Advent starts early at my house, usually well before Thanksgiving. Some gray afternoon in fall, after the first icy weather blasts us unequivocally out of the bright half of the year and into the dark, I get out our pile of Christmas cds to play the first carols of the season. For my daughters, the cds initiate the heady period of joyous waiting that culminates in Christmas morning. They dictate our choices, insisting on Bing Crosby's happy tunes instead of the gloomier ones—like Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven" and Pedro the Lion's halting "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"—already lined up in the cd player when they get home from school.
"Why do you want to listen to songs like that?" they ask me, as they eat their after-school snacks and flip through bright-colored Christmas catalogs, getting ideas.
They don't want to hear about the miseries that revisit me this time of year—events so distant in my murky past that I should have long since forgotten them. The Christmas my mother got so crazy we finally figured out she had something seriously wrong with her, which turned out to be a brain tumor. The Christmas in grad school when I was held at gunpoint and sexually assaulted. The Christmas of 2001, when, still shuddering after September 11th, the buried traumas of my past resurfaced, all at once, and turned into the yearly bout of depression I've had to deal with ever since.
Soon, I think, looking over my daughters' hunched backs, they'll be directing my attention to recipes for yule logs and stained-glass window cookies. Soon, Lulu will construct her want list, with different colors and fonts and annotations indicating what's most important and where things can be found. Soon, Charlotte will be begging me to take her clothes shopping.
From toddlerhood, my daughters have thrown themselves bodily upon my husband and me in our bed on Christmas morning, the only day of the year when they get up before us. Even as teenagers, not far from adulthood, they're utterly unburdened by the season's stresses and unacquainted—God be thanked—with any of the disasters that revisit me at Christmastime. For them, Advent is entirely a forward-looking time, all about the wonderful joys to come—gingerbread houses, presents, new clothes, snow. It's a month of anticipation so giddy and pleasurable it can hardly be called waiting.
For me, though, the waiting is complicated by anxiety and doubt. Will joy ever come? I wonder. At some point, it generally does. Sometimes a song at church cheers me, or an act of kindness from one of my daughters. Once, it was the hilarious moment when, while decorating our tree, we discovered my previous year's present from my mother-in-law, two folded up hundred dollar bills, inside a little box-shaped ornament we hang on a prominent branch every year for that purpose. Until that moment of turning, though—indeed, throughout most of Advent—a single word prayer inhabits my consciousness: Come!