The period of Advent, which means to come, is the period of waiting for the birth of Christ at Christmas, or for the birth of the sun at Winter Solstice. It is a period of anticipation, of looking forward.
The main quality of Advent is waiting. If it were a tarot card, it would be the Seven of Pentacles. At this time we are unable to do anything but wait through the growing darkness until we can celebrate the return of the Light. Most Advent customs have to do with marking time: lighting one candle on the Advent wreath each week, opening another door on the Advent calendar. These markers show us in a concrete way how much time has passed and how much time is left before the event we so joyously anticipate.
For many years Ive been celebrating Advent with friends, using suggestions from The Advent Sunwheel by Helen Farias. We gather around the Advent wreath about the time dark falls on Sunday. We spend a few minutes creating a circle, then light the candles. As with Hanukkah candles, only one candle is lit the first Sunday. Two are lit the second Sunday, three the third and four on the fourth Sunday. I light the central candle on Winter Solstice.
After lighting the candles, we take turns reading aloud from one of the wonderful stores Helen includes in her book, all adapted versions of Scandinavian folk tales appropriate for the winter season. I love Helens stories but actually any stories would do. Helen and her husband James used to read Saki stories in the wee hours of their fabled winter solstice party. You could read classic fairy tales, like The Snow Queen. Or tell stories. At one Advent ceremony, Helen and her husband James read two Chester-and-Faithfull stories (stories I had written the previous Christmas about the antics of my dog and cat). Winter is an important time for story-telling and this coming together to share stories around the flickering fires of the candles recreates the community of the tribe gathering around the campfire.
After the story, we sing carols together. If you don't want to sing Christian carols, there are many old carols, like Deck the Halls, the Boars Head Carol and the Carol of the Bells, which contain no Christian imagery. The Revels, an organization that puts on beautiful performances of old folk music and dances has several tapes of Christmas music that provide other alternatives.
Then it's time for feasting. One of my favorite parts of Christmas is the baking. I love traditional cookie recipes and Yule drinks like eggnog, spiced cider and ginger brandy.
I have several friends who have made Advent calendars. Because Ive seen firsthand the amount of time this takes Ive preferred to buy mine in stores. There is something very magical about opening all those little doors and windows, even though I am often disappointed with the insipidity of the images. Isnt the mystery concealed almost always better than the thing revealed?
One of my friends, Carolee, made an Advent calendar that was like a collage. She found a beautiful landscape picture and then planned where she would place the openings. She then found the pictures that would appear in the openings (mostly birds, as I remember she is an avid birder) and pasted them onto a backing sheet, which was carefully marked so she could get the right alignment of the images. Then she pasted the front picture to the back and created the doors with an X-acto knife.
Another friend created an Advent calendar out of felt. The top half has a felt Christmas tree and the bottom half, numbered pockets, each containing a different charm The charms are removed on the appropriate days and pinned to the Christmas tree.
Creating a Creche
The creation of a Nativity scene is another common way to mark the passing of time at this darkest point of winter. When I was growing up, we would set up the stable fairly early on in the Christmas season, and then add the various ceramic figures that appeared on the scene one by one, culminating in the placement of the Baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas morning. Carol Field says that some Roman creches fill half a living room; new pieces are added over years and they are set in specific landscapes, with representations of hills and trees, like elaborate train sets.
Even if you do not find the Christian imagery compatible with your spirituality, you can still create nativity scenes, honoring the birth of the sun. You might create a shrine to the sun containing mirrors (long a sun symbol), a bowl of water, spiral designs and items that sparkle and reflect. Since many of these are the same symbols that appear on my Christmas tree, I can also imagine placing the ornaments on the tree one day at a time.
Gertrud Mueller Nelson writes about the creche figures she inherited from her mother in To Dance With God. Her mother made them while recovering from a serious illness out of bits of wire and pieces of cloth, and carved their hands and faces out of wood. Each figure, which could be moved and posed in many different ways, was thus imbued with her loving attention as well as tradition. My mothers nativity scene was a gift, given a few figures at a time, from my Aunt Jo and Uncle Bob who bought unfinished clay figurines and painted them in brilliant colors. Today we have even easier ways to create figurines with different types of modeling clay. For subject matter, we can look to myths of miraculous mothers and births like those of Aeon (the son of Kore, born on January 6th) or Isis shown suckling Horus (the sun god) or the images of the Three Mothers (pictured in carvings all over Celtic France and Britain).
The Thirteen Cookies
My friend Helen Farias once told me that it is traditional to make 13 different kinds of cookies for Christmas, and though I have never found her source for this bit of folklore, it makes intuitive sense to me. It also serves as a convenient way of dividing up the time before Christmas. I figure if I make three different batches of cookies each week during Advent, and an extra batch the last week, Ill have thirteen different kinds of cookies to serve at my Winter Solstice party. If there are any leftovers, I can box them up and give them as Christmas presents. The first year I made about four different kinds, the next year I worked my way up to six, so I still have a long way to go to achieve my goal but I'm working on it.
Ive created a book, called Thirteen Christmas Cookies, containing recipes and folklore for thirteen traditional Christmas desserts and a plan for making them during Advent to coincide with the appropriate holidays. You can purchase it in our Store.
Farias, Helen, The Advent Sunwheel, Juno's Peacock Press (out of print).
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Fitzgerald, Waverly, Midwinter, Priestess of Swords Press 1995
Fitzgerald, Waverly, "Time to Celebrate," SageWoman, http://www.sagewoman.com
Nelson, Gertrud Mueller, To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration, Paulist Press 1986