoir), I always felt that the days right before Christmas were a time somehow out of time. Christmas Eve, especially, and the arrival of Christmas itself at midnight: the hours moved in ways different from their passage in ordinary time, and the sense of impending completion was like a flavor to the air I breathed.

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