I’ve shared a picture of my lovely six-sided Advent calendarin previous years. Advent is a season of varying length, of course, so sometimes, as this year, the traditional ‘starts on 1 December’ calendar is missing a few days. This one, however, has doors for St Andrew (30 November) and each Sunday of Advent, so this year it works perfectly. First Sunday of Advent today. St Andrew tomorrow. Then we’re into December.
I don’t have anything terribly original to add to the myriad observations about how weird this year is, the plethora of jokes about how today is March 274. Nevertheless, I have been thinking a lot about time this year. I revisited Waverly Fitzgerald’s lovely Slow Time and David Steindl-Rast’s Music of Silence. Pottering in my garden, I thought about The Morville Hours. Exploring Ely, I found two new sundials. This evening I listened to The Annunciation by Edwin Muir, and noticed myself noticing all the signifiers of time passing in the second half, noticed my mind leaping to a friend’s setting of The Spacious Firmament On High. Time. Time and space.
And where I am I? What have I learned? Nothing more than to try to be here, and now. I suspect that I’ll be writing a lot about that over the next month.
I love Advent. I’ve been looking forward to it for ages. And yet this morning found me late for church (over YouTube, so nobody knew!), pulling my top on as the processional played, breakfasting on cake. Somehow, Advent has crept up on me. It often does.
Even in normal times, time has never behaved the way I’ve thought it should. I remember the Advent calendar that was a pyramid shape, so that each day it had a little more wax to burn, and the closer it got to Christmas the longer I’d have to wait to blow it out. Not the sort of thing that King Alfred would have used for a candle clock.
So here I am. Here and now. I seem to know less than I ever did, and to be far less bothered by that than I’d ever have expected. I’ll be taking part in Susannah Conway’s December Reflections project again this year, looking back over the last twelve months, looking forward to the next twelve months.
To the pedantic western Christians reading this, Happy New Year! To everyone else, I hope March 274th is treating you well.
It’s too early to be thinking about Christmas, I’d gripe. In a normal year. (And my clergy and church worker friends, who would have been thinking about Christmas since August if not before, would roll their eyes.) In a normal year I’d have been making excuses to get out of this term’s workplace choir sessions (because weekly Shakin’ Stevens turns out to intersect really, really badly with my tendency to seasonal depression) since September, and right about now I’d be pondering whether it would be more socially awkward to sign up for the Secret Santa and misread my giftee’s preferences than not to sign up at all. I’d also have worked out which branch of the family I’d be spending the actual day with, booked the leave, and had a look at the trains.
But here we are, and a whole load of people are thinking about Christmas vocally, loudly, and argumentatively. We’ve just had a minor hail shower, so one could even argue that the weather’s getting in on the act.
So here are my thoughts about Christmas under Covid-19 restrictions, how I will (attempt to) deal with it myself, and some ideas which anybody’s welcome to act on or not, as they feel would be most helpful.
There are many feelings. I’ve been through disappointment (I’d have loved to host a big Christmas gathering in this, our first year in our new house) and am now somewhere between irritation and boredom.
It is OK to be disappointed. It is OK to be irritated. It is OK to be bored. It is OK to be sad. (If you’re somebody who finds it helpful to think about how there are lots of people in the same boat, it might be worth remembering that millions of people are, well, in the same boat. Not to mention folk of other religions who have had to modify their festival celebrations without nearly so much of a fuss having been made.) It is OK to be secretly relieved! (Personally, I’m rather glad that my parents won’t be spending four hours in a car with each other, debating the merits of an outdated satnav and outdated Ordnance Survey maps all the way from the Isle of Wight to the Fens. And I’ll also miss them.)
Anyway, whatever you’re feeling, there’s probably a good reason for that, and, so long as you don’t use it as an excuse to be obnoxious, that’s fine. Not that you need my permission, obviously.
What’s going to be weird this year is that thing we always do – which we can’t do, or shouldn’t do, or won’t do.
