335 – The Countdown

There’s a box.

It’s a box of chocolates but you daren’t open it, not yet. It’s a gift for you, but it’s a gift to be opened a piece at a time over much of next month.

It’s a message. It’s a puzzle. It’s a daily treat. Most importantly, it’s a calendar counting the days to the most important day of the year. Christmas is coming and you can hardly wait.

And every weekday afternoon you scurry home from school. The sky darkens. The air becomes ever chillier. Your breath–which began the month invisible as breath usually is–now puffs like exhaust from a steam train. Cast your eyes skyward and you might see little clouds of it, thought bubbles containing dreams, images of sugarplums, log fires and much, much more.

The street lamps lining the road cut in earlier each night. Soon they flicker to life before dad comes home; dad, who smells like aftershave and hops, whose moustache is as wiry as the hairs in his nose, whose stubbled chin scratches your neck when he stoops to give you a hug.

Mum’s in the kitchen cooking tea when he gets home. You’ve both eaten already but she returns to the cooker to reheat the remainder of the cottage pie for a man devilishly hungry after a day fighting fires. She asks how his day was; he tells her. You watch TV or play or read and barely heard, their conversation settles on you like snow.

TV changes–it seems to grows warmer. Seasonal idents appear: dancing fir trees, music box robins, clockwork ice skaters, a fantasia of sparkles and darkness and hope. Choirs come a-knocking, singing carols, begging alms. And then, one afternoon, from down the road you see dad’s car outside: he’s home on a school day in December, which can only mean one thing . . .

But that one thing is still ahead you. Starry-eyed, you anticipate its coming while never daring to believe it’ll ever be there. Because when dad comes home early and puts up the tree it means Christmas is just around the corner.

And Christmas can never arrive, can it? It’s too good to be true. It’s too marvelous to exist.

There’s magic inside the box. Twenty-four doors (though some have twenty-five and some have even more–but those aren’t proper advent calendars, are they?) concealing twenty-four surprises. Home from school you hurry to the lounge cabinet where the box is propped among your other advent calendars. The new one bought just a week ago is still virgin, pristine, with each of its windows fixed shut with a nub of unbroken cardboard. The picture on the outside is so pretty it’d be a shame to peel back the doors and see what lies behind. With each door opened it loses some of its beauty. A festive scene of skaters and snowmen becomes marred by holes as time goes on . . . but behind each door lies a treasure that must be uncovered, must be seen, must be loved.

Beside it, half falling over, is an old pop-up advent calendar with a nativity scene picked out in folded cardboard. It’s a little bent and a little smudged and the scene is starting to come away from its backing, but it’s well-loved and has been with your family for years. Most of the numbers are on stars circling the nativity beneath, and you’ve opened them so often you remember the pictures behind each window: a teddy bear, a spinning top, a pair of mittens, a train. Gifts, perhaps, from a bygone age, yet there’s more warm fulfilment in these images than there is in any amount of cheap chocolate. Still young and gluttonous for sweet things, it’s surprising how much you care about this heirloom, which doesn’t dispense chocolate but which will not be disposed of once the season’s done. Folded carefully–a touch more worn than it was at the start of December–it’ll reappear next year and the year after next, and every year until it’s too torn to put up, and part of your childhood will die on that day, the day the advent calendar becomes rubbish.

For the moment, you have chocolate. Not very good chocolate–not creamy, not rich, not tasting of cocoa or sugar, quite possibly not chocolate at all–but you’ll gobble it down every afternoon, removing a pale brown lozenge of almost-candy from its mould and marvelling at its engraving before turning to the picture beneath, the chocolate melting in your cheek.

Haphazardly placed as those first doors seem, the calendar’s highly regimented. Doors are lined in rows and columns, and open on a pictures lined in a similar grid. Your sister has her own calendar; every day she opens a door in a different place on the box, but once you start opening doors in positions she’s already opened or vice versa, it becomes clear you both have the same advent calendar, albeit with a different mural on the front. A little of the magic is lost then, but by that point you’re far too excited about Christmas to care. When the calendars run out on the twenty-fourth you both dissect your calendars in search of secret hidden chocolates and throw the remains in the bin.

Sometimes the chocolates shift. Too violently shaken, their contents are often dislodged and sent wandering through the box. Likewise, a sneaky peak behind tomorrow’s window–slantwise, through an already opened adjoining doorway–can cause the whole lot to fall in an avalanche to the bottom of the box. Occasionally your sister pinches your chocolate before you get to it. Tit for tat, the next day you’ll pinch hers.

Over the years advent calendars become synonymous with chocolate. Older, wiser, when writing about Christmas you remember a time when this wasn’t the case. Once upon a yule advent calendars were all about pictures, not treats.

Calendars with windows, that is. What about advent candles, burned for one hour every night until they guttered, wick spent, on Christmas Eve? What about the advent crowns so beloved of the Blue Peter crew, all tinsel and coat-hangers, with one candle lit each Sunday throughout advent while Goldie and Janet Ellis watched on?

The Soper boys from up the road have a swish calendar: a wooden box with numbered drawers, inside each of which is a sweet or toy waiting to be received. But your other advent calendar–the one you save ‘til last each day–is homemade, and better than anything bought from a shop no matter how swish.

Mum makes advent calendars for her children. She made little felt stockings that marched from the first to the twenty-fourth with a new treat in their tops each morning. She made conical cardboard Christmas trees with numbered decorations connected by strings, that held lollipops and small sacks of Jelly Tots. So dear, so special, her designs often have but a single year in them. Opened, cut, folded–once Christmas arrives they’re obliterated, irreparable, because all mum’s love and work went not on creating a lasting monument but on bringing her children joy. Even though those calendars were spent in a month you’ll remember them always, and think of them every year when the wind blows cold and the nights draw in.

And you’ll often write about them, and stop writing only to think back on those days when a snipped string separating bauble from lolly meant another day closer to the only day worth a damn.

The largest doors, the largest window, the biggest star at the top of the tree, saved ‘til last and opened together: a family gathered, holding their breath. On Christmas Eve the advent story ended in a Father Christmas or Christmas star, and the pantomime was over, the revelry about to begin.

Who needs almost-candy when the Christmas treats are out? Saved for weeks, heaped by the boxful: chocolates finally unleashed on Christmas Eve, for Christmastime. So many they probably deserve a post of their own (you should get on that, don’t you think?) in wrappers bright as tinsel, colourful as fairy lights. Enough to gorge yourself sick on many times over, you forget all about the box you’ve spent a month slowly eating.

Because the countdown is over: the day is finally here.

There’s a box. Just a box, that’s all, to be opened and munched through and thrown away and forgotten.

But you’ll never forget it, as you should. And every December from days one through twenty-four you’ll feel something is missing: the advent calendar, counting days in dreams and stars, counting down to the big day, the only one that matters.

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