My nativity table is not one that materializes, complete, on the first day of December. The first Sunday of Advent rocks, stones and crystals appear on the nature table. The second Sunday, plants emerge. The third Sunday, animals join the cast. On the fourth and last Sunday, shepherds and then the Holy Family finally take their place. In her book Festivals With Children, Brigitte Barz says, “The kingdoms of nature – stone, plant and animal – which, through man’s fall into sin, have themselves fallen from paradisal existence, are waiting for the becoming of man, of the sons of God, in order to find their own salvation through that of man. We have reason to be deeply thankful for the sacrifice which these kingdoms have brought and continue to bring to us.” Thus, our Nativity scene is built, with each kingdom of nature faithfully represented.
When my children see the shepherds, the angel, Mary and Joseph and, on Christmas Eve, the Christ Child, they know that it is time to open their presents. On Christmas day, they wake up to find that the blue mantle beneath the tableau has turned red and white roses dot the scene. The light has come. I am glad they have this quiet experience of waiting and anticipation–the experience of building up an image that I know is still very much alive in their souls.
Every year, we celebrate Advent this way. It begins with the Advent wreath with four candles. We light one candle on the first Sunday, add another on the second and so on. We sing a song (that also builds up to a full picture of the season weekly) and read an Advent story nightly. The Advent stories follow the same pattern as the manger scene. The first week, the theme of minerals is present in the story. The second week stories of roses, pine, trees and the like are told. Then stories of animals. And finally, stories of human beings. These all revolve around the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. In this way, there is a coming together of a picture in the child’s soul that is also built up and added on by the week. I find that this is a wonderful way to experience inner preparation, which is the inner mood of Advent. The lighting of one, two, three, then all four candles on the Advent wreath, also gives an experience of light that becomes more and more full as Christmas approaches.
There was a time when I would have my house all decked out by December with a dizzying arrangement of Christmas balls in bowls, beribboned candles, all kinds of ornaments hanging festively on a bright, bright tree. Today, I do things very differently. The perimeter of the house is lit with blue and white capiz balls and some stars. It’s still a bit spare and maybe I will add a bit more next year, but I like it that even that has taken me time to complete. My tree builds up, too. I have 30 red roses that appear at the tips of the tree and are completed with three white roses by Christmas day. The roses growing out of the green symbolize the triumph of the eternal over the temporal, which is what the Christ gave us when, at the age of 33, he gave his earthly life for the salvation of mankind.
On the 24th, I stay up to prepare our secret room. There, real candles will appear on the tree. Early morning of the 25th, my children are led by their father to this room. We sit quietly before the tree where I will read a short Christmas story, we sing some carols, and then open our presents. The 24th is a special time for me as a mother. Alone, late into the night, I reflect on my life and the significance of the season as I carefully trim the tree. I journey through the sorrows and joys of the years and resolutely create a picture of the future that I enkindle, as I light the candles on the tree the next morning. It is this moment that shows me that no matter the depth of sorrow in one’s life, there is always hope as clear and bright as starlight. Right then, I know what Christmas is. My hope is affirmed when I see the reflection of the candlelight on my children’s faces and the undeniable sparkle in their eyes that radiates from deep within them.
I have the Manila Waldorf School to thank for helping me understand all this and bringing it into the lives of my children. In school, the children have the same type of meaningful celebration. They have the Advent wreath, stories and songs woven into the curriculum. On the last day of school, kindergarteners are treated to a beautiful puppet show and then given gifts their teachers made themselves.
The Acacia School in Sta. Rosa – a Waldorf-inspired school – has a very special Christmas celebration. The parents, teachers and children meet at dusk then the fathers take the children for a twilight walk around the area. When they leave, the teachers and mothers get busy trimming the tree with fruit, nuts and real candles. A few years ago, one family with a baby became the living Holy Family. When the children returned, they were met with the image of the real Holy Family. The scene was illuminated with kerosene lamps and candles. Christmas carols were sung and a father read a story from the Gospel of St. Luke. After that, there was a moment of silence and then the singing resumed as the angel took a lantern and led the children to the secret room. There, all the lights were off and the children were met with a beautifully lit tree. Everyone gathered around the tree and the teacher called each child by name and gave him a gift from Baby Jesus. These gifts were made by their parents. Not one was bought. After that, the children took turns snuffing out the candles on the tree, the lights were turned on and the fruit and nuts were picked off the tree by the children to eat.
Parents of the school always say it is magical to see the faces of the children. They comment on how quiet the children become. There is no need to tell them to be silent or to behave. The whole scene is taken in and an inner silence flows out, wrapping the entire celebration with awe, wonder and reverence. Reverence. It is only in remembering what Christmas is truly about that we can bring this back into our homes.
The season is, after all, about an inner preparation; the journey towards the Second Coming. And so it is only right that our outer celebration mirrors this process. Where Advent is a time of preparation and restraint, Christmas becomes a time of fulfillment, hence the opening of presents and a more outward celebration.
Though commercialism tries to make us believe that Christmas is the happiest time of the year, what with all the carols and over-the-top decorations, something in us remains still and somber. Indeed, most of us feel, quite deeply, that Christmas is the darkest time of the year. The nights are longer and the atmosphere is cold and inward. So many people struggle with sadness, depression and loneliness during the holidays. I have read that this has to do with the need for all of us to enkindle the inner light of the Christ in our hearts. It is through trial and darkness that we consciously find the path to that Light again.
My Christmases have become simpler but much more meaningful. In my village, Christmas officially begins the day after Halloween and I have to tell the children that it isn’t Christmas yet. Through our Advent celebration, I manage to instill in them the spirit of restraint and waiting; the quiet process of an inner journey. I struggle against the tide every year, but I know that Christmas needs to be true again. For the children. For myself.