And I suppose the question to ask oneself, when considering how or whether to replace that thing, is: what is it about this tradition that is important? Why do we do this? What’s the quality, the essence, of this thing that we always do? And can you replicate that in some other way? To pick a very obvious example: if you always visit your great-aunt on Boxing Day, but this year her care home isn’t allowing visitors, well, can you make it a phone call instead? Do you usually bring her a box of marzipan fruits? Put one in the post to her, and get one for yourself too. It won’t be the same, but perhaps it will have enough of the original essence to work. And see Feelings, above: you’re allowed to feel whatever it is you feel about it not being the same.
One of the least negotiable elements of a Jowitt Christmas is the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College on Christmas Eve. The Queen is optional; Doctor Who is dependent on whether we have a working television; the communicant members of the household may or may not be awake enough to go to Midnight Mass; but you’d better believe that at 3pm on Christmas Eve Radio 4 will be playing. We will sing along with the congregational carols (some of us will attempt the descants); we will have grumpy choral opinions about the choir-only carols; we will listen out for our favourite passages (upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude whom no man can number; the weaned child shall put its hand into the cockatrice’s den); we will argue about the correct pronunciation of cockatrice.
When I was a child, we’d decorate the tree (fighting over who got to put up which baubles) while my father lit a fire and my mother iced the cake. Now we all live in different houses, it’s become rather looser. I doubt, for example, that my brother could get Radio 4 when he was working in a ski resort in the French Alps. But it’s still an important part of the festivities. In 2017 my husband and I got up at 5am and queued outside King’s for the tickets to be there live. In 2018 we listened to the broadcast and then went straight on to sing the exact same service at our parish church. Other than that, it tends to be my father and I texting each other ‘Bound!’ when the choir sings Adam lay ybounden. This is a reference to a long-dead dog. Hey, it’s a tradition.
And honestly, a lot of what’s important about that is that we always do it. We: me, my parents, whichever brothers happen to be around. Always: every Christmas. It’s about that shared experience, doing the same thing at the same time. It isn’t so much about the Christmas story, which comes across better to me at live church (more on that further down).
What’s that going to be like this year? I suppose it’s down to King’s and Auntie Beeb. I’m sure there’ll be something in that 3pm slot, whether it’s a smaller, physically distanced choir, or a recording from a previous year, but let’s imagine there isn’t. What might we do instead? Off the top of my head:
find a previous year’s service on YouTube, send the link around, and agree to watch that at 3pm
conduct our own service (it’s all in the back of the first volume of Carols for Choirs)
put on a CD/record/playlist of carols
listen to what was being broadcast on the radio instead
By next year, that would probably have become a tradition in its own right. And circumstances that are less than ideal can spawn their own, more optimistic, traditions. For example:
The year my parents separated, there were suddenly two houses and two Christmas trees. And only one of me.
That Christmas was grim, but one thing was worth doing, and has stuck: I bought two identical tree ornaments, one for each of my parent’s Christmas trees. I couldn’t be in two places at once, but I could at least show that I wished I could be.
Over the years, I’ve expanded the practice, and now send tree decorations to both of my parents, the two of my brothers who have moved out, and my in-laws, as well as keeping one for our own tree – so even when I can’t be with someone for Christmas, there can be something of me there.
Sometimes I’ve made decorations. Sometimes I’ve bought several identical ones. Sometimes I’ve got a set and split it up. Glass angels, laser-cut wooden dragons from Ljubljana, crystal stars, iridescent hummingbirds… This year I’ve been threading gorgeous faceted glass beads onto thick silver-plated wire and bending it into abstract spirals. This tradition, born of one of the most painful experiences of my life, has become one of the preparations that I most enjoy.
I talked about relief, further up the page. And if it’s a relief not to be going home, not to be having the blazing rows over Brexit or your sister’s wedding or why you don’t have children, then make the most of it. This could be the year you break the tradition. You don’t actually have to do things just because you’ve always done them. If you’d actually prefer Christmas at home, Christmas on your own, Christmas with your bubble, then why not go for it? Work out what you want to do, and do that.
Christmas is traditionally a time for attempting to make things a little brighter for people one doesn’t know. Here is a seriously incomplete list of ways in which someone who had the time and/or funds might do that, even (particularly!) in such a year as this.
