This year the Advent season matches precisely the Advent calendars precisely.
That doesn’t always happen. In 2016 it began on November 27, which meant that if you had stuck with the ‘proper’ Advent and not just the days of December, you would have been in receipt of 28 daily doors to open instead of just 24.
Mind you, the way Christmas fell the following year you would have been short changed since there were only 22 days to open because that year Advent began on December 3.
The tradition began in the mid-19th century as a way of counting down the days to Christmas. Germans would chalk 24 marks on a door lintel and rub one off each day. In some homes, families would hang a little picture for each day of Advent.
By the beginning of the 20th Century the first of the calendars as we know them were being produced. When I was growing up, they were fairly simple affairs – usually glitter-covered pictures with little numbered doors.
When you opened them, what would be revealed was a picture of a robin, or a picture of holly, or of some carol singers, with the stable and the star and Mary and Joseph waiting behind door 24.
There were no ‘goodies’ back then.
These days it’s not only children who look forward to the annual Advent countdown to Christmas, there are many grown-ups who mark the days with everything from mini jams, to perfumes and gins.
A few years back we tried in Dornoch to encourage people to do a reverse Advent Calendar in the lead up to Christmas. The idea was to encourage locals to participate in what we called ‘Random Acts of Christmas Kindness’. Daily challenges were posted on social media and were to be done anonymously and people were asked to do anything from buy a favourite sweetie to give away, to leaving a ‘thank you’ card for the staff in a shop, to popping a card with a tea bag inside, through a neighbour’s letterbox, inviting them to have a cuppa while knowing they were being thought about.
It turned out to be good fun and I confess to smiling a lot when one day I saw a number of Christmas cards being left on various car windscreens as per that day’s instructions.
I think that sometimes we don’t realise just how much the wee things in life, matter. We can be so focused on everything else that we forget that something as simple as a smile can brighten up another’s day.
And it seems to me, that these little things are in fact what Christmas is about. Things that money can’t buy.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s lovely to receive gifts but actually what I like most about Christmas (after the amazing services at Dornoch Cathedral of course) is sitting round a table with the family. All day – eating, talking, playing daft games with a bit of music in the background.
I feel sad that people, especially young families, feel pressurised into feeling they have to have heaps of presents for everyone to open and they have to make sure that they post pictures of the pile for everyone else to see.
Christmas is not about running up huge bills. It’s not about competing to see who gets the most presents. The cost of a gift or the number of gifts your children get is not a measure of the love you have for them. The cuddles on the sofa, reading a story together, making fairy cakes together, splashing in puddles or making snowballs – these things are.
I came across a website that refers to the four gift rule that some families are adopting for Christmas. Instead of overwhelming children and adults with stuff that will either break or gather dust, they suggest choosing something just one thing that the other one wants. Something, just one thing, that they need. Something they can wear and something they can read, with the optional ‘extra’ of a gift for the whole family to enjoy together. A board or card game, a film or a planned outing.
Those who do that say that the light has switched on again in the eyes of their children because the presents, although fewer, are more thoughtfully chosen. They also say that convincing the grandparents to follow suit is the hardest job.
I realise that even the four gift rule is beyond some families, however. Perhaps that should remind us that Christmas begins with a homeless family, wanting nothing more than a roof over their heads. That kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?
Why not use this Advent to do little, thoughtful things, to make a difference for the better to the lives of those around you. And why not celebrate Christmas itself, more simply.
I’ll try if you will too.
The Right Rev Susan Brown is minister of Dornoch Cathedral and the former moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland