Guest Post // Christina Quist: The Imperfect Beauty of Advent
There was that one Christmas when I wrapped each of my five kids a little gift for each day of Advent leading up to Christmas. We sat together as a family, contemplated a spiritual reading and each opened a tiny token, ever so thoughtful, that represented the daily reading in some way. That’s five kids times five gifts for 24 days. I evaluated my motherhood quite high that year and gave myself glowing recommendations. But no one remembers that Christmas.
There was the year I was working 50-hour weeks and all the kids were in school, busy with end-of-year school activities like class parties that required some sort of craft because there’s always that one classroom mom who has to raise the bar like it’s her exercise routine. I bought an Advent calendar from the grocery store. Each window on the calendar had a piece of chocolate behind it so when you open the cardboard cutout window, you can read a little Advent reminder and eat a piece of chocolate. That lasted until December 10 until the holiday pressure overwhelmed me and I ate my way through the rest of December.
There was the one Christmas we celebrated speed Advent. I got so overwhelmed with holiday planning, trying to remember what gift I bought which kid and mathematically trying to figure out if we had spent equal amounts of money on each child so that no child would be left behind. I totally pushed the celebration of Advent to the back burner in pursuit of the perfect Christmas production. I blame Target. We started Advent the week before Christmas and flew through the centuries old reflection in 72 hours flat.
Looking back now, I can see 22 years of Advent tradition in our family. Most of it melts into the other, making more of an echo than anything else.
There was the infamous year that my husband lost his job, we moved house and nothing appeared to be right in our world. We had a sparse Christmas tree and even sparser gifts. The Advent was the Word itself. For whatever reason, I introduced an old family tradition that makes no nutritional sense. As a little girl, my grandmother insisted that Christmas meant drinking hot chocolate, which is weird because we lived in Phoenix, Arizona. This was no ordinary hot chocolate tradition. We would make toast on white bread smothered in peanut butter with two slices of bacon on top, folded over, dipped in a hot chocolate cup overflowing with marshmallows.
For whatever reason, bacon-peanut-butter-toast-in-hot-chocolate-with-marshmallows is what came to me that year. And so it began. And once planted into the memories of my children, it never seemed to die. Now, my 22 year old, 20, 19, 16 and 16 year olds will automatically assume that Advent culminates with hot chocolate and a processed meat sandwich. My efforts to introduce a peaceful, poetic, sometimes candle-lit Advent have been usurped by bacon.
Of all my Advent attempts to create memories that will impact my family and perhaps compel them to their own Christmas reflection, none really had so great an impact as the time we had nothing but each other and a desperate attempt to focus on Hope, the Coming. It’s as if the cup of hot chocolate and marshmallows demanded that we sip slowly, not rushing into the next moment. It invited us to lean toward that which is both inside us and outside of us.
The beauty of Advent is that it’s not my story to tell. I tried to carve out memories that would create a glowing childhood experience that my kids could pass on to their kids, telling tales of admirable traditions and life changing moments, tales that involved a deep gratitude and appreciation for well, most notably me, the mother who made it all possible. I had visions of our family traditions carrying on in spectacular ways long after the kids have married and have families of their own. Perhaps a spouse or two will tremble under the pressure of trying to emulate such a Christmastide practice. But no, I’m going to be remembered for diabetes in a cup.
As much as I wanted to be that mom who is equal parts spiritual director, chef, and maker of dreams, I am primarily me, a part of the greater story, a speaker of the meta narrative. I daily get to be the one who points to the repeating story of birth and re-birth, of pause and consider, of gratitude and good tidings, of perpetual redemption and coming hope.
The beauty is that my kids will create their own Advent traditions and perhaps re-tell the Great Story in their own imaginative way. I have learned that I can create the space for them to remember. But I can’t tell them what to remember. That is the role of Advent, to recall the Great Story in an imperfect way and to recognize their place in it. If given the space, Advent will tell your family Its story time and time again. We just have to carve out the space for Significance to enter in to your family tradition.
Jesuit priest Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote, “If we abandon ourselves to God, there is only rule for us: the duty of the present moment.” Advent is of coming Hope, it is also about present peace, abandonment from an orchestrated future to the freedom of now, the prescience of this present moment.
It’s pointing toward the thread of hope that continues to weave its way through time and circumstance, through plenty and lack, through toddler years to teenage years and beyond. The great hope does not demand a chocolate Advent calendar or the perfect Advent tradition. It only desires to be remembered.
Christina Quist is an American who, in 2011, quit her job, sold everything that wouldn't fit into a suitcase, bought seven one-way tickets and left small town Ohio with her husband and five children to live in Cape Town, South Africa. In her free time she enjoys laughing, deep talks with friends, and used book stores.