Advent means memories, traditions, plans, lists, emotions and thoughts. In my youth in western Canada, growing up in a Mennonite Brethren (MB) community, Advent was a season. It was not marked by a number of Sundays, but by particular songs sung or lessons read.
The first MB hymnal (in German) the Gesangbuch, lists six appropriate Advent hymns. Sylvester (New Year’s Eve) also has six suggestions. Advent hymns might be “Ich klopfe an (I knock at the door)” or “Macht Weit die Pforten der Welt (Swing wide the gates of the world)” suggesting spiritual preparation for the reception of someone important, a king, but with emphasis on repentance.
The lessons were more intimate, coming from short devotions in a page of the Christlicher Abreisskalender, a German daily devotional calendar with tear-off sheets that my father read from his place at the head of the farm kitchen breakfast table. My sister recalls that our mother read us German poems of Advent. An admirer of Karl Gerok’s Palmblätter, our mother could have read Am heiligen Advent. I recall that she sometimes had a small pine wreath with a single candle in the middle of the infrequently used dining room table. Also, when plastic wreaths emerged, a red wreath with an electrified candle in the living room window.
The joy of Advent was a surprise. An awkward young girl, invited by my uncle and aunt, I was in the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver and for the first time heard the Messiah. Coming from rural Alberta, radio hymns and cowboy tunes, the music and words were a revelation, a glimpse into a new world.
When did we begin opening windows in our Advent calendars? Our children, born in the 1960s think they “always” opened little windows revealing angels, sheep or other Christmas symbols—long before we lived a year in Vienna (where we picked up the tradition of an Easter Egg tree).
For our family, the church emphasis on Advent began in 1969 when we became part of the Toronto United Mennonite Church (TUMC) and watched in anticipation as some child or family lit the appropriate red candles in the fragrant pine wreath at the front of the church. (My Catholic friends tell me Advent candles should be purple.) At the suggestion of the pastor, Rosemarie Heinrichs had adapted her German tradition of a hanging Advent wreath to TUMC. On a stand that allowed the wreath to be revolved, and suspended by wide red ribbons to shape a tree, this symbol of Advent expressed its message of hope, peace, joy and love.
Advent of course also means work. Joyous occasions require preparations. There are gifts to choose, cookies or cakes to bake in advance (don’t forget Zwiebach), geese or turkeys to order or groceries to buy, a house to clean, cards to write, invitations to send out or consider. Plans. Visits to relatives and friends or nature. Decisions. In lieu of another digital toy should you suggest the grandkids buy goats for Africa? What about tickets for “A Christmas Carol”? Amid the busy schedule there are concerts to attend. Grandkids’ programs. It seems a miracle that Christmas carols sound fresh each year. Advent brings music, exceptional Christmas music. Is it a wonder I order tickets for the family to hear the Messiah at Koerner Hall?
Anne Konrad, a teacher of English and History, lives in Toronto. Her writing includes: The Blue Jar, a collection of short stories, Family Games, a family saga, And in Their Silent Beauty Speak. Her most recent book, Red Quarter Moon: A Search for Family in the Shadow of Stalin, is published by the University of Toronto Press in 2012 and offers a unique look at the lives of ordinary families and individuals from the USSR.