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The Advent Calendar

This post is another in my series of personal anecdotes and reflections from my childhood. If you read my blog for my posts about Software development, you can safely disregard this 😉

Christmas is one of the most memorable parts of childhood. There is a sort of lifecycle and growth pattern to the child Christmas experience. The first 3 Christmases you don’t really know what’s going on. You don’t really think about it, or plan for it.. You just wake up one day and find that there are a whole bunch of presents for you. For the fourth Christmas, you’re more aware. At least, I was more aware. That was the year that I started snipping the toys that I wanted out of the Sears Catalog, and started to look forward to the traditions, like watching Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer when it aired in early December.

The 10 years that seemed to pass between my fourth and fifth Christmas gave me plenty of time to prepare. I decided, this time, not to cut anything out of the Sears catalog so as to preserve its integrity. The snippets I had cut out the year before (of He-man figures, race car track sets, and the C.H.I.P.S. ride-on motorcycle) didn’t fare well, and likely found their way to the garbage prematurely, leaving a completely dysfunctional catalog with everything except the stuff I liked. I would continue this discipline (of NOT cutting up the catalog) for every Christmas thereafter.

In my sixth and seventh Christmases, I began to grasp just how much time elapsed between them. While it still felt like the sixth would never come, when it finally did come I decided that the wait was objectively shorter than it had been for the fifth. And the wait for the seventh, shorter still.

Still, time would seem to seem to stop on Christmas eve. I recall lying in bed, looking out the window at the snow falling through the street lights and trying so hard to to fall asleep because I just wanted Christmas Day to arrive. I imagined that falling asleep was like entering a time machine that would beam me directly to Christmas morning. In entertaining these thoughts, I stumbled into my first ominous glimpse of mortality. if only for a brief moment, I was keenly aware that all would come to pass if I wait. Christmas day would come soon enough, and so too would the next Christmas, and, in fact, all the moments of our lives would surely come and go – both the things we dream, and the things that we dread. It was lying here in bed on Christmas eve, that I first imagined, deep in my mind’s eye, the day that my dad died.
But that wouldn’t happen for a long time. For all intents and purposes, an eternity would pass before I saw that day come. Although these thoughts feel like the distant past to me now, it does not feel like an eternity has passed. But I guess that is the enigma of time. A single moment can last forever, while a lifetime can pass by in what seems like an instant.

Fast forward to 1987. By this time I was a pro at Christmas. I knew exactly when the Sears catalog was expected to arrive in the mail, and when the TV Times came out in the first week of December, I would highlight all of the christmas specials that I didn’t want to miss. I was among the seven grade threes in Mrs. Toth’s three/four split class that year. For those familiar with Peterson Road, our classroom was the end room of the east wing of the school with windows facing north toward the tetherball poles and intermediate playground. The back corner of the classroom was the reading area where we would gather for group activities such as non-silent reading and interactive lessons. In December, this was also the location of a daily ritual where a student would be chosen to open a door in the Advent calendar. This lucky student would get to keep whatever was hidden behind the door. For a grade three, this was a lot of fun. With each door opening, we were a day closer to Christmas. Translating time into this visual format makes it more tractable somehow. I mean to an eight year old, it can be hard to quantify how long 3 weeks is, but it was easy to see that, when only 3 doors remain in the advent calendar, we’re getting really close to Christmas.

Mondays were extra special because the doors for Saturday and Sunday would be opened as well – meaning there were three lucky student helpers on those days; but more importantly, we were three days closer to the big event.

When my turn came, I was hoping secretly that the prize behind my door would be some candy other than chocolate as I was allergic to chocolate. Unfortunately that was not to be. I got a chocolate just like everyone else. I didn’t mention that I couldn’t have it. I just put it in my pocket, and sat back down. I didn’t really mind. I was just happy to have a turn.

I’m sure I’ve participated in the opening of many advent calendars since this one, but none are so memorable for some reason. I’m not sure why that is. It could be because this was my first exposure to the Advent calendar (as far as I recall we didn’t do them in my family). It could be because I was at the peak age for appreciation of such things. The spirit of Christmas is palpable at that age. And I would bask in anticipation for the entire month of December, so anything that fueled that build-up would make an appreciable impression on me. The secret may also lie in aspects that escape my conscious memory, but have embedded themselves into my emotional memory. For example, I think this ritual was combined with other Christmas activities such as reading Christmas stories and poems, like “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. Whatever the contributing factors, they have congealed into a perfect snow-globe memory for me.

Thank you, Mrs. Toth for making that Christmas season just a little bit more magical.

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