The Advent Tradition I Won’t Do

On the day before Thanksgiving, I threw around all my strength to re-arrange our living room—all to make space for a Christmas tree.   Furniture I shouldn’t be able to move by myself got pushed to new spots, books got re-shuffled, and floorboards got cleaned.

All because of this: my favorite Christmas memory growing up was sitting with a decked out tree in a pitch black living room.  In my mind’s memory-house, I’m all alone in the quiet darkness with a beautiful, glowing, sweet-smelling tree.  No Christmas music humming from a stereo in the background, no people, and no sound except maybe the Mr. Coffee struggling to brew through the cold morning.  There is only the quiet and the light.

This is what I ache for every Advent season.

But, goodness, have you ever thought about how much of a luxury it is to have a full-sized tree throughout December? (Or, if you’re like us, throughout January and February, too?)  Christmas trees are seriously expensive.  When you’re on a grad student budget like us, you have to plan to have a tree, make it a part of your December spending, or cut back on other line items to make room.

Our first year married, there was no tree.  I’m not even sure we had decorations in our one bedroom apartment.  In this fourth year of our marriage, though, I wanted the luxury.  I wanted the big tree.  And I wanted to cover it completely with all the Goodwill and yard sale ornaments I’ve been collecting all year.  I’ve budgeted for this tree, saved for it, thought carefully about where we’ll buy it, and re-arranged our entire living room for the sake of making the perfect space for this tree.

I wanted the quiet and the light.  And I didn’t care that it would cost seventy bucks for a good, sturdy Douglas Fir and and a fresh box of twinkle lights.

* * *

I’ve been reading a bit about Advent traditions this week, picking through books to see what our still-new family might adopt for the coming years.  Advent calendars, observance of St. Nicholas’ Day and St. Lucia’s Day, Advent wreaths, carefully chosen hymns to reflect the season of anticipation—all of these resonate deeply with me.  I believe in the importance of a posture of waiting throughout the weeks of Advent.  In a culture where deferred gratification is like myth lore, I refuse to shake off the sense of anticipation this season requires.

But that one tradition people embrace, where they wait to decorate the tree until Christmas Eve…  I’m so sorry, hardcore liturgy enthusiasts.  I can’t do that.

I can recognize all the beautiful imagery of this tradition.  It makes absolute sense to this here English teacher.  I’m in the business of imagery, after all.  You anticipate the beautification and redemption of the world when you wait to decorate what some call a “Jesse tree.”  You let a symbol of incompletion sit in your living room to remind you of what’s coming.  I get it.  I really do.

You see, though, this full-sized, secondhand-store-decorated tree is such a luxury for us. I want to soak up every single second of beauty this Advent symbol can offer, and I want to enjoy it for as long as the tree will live.   And you know what?  All of our neighbors in our less-than-luxurious neighborhood seem to splurge on the tree, too.  Houses that could use cut lawns, new paint, new roofs, new everything turn out indulging in all this Christmas extravagance—all the decorations matched with the classiest trees.  I know how much all these extravagances cost because I tab up the bill myself.  It’s not cheap.

Speaking of bills and extravagances, did you notice how many people were angry over the words on money guru Dave Ramsey’s website earlier this week?  Angry over a post about the habits of the wealthy and the poor?  I think the anger was warranted.  There’s a logical fallacy at work in the presentation of these statistics, as Rachel Held Evans rightfully points out here.

But thinking back over the list from this week (and all the thoughtful, pointed responses it generated), I wonder how the “wealthy” and the “poor” differ when it comes to Christmas.  I think the money gurus would say that the “wealthy” stay within their Christmas spending budgets while the “poor” do not; the “wealthy” do not go into debt to give to others at Christmas time while the “poor” probably do.

But I think %100 of the wealthy value extra, outside-the-budget Christmas decorations compared to an equal %100 of the poor.  I love how my neighbor who works full time for Jack in the Box puts up his tree immediately after Thanksgiving.  I take weird joy in how our other neighbor who works at Denny’s leaves some of her Christmas decorations up all year—all the year round her windows are filled with paper snowflakes.   At the end of our block, the tiny house that literally sits on the edge of a megachurch parking lot boasts a year-round Nativity sculpture.

There are at least five permanent Madonna and Child statues on our little street alone.

I’m coming to love how at least 20% of the houses in our neighborhood never take down their icicle lights—they just plug them back in when the season comes around again.  In another life I would call it tacky—now I think it’s a better representation of the don’t decorate the tree till Christmas Eve tradition than anything I could ever reproduce in my living room.

Because dead lights hanging from broken gutters in Dean Highland neighborhood in July keep the anticipation of Advent fresh all year.  And when they finally light up after months of a very visible hibernation, I understand what it is to leave something incomplete and out-of-place for so long that its completion truly is satisfying.  Ugly things get beautified; things get redeemed.

So our tree is already decorated.  Just like all the other folks on our street.

I’m impressed with the people who leave empty trees up all season.  More power to you if you can wait for all the beauty that comes with the quiet and the light. For us, though, the quiet and the light is a luxury, a gift, and a symbol of extravagance.  And we are reveling in it now, as this relatively awkward photo suggests…

Dear friends with tinies: your ability to pose your babies in all those cute instagram pictures I see is incredible.  It took us way too long to get two finicky dogs to sit still on this couch...

Dear friends with tinies: your ability to pose your babies in all those cute instagram pictures I see is incredible. It took us way too long to get two finicky dogs to sit still on this couch…and they mostly look terrified, not happy about picture time.