Advent is unquestionably the most beautiful time of the year. Christmas Day itself is fine, but it is these days of anticipation that are the real delight. The prospect and reality of a takeaway are similar.
I think I have always felt this way, even as a child – not least because I invariably came down with a filthy cold some time between 2pm on 24 December and 8.30am on the 25th. Before my annual illness, I loved the magic of opening a new door on the advent calendar each day during the run-in, and of seeing another advent candle be lit each Sunday before the big day. The smells of Christmas pudding mixture and pine needles meandered around the house to form a heady brew.
This year, advent began perfectly. Last Sunday, Berkhamsted’s town lights were due to be turned on, and after considerable persuasion, we managed to get the kids out of the house for the “grand” ceremony. As we walked down the hill, it began to snow: not much to speak of, but enough to turn the children’s sulkiness about the trip into innocent joy.
As has become customary, the parish church had been lit with hundreds of tea lights, and we sat for a few moments in a pew, to breathe: the first time we had been in the place as a family since Christmas 2019. Outside, we bought mugs of steaming mulled wine and a bag of doughnuts, then strolled home as people milled about the stalls which lined the high street. I successfully blocked out my son’s noisy whinging, which had erupted over not having been allowed a foot-long hot-dog.
Back at the house, we lit the fire and I put on the greatest of all Christmas music, Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony. It is known to people of a certain age because part of the third movement was used as the theme music to a 1980s TV adaptation of John Masefield’s Box of Delights. It evokes the magic, the mystery and the wonder of Christmas in 25 minutes of pure, uplifting marvellousness. Search it out if you don’t know it; it will make your festive season better.
As it happens, this year the children had each been given another, picture-only calendar too. On day one, my son looked at it, burst into angry tears and ran out of the kitchen
When I was about five, the symphony would send me into a state of high excitement: I remember racing around the house with a sack over my shoulder pretending I was Father Christmas and becoming near-hysterical. In later years I wondered why my parents subsequently permitted that the music be played no earlier in advent than Christmas Eve: now I have children of my own, I understand much better the desire to limit anything that triggers such mania.
Sadly, however, my kids have not yet understood the perfection of Hely-Hutchinson. As we listened to his masterpiece on Sunday, my daughter came into the sitting-room and we encouraged her to sit down and consider how the music made her feel. She paused for a heartbeat, and said:
“It makes me think about the bad life choices that must have led you here, listening to this.”
Thankfully, she does love Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas”, so we can at least share that musical touchpoint. Of course, when it comes to Crimbo pop, there is nothing to beat Chris de Burgh’s “A Spaceman Came Travelling” (with “Fairytale of New York” and “Driving Home for Christmas” in at numbers two and three). But Mariah is certainly up there in the top rank, and it is in the advent period when all these songs are at their most joyous.
By Wednesday, it was all we could do to stop advent calendars being demolished in one go. Thanks to my mother-in-law’s handiwork, we have a beautiful fabric one, decorated with 24 sweet-filled pockets. Truthfully, neither my wife nor I really approve of any advent calendar containing more than a glittery picture beyond its doors, but this one is a lovely thing and of course there’s no better start to the day than a Maoam Stripe or a chocolate coin.
As it happens, this year the children had each been given another, picture-only calendar too. On day one, my son looked at it, burst into angry tears and ran out of the kitchen. We presumed his wrath had been unleashed because of the lack of chocolate, and we left him to his rage.
Eventually, however, he returned to announce that he was sad because in previous years he and his sister had not had one calendar each to open, but had shared one. Would he, we asked, be happier then if the second calendar was one for the parents? Bleary-eyed, he agreed he would.
And that, my friends, is the spirit of Christmas right there.