Glen Guyton is the chief operating officer for Mennonite Church USA. Here he is pictured as a child with his mother.
Advent is a time of expectant waiting, and there is nothing more excruciating for a child than expectant waiting. But if you are going to be in pain, there is no more pleasurable experience than the expectant waiting for Christmas morning. I loved Christmas as a child, but it was not because of the presents and toys. I actually did not get many toys because my family was a bit poor, and debt was something my parents did not choose to carry. They were a product of the Great Depression, so they learned to get by on little.
Maybe they passed that on to me, so the beginning of the advent for me was not about things. It was about the experiences that were shared in my home, especially the experiences I shared with my mother. From preparing the traditional holiday meals, to getting ready for our nine-hour drive to see my grandparents in Kosciusko, Mississippi, the Advent season was truly a time of waiting and expectation in our home and as a young boy I relished the opportunity to participate.
The commercial Christmas season begins with “Black Friday,” but for me and my family, our Advent started the Saturday following Thanksgiving. After the Thanksgiving holiday mess was cleaned up, we began to prepare our home for Christmas, which meant I got to climb into the attic to unpack those boxes we tucked away year after year. Going into the attic was an adventure to a mysterious place of historical significance. The attic was filled with family treasures and items long forgotten. A journey to the attic could only mean a few things: a trip, the furnace was out or, yes, time to unpack the holiday treasures.
To get into the attic I had to carefully climb the ladder, lift the plywood cover and balance that wooden board on the two-by-four beams ever so gently, making sure I did not damage the sheet rock or come away covered in fiberglass insulation. I hoisted myself into the dark, musty space and navigated from place to place with the skill of a ninja and the grace of dancer, avoiding any misstep that would send me crashing into our living room below. Then I sent box after box to the arms of my mother below. As I got older and stronger, I hung from the attic by my arms and wrestled down boxes with my legs and feet to get an early start on the preparations. By the time I was 14, my father had passed, so it was just my mom and me carrying on the family traditions.
We unpacked each box, starting with the trimming of the tree. My mom and I sorted through the branches, trying to decipher the color of the long-faded paint that was supposed to guide us through the assembly of our tree. Then it was time to figure out which light bulbs were burned out on the strings of lights that probably should have been retired years prior. I don’t know how long it took us to finish, but time seemed to pass effortlessly.
It was not just about decorating the tree. It was a time to unpack the history of our home. It was a time to reflect on family, sharing and the anticipation of being together to celebrate the birth of Christ. The tree trimming ended with the placement of the angel on the top of the tree, a wind of the music box playing “Silent Night” and the expert tossing of the tinsel, making sure each side of the tree got just the right amount of that metallic string. Oh, how I miss tinsel!
Our time of preparation did not stop there. Back in the recesses of the China cabinet we pulled out the homemade fruitcake. It was wrapped in aluminum foil and was indestructible. I would run into the kitchen, get the bottle of Wild Turkey Kentucky bourbon and watch in awe as my mom carefully soaked the everlasting fruit. My memory is a little fuzzy when it comes to fruitcakes, so I honestly don’t know what happened with them and how long they inhabited our China cabinet. I do know that when mom and I made them, a lot of brightly colored candied fruit went into the batter. I know the raw mix was delicious. I also know the finished cake was nothing I ever desired to eat as a child, but year after year we made, wrapped and distributed fruitcakes to people. I’m not sure who ever ate them, but sometimes the tradition is more important than the outcome.
After hanging the plastic Santa poster on the door, we then tried to figure out if we had candles for the Advent wreath. My mother and I searched the wooden buffet in our dining room. We shuffled through tablecloths, papers and candles of all colors until we found the purple and pink Advent candles that adorned our wreath centerpiece.
We placed the Advent wreath on our dining room table, which sat adjacent to the living room. In many African-American families, the living room was akin to the Holy of Holies. If a kid went into the living room without permission, that kid would surely die by the hands of Mama or Big Mama. The living room and its furniture was for “company.” You just did not set foot in the living room without permission, and you surely didn’t want to mess around and scratch up the dining room table. Again, that table was for company, holidays and for the insurance man to sit at when he came by to get his check every other week. I loved Advent season because I gained unfettered access to this Holy of Holies as long as the wreath was on the table and the Christmas tree twinkled in the corner.
Advent sticks in my mind because it was the one time I remember our family sharing devotions together. Sure, night-time prayers were a regular part of our growing up. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” A pretty morbid prayer for a child getting ready for bed, but the Advent time was different. Advent prayers were filled with hope and stories about the birth of Christ. Advent was a time of candle lighting, both at home and at church. On Sunday morning, the church pulpit was filled with the glow of the Advent candles, and after supper we were able to light our candles at home.
Oh, how I enjoyed counting down the days to the birth of Christ, lighting candles and making sure we lit the correctly colored candle on the proper day! Most of all, I loved hearing the stories leading up to the birth of Christ. Usually, it was just me and Mama. My brother was 10 years older than I, so he was off to college by the time I was 8. I have many great memories sitting at the dining room table week after week, lighting the candles on the Advent wreath. Such a simple time of fellowship with my mother meant so much. Sunday family devotion during Advent was a way of tempering the Christmas anticipation and spending time together.
Unlike my parents, I have the ability to give my children a lot of stuff. I worry, though, that I have not given them enough memories. Several years ago, I decided to buy my own Advent wreath in hopes of recreating the time of family devotion I shared with my mother growing up. Now that the sacred formal living room is a thing of the past, our wreath sits on the kitchen counter, and sometimes in the family room. I’m not sure my children appreciate this time as much as I do. After all, they have attended Christian schools all their lives. They grew up with two parents who were pastors, so they could be overly saturated with the biblical stories. Yet I feel obligated to share in this time with them. Maybe it’s out of guilt, maybe it’s because of the fond memories I have of the practice, or maybe it’s just a way for me to honor my aging mother.
Looking back my memories of Christmas and Advent are much more valuable than any physical gift I got. Memories last, while presents typically do not. As I look at my mother now, I cherish the time we spent together more and more. She has vascular dementia, so our time together now is quite different. Many of the stories she once shared with me are long gone. Now she tells me the same handful of things over and over again when we are together. I laugh each time, but I think back to the sassy and sometimes embarrassing mother who instilled in me the true meaning of Christmas and family year after year.
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