Well, it's the first of December, and you know what that means. The Advent calendar.
The Advent calendar is a big wooden box with twenty-four little cabinet doors in it. Each door is numbered, and you open a door each day in December leading up to Christmas. Behind the door is a tiny little gift - a pen, a holiday-flavored lip balm, a small piece of candy, a bookmark - one for each child.
My family long ago outgrew the little one-inch-by-one-inch compartments in the Advent calendar, so now I usually stow a little note in each compartment, indicating where the treat of the day is hidden. "Look behind the clock on the mantel." Or "In the crystal vase in the dining room." In the hiding place, the delighted kids find candy-cane shaped pens, Santa-shaped markers, or little tubes of M&M candy. The possibilities are limitless; the only rule is that the treat has to be small and relatively inexpensive.
I'm not sure where the Advent calendar tradition came from. When I was a kid, we didn't get gifts every day. We did often have little paper calendars with doors that opened on a little picture, or a Bible verse, or, sometimes, if we were lucky, a piece of chocolate. But the calendar is a huge deal in my house now. For the past several days, the kids have been asking, "Thursday is the first of December, right? The Advent calendar starts on Thursday, right?" The tradition builds exactly the sort of anticipation that the season is about.
And, wouldn't you know it? Today, I woke up empty-handed, without anything to put into the calendar. Yesterday was just too hectic, and I didn't get out to a store. As I shooed the kids off to school this morning, I promised them that the Advent calendar would be fully stocked when they returned this afternoon.
I hate to disappoint them. But such is the dilemma of the working mom. I can see to it that the house smells like cookies late in the afternoon, and that the Advent calendar is full of goodies, and that the candles are lit and the mood is set. Or I can finish writing a legal brief that desperately needs to be done right about halfway through the magical season of Advent. But I usually can't do both. I've tried, and I've ended up in tears on the twenty-fourth. People who see me crying in church on Christmas Eve mistake the tears for religious zeal. Actually, they are tears of exhaustion and frustration.
The pressure to shop and bake and generally make a difficult and expensive season appear magical has weighed heavily on me since I first became a mother. I try to play it as low-key as I possibly can now. My children are beyond the Santa stage, so I don't need to create too much magic. (A little, though.) I'm not a big believer in putting up a tree and decking the halls as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are in the dishwasher. I like to wait until the season is in full swing - usually not before the beginning of December. I won't give you a big speech about what Christmas is really about, because you are probably getting plenty of that from other quarters right now. That lecture is probably competing with the media message that you need to spend, spend, spend. Everyone has to find her own happy medium at this time of year.
Whatever you do to build up to your holiday, I wish you just enough magic to get it all done and make it look easy. And now I am off to the drugstore to find some teeny tiny treats.