After breaking my wrist and foot back in late September, my regular habit of jogging or walking up and down the streets of my neighborhood came to an abrupt halt. I could barely hobble around the house or out to the car, so I watched through the window as the seasons forced their usual transformation through most of October.
Unlike years past, I wasn’t out snapping photos of leaf-covered sidewalks or staring with wonder at flaming branches, brilliant in their saffrons and magentas and terra cottas. I didn’t witness the annual showcase of pumpkins and gourds, or even carve my own this year, and I missed the unveiling of spooky displays of ghosts hanging from trees and spider webs reaching across windows.
By the time all I was freed from all my casts and splints and ortho shoes, and I took my first spin, albeit tenderly, around the neighborhood, the trees were nearly empty, the pumpkins had been half-eaten by the squirrels, and the gourds were all covered with frost. But they were still out there, bravely standing guard until fall’s final feast could arrive. I think that’s why I was so startled when I turned north on Van Buren Street and saw Joseph staring out at me from the back of a blue and gray Chevy pickup truck.
Mind you, it wasn’t actually Joseph. It was a plastic replica, part of a nativity set one of my neighbors must have reclaimed from storage or bought off Craig’s List. When I first saw a man peeking over the tailgate, with the short cropped hair and neatly trimmed beard, it reminded me of someone I know, a friend from Indianapolis whom I’d be just as surprised to find under an aluminum truck topper in my neighborhood. Maybe that’s why it took me a few seconds to realize it wasn’t a real person, and definitely not my friend Joe. In fact, I was just an arm’s length from the truck bed when I finally noticed Mary, a few Wisemen, and the baby Jesus lying around back there, too. Of course! Joseph!
It’s one thing to imagine a friend trapped in mid-80s GMC while walking through the neighborhood; it’s quite another to stumble upon a near-life size version of the holy family thrust randomly into the middle of my mid-November walk. I hadn’t even had a piece of pumpkin pie, and now I was humming “Away in a Manger” like it was Christmas or something. Of course, Joseph and the gang didn’t stay in the back of the truck for long. The next few days on my walks I saw them loitering on my neighbors’ front porch, like a bunch of day laborers looking for work. Finally, a good five days before Thanksgiving, I rounded the corner and saw the couple and the Magi all huddled appropriately around the creche in the front yard. It was the middle of the afternoon, or they’d probably all been illuminated from the lightbulbs conveniently attached inside each of them.
Actually, I shouldn’t have been all that surprised that people in my community were putting up Christmas decorations in the middle of November. The big box stores have been hinting at Christmas since they cleared out the back-to-school inventory in late August, and once the Halloween candy went on clearance, there was no stopping them. And maybe it’s because the Christmas shopping season helps businesses reach profitability just before the end of the year, or maybe it’s because this season is loaded with all kinds of nostalgia and sentimentality, or maybe it’s because this is the year we’re hoping Santa will finally be really good to us — but for one reason or another, some people seem to want Christmas to come earlier and earlier each year, and the rest of us seem powerless to do anything about it.
Or are we?
By celebrating Advent through the years, I’ve come to value the slower entry into Christmas that lighting candles and counting down the days brings. Traditionally, churches would even avoid singing Christmas carols or “decking the halls” until Christmas Eve in order to give Advent its proper attention. While I don’t do that myself or even attend a church that does, I do find that reflecting on the years Israel waited for their Messiah, considering what it means that Jesus has come and will come again, and taking time to stop each day to pray and meditate on the miracle of Incarnation makes me more ready for Christmas when it finally does come. In fact, it makes Christmas less about the decorations and the gifts and the parties, and more about the ways I can find Jesus, if not his parents and the wise guys, lurking around in every part of my daily life.
Since Thanksgiving fell as early as possible on the calendar this year, we’ve been given this little window of time before we have to rush into the next holiday season. Normally, we would have put our Christmas tree up the day after Thanksgiving, but this year, we decided not to. I haven’t even pulled out the wreaths or the twinkle lights or any of the decorations, either. Instead, we’ve hit pause on the holiday hoopla and we’re taking a minute to catch our breath.
When we wake up on Saturday and it’s December 1, we’ll proceed cautiously, and by Sunday, the first official day of Advent, we’ll finally be ready to start thinking about Christmas.