Tomorrow is the first day of Advent. For the uninitiated, Advent is celebrated in Western churches to mark the coming of Christ, and it begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.
In churches I have attended, the first Sunday of Advent involved lighting the advent wreath (which has four candles for each of the Sundays of Advent and one in the middle for Christmas itself) and singing the first Christmas carols of the year. For most people in the congregation, I think this was the extent of their first of Advent celebration. But for our family, the real fun started as soon as we pulled out of the church parking lot (which could take awhile, depending on how talkative my mother was that day).
The first step was stopping on the way home from church to pick up our Advent treats. My mother’s side of the family is German, so the majority of these treats were German/European sweets, including marzipan, dominosteine (layers of gingerbread, marzipan and jelly covered in chocolate), Pfeffernüsse (iced gingerbread cookies), and weinbrandbohnen (chocolates filled with brandy). We also would get a variety of meats and cheeses.
After lunch my Dad would venture to the basement to locate the (artificial) Christmas tree. “I know exactly where it is” he would say on the way down the stairs, but anyone who has ever seen our basement would know that was impossible.
Like many families, we have an eclectic mix of decorations, and my sister and I would marvel at the terrible craftsmanship of our homemade childhood decorations (although I don’t think either of us have gotten any better). I always hid an Oscar the Grouch decoration in the middle of the tree. I am not sure why I started this (maybe because he is a grouch?) but the tradition has endured. Over the years, some of our cats have been interested in playing with the decorations, and even in climbing/attacking the tree itself. Small plastic apple decorations have been particular popular with the cats and invariably end up all around the house.
Decorating the tree is traditionally accompanied by Handel’s Messiah, which if my mom had her way, would be played on repeat for the entire Advent season. Thankfully, she also likes Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas collection, so since 2006 we have had some respite from Handel. I personally love the Sufjan song ‘Put the Lights on the Tree’, which I think everyone should listen to while decorating their tree.
As a teenager, the first of Advent took on added significance for me, and it became more than just a fun day where we put up the tree. Celebrating the first of Advent wasn’t common among my friends, and so it felt special to have our own unique holiday. Buying the European treats is one of the most prominent ways we celebrate the German heritage of my Mom’s side of the family, and that became more important to me after visiting relatives in Germany for the first time when I was 13. When Jessica and I were dating, I always wanted her to be there for the first of Advent, not only because it was a fun afternoon in itself, but also because it was a way to invite her into the larger story of my family.
After getting married and moving away from Ottawa, I haven’t been home very often for the First of Advent. I did make it back in 2014, which was nice, especially since like this year, it coincided with the Grey Cup (the Canadian Football Championship).
In Toronto, Jessica and I continued to have our own Advent celebrations, sometimes just the two of us, and sometimes with friends. In 2011, our first year in Toronto, we went to what we considered the‘fancy’ Loblaws grocery store at Yonge and St. Clair to buy some treats for our Advent meal.
In 2013, we invited a few friends to our apartment to celebrate with us. This Advent meal definitely involved more gluhwein than the ones in my childhood! Last year we were in Geneva for the first of Advent and had a friend over to our apartment for lunch.
I wish I could be home tomorrow with my family, even if they already did sacrilegiously decorate the Christmas tree last week. Missing holidays is obviously one of the downsides of living abroad, but at least I can Skype them tomorrow while they eat lunch.
Jessica and I will celebrate just the two of us here in Yerevan. I don’t think many other people in the city will be celebrating, as Christmas here is only celebrated on January 6th and the Armenian Advent period already started more than a week ago. I am not sure how many German treats we will be able to find, but we will also take it as an opportunity to try some Armenian sweets that we haven’t tried yet.
Earlier this week I was in Telavi, Georgia, on the day of St. George, who is the country’s patron saint. I was wandering through the old town, and I entered a small church. On one side, the priest was leading a group of about thirty people in song, and I stood to the side and just listened to their voices. I thought about Advent, about the beauty of the Christmas season, and about my family. I lit candles for each of my family members, and as the singing swirled around me, I thought about how blessed I am to have such a wonderful and loving family, and that wherever I am in the world, the first of Advent always reminds me of this truth.