By John Rieping | Published 18 Dec 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Look up the noun “advent” in the New Oxford American Dictionary and you will read: “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.” The roots of the word in Latin mean “to come” or “coming.”
In short, “advent” looks forward, and so does the Christian season of the same name.
My family took the weeks of Advent seriously in my childhood. The season has long been a time to happily prepare for Christmas — not celebrate it beforehand.
No Christmas decorations, music, or television specials were allowed in my childhood home before Christmas Eve except for Advent carols, an Advent calendar, an Advent candle wreath, and a nativity (a tableau of events surrounding the birth of Jesus).
We set out wooden statues of shepherds and their sheep first, and a stable with only an ox. Later Joseph and Mary would arrive with their donkey. Across the room, figures of gift-bearing wise men would lead a camel.
Before our evening meal, we’d pray and then light the number of colored candles for the current week of the season. I hoped to be chosen for that task. I loved the liveliness of fire dancing upon the wick. More importantly, the candles counted down to Christmas.
Sometimes we’d go to a “posada,” which is a nine-day Spanish and Mexican custom reenacting efforts of Jesus and Mary to find lodging in the town of Bethlehem. Although Hispanic, I didn’t know Spanish. Yet I understood the simple theater, music, and tasty refreshments in those homes.
On Christmas Eve or so, my father would buy an evergreen tree for us to ornament. We could finally play my parents’ Firestone Tires collection of recordings with uncommon Christmas songs and singers such as Perry Como and Nat King Cole. The exoticness delighted me.
On Christmas Eve night, my family would worship God at Mass and marvel. Back home, a figurine of a baby Jesus would be passed around and rocked in our hands as we sang. After kissing it, we’d place it between the forms of his earthly parents in the stable and sing the “Happy Birthday” song.
Then we sang posada carols in Spanish, which signaled that a plate of treats would soon be in my greedy grasp.
Next the gifts, if any, would be distributed. Sometimes we followed an older tradition of both Mexico and Germany and receive presents not on Christmas Eve, but on the holy day of Epiphany (aka Little Christmas, the 12th day of Christmas, etc.), which traditionally falls on Jan. 6. Epiphany celebrates Jesus being revealed to non-Jews, such as the three magi whose figurines at last arrived at the nativity stable.
I initially believed Santa Claus visited our house to reward good children, but a friend destroyed that illusion early on. Since I was the youngest in my family, the charade didn’t continue, but my mom instead labelled my gifts “From: Baby Jesus.”
I’m not the easiest person to buy a gift for. One Christmas, my mother gave me “horrible” generic toy robots instead of the expensive brand name “Transformers” toys I asked for, and my eldest brother gave me an “Erector” construction set I loved.
To spare her feelings, I exclusively played with the robots I despised. My mother pulled me aside to urge me not to ignore my brother’s offering. With the cruel honesty of a child, I explained my deception and never played with the unloved robots again.
I have been unappreciative of so many gifts I’ve received in my life. Of them all, however, God is the best present I ever received from my parents, and I am thankful.
My mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, will probably be convalescing away from home this Christmas after an unplanned stay in Madera Community Hospital this week. She is not likely to join in singing any carols or even be aware of what day it may be.
Yet her gift of faith remains. She offered it to her children by the witness of her own life. By God’s grace, I hope and trust it will one day carry her on to a far truer life than this one, a life where the celebration will never end.
In the meanwhile, this life we believers lead is just another Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of our God. “Happy birthday” the angels may sing when our journey ends.