Make a donation to your local foodbank. It can’t have escaped many people’s notice that there’s a real problem in this country with poverty, and poverty-related hunger. There are going to be a lot of people this year for whom Christmas is not going to be fun at all. (I have a standing order set up, but I also throw the occasional pack of fun-sized Mars bars into the collection basket at Sainsbury’s, because poverty is miserable enough without being wall-to-wall lentils.)
One idea I’ve seen is the ‘reverse Advent calendar’ – put one item aside every day to give to the foodbank. The only problem with this is that, if you want someone who have nice things at Christmas, you need to get it to them in advance, so maybe do it through November instead of Advent.
Make a donation to another appropriate charity. Safe Passage, for example.
Find out what’s going on near you and who needs help. Is there a befriending service? A Covid mutual aid group? A local newspaper, Facebook group, or community noticeboard should give you some pointers.
Here’s an initiative for getting Christmas presents to children and teenagers in mental health units.
You’re expecting me to encourage you to fill a shoebox with toys for an underprivileged child. I’m not going to do that. Here’s why. And here’s an alternative if you still want to.
Well, we got through Easter. Easter was before we had proper internet access, so in this house we got through Easter livestreaming a Zoom service via mobile phone tethering, so Christmas ought to be a doddle.
Seriously, though. Nobody seems to know what church services will look like come Christmas, but I think it’s fair to say that they probably won’t look any less weird than they do now. At the moment, in the Church of England, people in church have to wear masks through the service (unless they’re leading, singing, or reading), the congregation isn’t allowed to sing, and numbers are limited – which might mean that, come the big turnout of Christmas, services may have to be ticketed.
If your typical Christmas includes attendance at a church service (crib service, carol service, Midnight Mass, whatever) and you haven’t been to a service since the pandemic hit, you might want to try one in the next few weeks to get the initial weirdness out of the way.
Your church may have something on its website to explain the arrangements. They may also be streaming services. Anyway, it’s extremely unlikely to be the same as normal, and you’re probably better working out how it’s going to be different, and how you feel about that, well before Christmas.
My plan for this year is to lean hard on Advent. Possibly harder than I usually do. As I hinted at the top of this post, I don’t deal terribly well with the festive pre-Christmas season, and I just don’t have the energy to celebrate all the way from mid-November. I get sick of the parties and the music and the constant expectation that I be cheerful and sociable all the time. So this is one of the aspects of normal Christmas that I’m rather relieved to escape this year.
In a normal year, I lean hard on Advent. To quote something I wrote last year,
Advent suits my mood. The readings are apocalyptic, saved from despair by the hope that something better is coming, is on the way even now, if I can only keep hanging on until I see it. The music is alternately spare and intense. I shut myself in the study each evening and take time to be where I really am. Advent comes a day at a time, a door on the calendar, a centimetre on the candle. A square inch of sweetness, which is about all I can manage while others around me are already on the mince pies and gingerbread liqueur.
Advent leaves space for me to rant and rage and demand why everything is awful. Advent lets me admit that things are awful. Advent acknowledges the hole in my life. It doesn’t demand false cheer. And very often I find that, little by little, it makes room in my life for something that is genuinely joyful, whenever that comes.
And if that was true last year, how much more so this year?
Come and grump with me! Tell me what I’ve forgotten, or about new practices or traditions you’re inventing this year. Comments are open.
Terrible photo; very tasty chocolates. It’s the time of year for very tasty chocolates.
I always find this time of year a little difficult: how to balance my need for sleep with my desire to get involved with things and have fun? How to avoid getting burned out and cynical about the whole Christmas thing before we’ve even got to December? How to honour my need for solitude without being a miserable cow? How to acknowledge the fact that the short days and the long to-do list make it very difficult to be cheerful? How to keep a holy Advent without becoming sanctimonious?
There are some things that I always do. I take the first week of Advent off work, to catch up on sleep. I do some kind of observance: I have an Advent calendar and I read an Advent book. And I don’t sing with any group that requires me to start rehearsing Christmas music before mid-November.
