So here I am again, mid-December, cranking up the holiday machine. The gears sound a little rusty, but I gun the engine and push on. I have places to go and Nerf glow-in-the-dark footballs to buy. I have sleeping arrangements for 10 Christmas guests to sort out, meals for 12 to plan. The dining room table is piled high with unwrapped gifts and unwritten cards.
As the days dwindle down to a precious few, I think of those Advent calendars my children used to open each December, glittery little paper doors with pictures behind them, or words of comfort. I find myself wishing I had one now, and imagining what might appear behind the numbered flaps that remain. There would be a star, almost certainly. There is a very bright one in the sky these cold nights, gleaming and silent and somehow insistent. I'm no astronomy whiz. For all I know, it's a planet. One thing is sure: When I see it, I slow down and look.
"Watch" might be written behind one door, just the single, eloquent word. I whisper it to myself early in the morning as the sky lightens and the pattern of black branches appears, starkly beautiful. I repeat it later when the day draws in and then flames out in a winter sunset, blood red.
"Wait" would be there, summing up Advent in a single syllable. Advent sanctifies waiting, adds a new dimension to the vigils unfolding all around us: the expectant mother across the aisle in church; the heavy hush of the ICU; the faces in the airport security line. We wait for the beginning. We wait for the end. We wait for hugs in baggage claim, voices in the front hall, the door slam that tells us everyone's here at last.
Usually there's a candle. I light one myself before dawn each day, sit with coffee in silence before the machine grinds into action. The steady flame focuses my wandering thoughts, stills the carnival within.
Angels figure prominently, bright-winged, full of news. I like the way they always have the same opening line: "Be not afraid." Somehow, I never tire of hearing that.
Shepherds are bound to make an appearance, key players in the drama. I think of them out there in the fields, struggling to stay awake through another long, tedious night. And then it all changed. What happened to them, I wonder? Did they go back to work? Were their lives broken open?
Sometimes, there's a picture of a Christmas tree. Ours is still in the conceptual stage. We keep to the old ways of my childhood, buying it late, trimming it Christmas Eve. We save the treetop angel for the grandchild who arrives last. She's also the one with the tallest father, and he lifts her up to place it carefully. Someone plugs in the lights, and everyone claps, and time stands still.
Behind the final door is the manger scene. Our own crèche is showing its age, but I have no plans to replace it. Joseph's robe is faded. Two lambs have gone AWOL. The stable roof could use some work. The angel holds a slightly chipped banner that says Gloria; my youngest son used to think that was her name. I bought the crèche for $20 in Bloomingdale's 40-something years ago. It has survived moves to Chicago and Knoxville. It has history, Biblical and personal.
I've been running the holiday machine for more decades than I care to count. Now, just for a moment, I switch it off. I look at my imaginary calendar, consider the words and pictures. I watch. I wait. I breathe.