While she is much more than this, Cheryl represents a fragment of my previous life in the Baptist church. Those years remain a frame of reference for our friendship. During the conversation, Cheryl mentioned that the middle section in a string of lights on one of their four Christmas trees isn't lighting up. And the tree has to stay up until January 5th, the night of their final Christmas party this season.
"That's your Epiphany Tree," I said.
"I know you don't get this," I told her, "but Catholics leave their trees up until Epiphany, which is celebrated on January 6th. You're in line with the liturgical year."
Cheryl sounded relieved. "Now I have a good reason to leave it up. . .it's so much work, putting everything away, and it's up for such a short time!"
Then we talked about Advent, which is right now. Technically, we shouldn't even put our trees up before Christmas Eve--the way it used to be practiced, I'm learning.
A couple of years ago I was looking at a nativity scene, (the one that stays up year round at our house) and realizing that, while it represents Christmas, the stories from the Bible were actually conflated (combined, meshed) in the scene. In this particular one, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus are present, along with a Star, the Magi, and a camel (from Matthew's Gospel, which doesn't state that the Magi travelled by camelback, but we assume that). There's also an Angel, Shepherd, sheep, and a little brown donkey (from Luke's Gospel, which doesn't state that Mary and Joseph travelled by donkeyback, but we assume that).
Because I was preparing to lead a retreat on Advent, I began to ask myself, What needs to go? Where does Advent really start? Where is the true beginning? And I thought about all of the other things that had begun to pile up, and crowd into Advent. . .presents, Christmas cards, social obligations, church activities. And it was only December 3rd!!
One by one, I removed from the nativity the figures that, in Advent, are not part of the story. I may have been playing off the stories I hear of families who have the creche up during Advent, but baby Jesus does not arrive until Christmas morning, when he magically appears.
The Magi and the Star and the camel went first. Obviously, these are connected to Epiphany. Next I threw out the Angel, the Shepherd, and the sheep. They're not present until the birth. I studied the four remaining figures and the manger. The manger went next. Then went Jesus, back into Mary's womb, and the donkey, who would not be needed until the Census was decreed. . .Finally, I banished Joseph. Because, really, Advent begins with the Annunciation, when Mary first heard the news, when Mary's waiting began. I now have a visual for all of this.
[As a side note, I will tell you that Christmas during my childhood was all about Santa Claus, with a little bit of baby Jesus thrown in. That, and what time the turkey would go into the oven, and who would be responsible for the stuffing at dinner. Santa and presents arrived on Christmas Eve, but Christmas morning was about Christmas dinner, and our stash from the night before. Church was never part of this scenario, and I was all grown up before I even heard of Advent.]