(I really do like Advent. It acknowledges the fear and despair that annoyingly seem to be longstanding guests in my head, while refusing to let me stop with them.)
There are some things that I experiment with. This year I’ve given up alcohol, except for a couple of glasses of prosecco before the work disco, because in that moment refusing it would have felt sanctimonious, and declined to participate in Secret Santa (too bloody awkward). But I’ve also sung carols at a Christmas lights switch-on and ridden on gallopers while the organ was playing Rudolph the Red-NosedReindeer (in mid-November, at that), and danced until my knees hurt at the aforementioned disco.
I haven’t got it right yet. I was reluctant to get out of bed this morning. But I have had fun today. I drank lemonade and jumped around with a tambourine and sung along with Wombling Merry Christmas. And I ate a very tasty lunch.
I bought myself a Playmobil Advent calendar this year, because – I’d had it on my wishlist for ages – and things like this didn’t exist when I was eight – and I wouldn’t have had one even if they had – and it was a fiver cheaper than the last time I looked – and I’m thirty-three and I have a job that pays me money and I can buy frivolous things if I feel like it.
And then it came to Advent, and I opened the first two doors, and put the princess together, and the sledge, and immediately felt massively guilty because – I had bought things I don’t need – and where was I going to put it? – and we have a house inspection on Saturday – and what am I, eight? – and little bits of plastic that will get lost and trodden on.
Then I remembered that sitting in my desk tidy there was this little orange-haired Playmobil doll. I found her on the pavement outside the council offices in Woking years ago, with her broken feet and her scraped face, and picked her up and took her home with me. I hadn’t the heart to throw her away, and I wasn’t sure if anyone else would want her, so she’d been sitting in my desk tidy ever since.
I put her on the sledge, and immediately felt better about the whole thing.
This story doesn’t have a moral. It’s just a picture of the way my head works at the moment: a mixture of guilt and whimsy and sentimentality; of playfulness and prudence and extravagance; of self-consciousness and a resolute refusal to give a damn what anyone else thinks anyway. It says as much about me as anything, I suppose.
Happy New Year! Well, a happy new year to those who are celebrating it today, anyway.
Personally I’m all for celebrating the new year as often as possible. I celebrate it on Advent Sunday, along with the rest of the western Church, at Easter, when I generally stop feeling so grim, and at my birthday. I also celebrate it when the number ticks over from 2017 to 2018 and, if necessary, at the start of the academic year in September. But Advent is, for me, the big one. I take the whole month to do it. Ease the new year in gently. Look back, look forward. Light some candles. Sulk about how everyone else seems to be managing to be cheerful and excited.
Usually I observe Advent with some kind of reflective, communal, blogging exercise, but the days of reflective, communal blogging exercises seem to be past. Besides, I don’t seem to be in the mood for asking myself searching questions or nominating the best book or best day of 2017. I want to do something, but it’s not Reverb; so I think I shall just bumble around and do my own thing, picking and choosing exercises from elsewhere on the internet, and not answering any questions if I can help it.
I’m starting with a compass, identifying the qualities I wish to have in my orbit in 2018.
North is COURAGE
North East is TRUST
East is LOVE
South East is INTEGRITY
South is HOPE
South West is PRESENCE
West is JOY
North West is HAVEN
Some of these are concepts that have been important to me for several years. PRESENCE was my word for this year just gone. INTEGRITY came in around 2012, I think, and hasn’t left. COURAGE got me through 2014. HAVEN, on the other hand, is a new one. I’ll probably end up writing about some or all of these at some point over the next couple of weeks.
After writing the qualities in, I put the quarter days at the cardinal points, and the changes of season at the ordinals. (My life has been much better since I decided that summer begins on May Day and August is actually part of autumn.) I also put my three main new years on there. Other than Lady Day/Easter, they’re slightly out of step with the rest of the compass, but they do seem to want to be on there.
Some of the conjunctions between festivals and qualities are striking; some are amusing. PRESENCE coming in at Lammas, just after my birthday, is both. Some I don’t quite see. (HOPE needs to come in at Midsummer, otherwise it’s downhill all the way; but why JOY at Michaelmas?)
