Friday, December 15, 2006
Counting Down to Christmas
Each year, my sister sends us an advent calendar from the UK to mark the countdown to Christmas. It’s like a giant holiday card, with 24 little, numbered doors cut in to the picture. On the first of December, you open door number one, on the second, you open door number two, and so until the 24th, Christmas Eve. Hidden behind each door is another picture - a present, a holly leaf, a star.
In my childhood, opening the advent calendar was one of our annual family traditions, building anticipation of the big holiday. I was fascinated by the calendar’s properties. It was a picture that contained doors into other pictures - another reality hyperlinked behind the surface, telling stories from a dozen different dreams.
Children’s literature is rich with magical artifacts and places that are doors to other worlds. An old wardrobe gives onto a wintry wood in Narnia, platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross railway station takes Harry Potter to Hogwarts School, and Alice steps through a looking-glass to Wonderland. C.S. Lewis invites a religious reading of his Narnia books: the redemption of the everyday life depends on innocents who believe in another, spiritual dimension of reality in which good must vanquish evil. But other children’s books offer a simpler message: The world offers more possibilities you’d think - trust your imagination. Who knows what everyday objects may turn out to be port keys or magic rings taking you to a different world?
I wonder what magic my students are seeking, as I see them wandering the campus, in search of Wi-Fi hotspots, like latter-day water-diviners. They bear their open laptops on upturned and reverent palms, like offerings to some invisible deity. When a connection is made, these grateful supplicants gain access to their Wonderland. The internet promises them a different reality beyond the everyday world, where Facebook is more real than face to face encounters here and now.
This December, I’ve sometimes forgotten to open each door on the advent calendar on its due date: preoccupied by my adult schedule of work deadlines, I’m out of time with the magical rituals of seasons and holidays. But, as fairy stories teach us, even if you don’t follow the rituals properly, magic doors may still open if you’re lucky.
Last Saturday afternoon, in a beige windowless room in my local library, there stood the proscenium arch of a puppet theatre, emblazoned “Stevens Puppets.” Mr. Bob, the puppeteer, welcomed the squirming tots and parents crammed into folding chairs and the show began. I felt my heart sink as the curtain jerked up, and a battered puppet jounced arthritically across the stage to a scratchy recording of Tchaikovsky. These kids, raised on the glib talk and high-tech visuals of DreamWorks and Disney, will never put up with this, I thought. But, as the rhyming couplets unfolded, the kids cross-legged on the floor fell quiet and leaned forward, as we were all drawn in by the story. By the time the handsome prince awoke the Sleeping Beauty with a kiss, the front row had scootched right up against the stage.
After the show, Mr. Bob brought the marionettes out to meet the children and explain how he worked their strings. Every child wanted to touch the puppets, astonished that these simple bundles of wood and cloth had led them through a tinseled arch to fairyland.
Closing down my computer, now I’m eager to see what’s behind the next door on my advent calendar tonight.