When I was a kid, Christmas trees started popping up in the neighbors’ windows a week or two before December 25. Unlike now, when trees go up on Thanksgiving weekend, almost no one put a tree up before mid-December. My first memories of Christmas are of a live tree, tinsel, ribbon candy, and a spinning paper Christmas tree perched on a spike with pictures of ornaments on it.
I had never heard the word Advent before I met the Episcopalian (my husband-to-be), but I did love the week before Christmas. Waiting for Christmas has always been the best part for me. Once the tree was decorated with its fingerling-potato-sized colored lights, and the tinsel wars had ended (throw the tinsel from the steps or carefully place each strand?), the tree was mine.
In the split-level house where we lived, the tree stood in front of the picture window on the entry-level floor, the level with only one room – the formal living room. With its white wool rug, my mother’s pride and joy, the room was designated for special communal occasions. It was the place where we played Candy Land and Scrabble and where my parents entertained friend for evenings of poker or bridge. It was also the room where the Fuller Brush man or the insurance man came to sell my mother quality home aids or death-defying policies. The living room was the place where I burrowed next to the couch and played paper dolls, spent hours thumbing through the the Britannica Junior Encyclopeadia and read my red leather-bound hardback King James Bible. It was my sanctuary.
When the Christmas tree had been put up and was lighted, it became my sanctuary within the sanctuary. I spent hours curled up under its branches. Sometimes I just lounged in the magic of the decorations and the silence. Sometims, holiday music played on the hunky hi-fi. Every year my father brought home a new Firestone record album with titles like Your Christmas Favorites. The carols from the album filled me with joy and became part of my lifelong prayer and worship vocabulary.
In retrospect, the hours spent under the Christmas tree were my first Advents. Something unknown and bigger than me was about to happen. I was holding my breath and lying in wait, but there was no hurry. If I could have stopped time and captured those minutes in a jar I would have. When the tree went up and I was sprawled under it on the soft white rug, I was on holy ground.
Excerpted from Sybil MacBeth’s new book, The Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Extremist (Paraclete Press, 2014).
Sybil MacBeth is a dancer, a doodler, and a former community college mathematics professor. As the author of Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God (2007) and its relatives — Kids’ Edition (2009) and Portable Edition (2013) — she has led dozens of workshops and retreats. She combines her experience in the college classroom with her lifelong love of God and prayer to offer workshops that engage differing learning styles, movement, singing, drawing/doodling, writing, and play.