Anyway, knowing me I’ll either revisit this every day until next Advent, or forget about it immediately. Or revisit it every day for the next three weeks and then forget about it completely.
A few years ago, back when I first started celebrating the new year at the beginning of Advent, somebody asked me if I was going to move all my December rituals back, as well.
I said no. The whole point was to acknowledge transition as a gradual process. The world doesn’t suddenly change at the moment the sun sets on the last day of Ordinary Time, any more than it suddenly changes at the stroke of midnight between December and January. I’m always changing, and so is the world around me, and this time of year, when it feels as if everything is dead and nothing is changing, is a particularly good time to take stock, to see what has changed over the past twelve months (give or take). Change is gradual, and so, therefore, is my new year. It’s not so much a step into the unknown as it is a step forward into what I can see, trusting that what I can’t yet see will make itself known.
I took my camera out for a walk today. It’s been a bright, chilly day, with golden light and long shadows, and frost on the ground that the sun hadn’t reached. There is less colour now than there was a week ago; the leaves have fallen, and yet – there are red berries in the hedgerows; the sky is a cool turquoise, and the river throws it richer and deeper, and the bare branches are somehow a vivid green. The low sun flatters it all, intensifies it.
People worry a lot about Instagram and Twitter, and what we’re missing, and whether we don’t see things properly when we’re looking through a viewfinder, and sometimes I think they have a point. But more often, I find that looking for a photograph just makes me look, full stop. Looking for beauty helps me find beauty; and often, I forget.
This year, I will take more photographs. I will look for more photographs. Even, perhaps, when I’m not carrying a camera.
It’s no secret that I find this end of the year difficult. My mental state is dependent on the hours of daylight. I begin to notice in September. October is awful, always. Then the clocks go back, and dawn comes before my alarm clock goes off, and suddenly I can function again. The inevitable is delayed for two or three weeks… until here it is. Mornings are impossible again. And people are expecting me to be cheerful because It’s nearly Christmaaaaaas!
I cannot be cheerful for an entire month. This is why I take Advent so seriously.
Advent makes room for my inevitable grumpiness, fatigue, disorganisation, lack of motivation. A square of chocolate and a quiet hour, and perhaps that’s all I can manage. Opening the doors, turning the pages: because these are small things, I make time for them. The candles burn down, one, two, three, four, and somehow there’s always just enough left of the first one when the time comes for them all to be lighted. Advent provides me with a solid structure at the very time of year I most need one. Day after day (and they get shorter and shorter) it guides me through, and somehow, when I ought to be the least spiritual and responsive to beauty, I find the time; I stop; I look; and there it is.
Advent is not meant to be wall-to-wall cheeriness. It’s a combination of solemnity and awe, anticipation and terror; wanting everything to be over, and knowing that we’re a very long way away from that; having a keen sense of my own unpreparedness, and knowing that my preparedness isn’t entirely relevant, after all.
I wasn’t ready for Advent last year, either. That’s part of the point of it. Wachet auf. Wake up!
(I’ve heard Wachet Auf twice today, and sung Lo! he comes with clouds descending twice, too. It’s definitely Advent. Ready or not, here it comes.)
It’s early, of course. It’s as early as it can be: Christmas falls on a Sunday, so Advent stretches out for the full four weeks. The calendars (except this one), the candles, the prompt blogs, the poetry anthologies all start on the first of December, and here we are with four days of November left to fill.
In fact, I’m not even sure about the prompt blogs. Kat McNally has shut up shop. Project Reverb seems to have gone AWOL. I think I will join in December Reflections, but I find myself wanting to work with prompts for writing rather than photography. I like to look back over the year that has been, and forward to the year that’s coming.
What am I going to do?
What am I going to do?
I’ve got the end of a box of chocolates in my drawer. I have a shelf full of poetry books. I have plenty of candles, even if they don’t have numbers on.
I wrote this week, in another place,
I’d like to get better at doing nothing, feel more comfortable with empty space.
Perhaps these four days – well, three, now, really – are an opportunity.