The journey, we are often told when life is not going well, is more important than the destination. “To travel hopefully,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, “is a better thing than to arrive.”
We are, I fear, about to find out if this is true. For in a couple of days – and with life not going at all well – many will embark, hope in their hearts, on a journey with no destination. Or rather, not quite the destination they were expecting. I urge you not to join them.
I am, of course, talking about advent calendars, which lead us on a 24-day odyssey, counting down to Christmas and ramping up the excitement, box by intricate box. Wonderful things. It doesn’t really matter whether, as a child, you had the good sort of advent calendar (daily piece of chocolate) or the bad sort of advent calendar (daily picture of a robin), these flimsy bits of cardboard, concealing unknown treasures, exert an unmistakable, nostalgic pull. Whatever age you are, the opening of that first door – a bell! – marks the beginning of Christmas.
But in a year when so many people, myself included, plan to skip the festivities altogether, the advent calendar risks becoming redundant. Is there any point in counting down to … a non-event? Just another day? It’s important to point out here that I do appreciate Jesus might see things rather differently. No-one’s birthday should be described as a non-event. But we must be honest about the commercialisation of Christmas – Star Wars, Harry Potter and Barbie advent calendars are all available – and it's many, shall we say, secular traditions. In this sense at least, I hope we can all agree that Christmas 2020 will be, at best, low-key and, at worst, a non-event.
With that in mind, the last thing you need to see each morning is a beaming Santa Claus, his body ravaged by serrated squares, to remind you that you are one day closer to a very Covid Christmas. The whole point of an advent calendar is that it builds up to the best day of all. It helps to manage the excitement. We don’t need to open a fiddly, cardboard door on 25 December because we have lots of other – better – things to open, like bottles and presents. Take those away, however, and the advent calendar reveals itself as little more than a deserter in our hour of need. I need a picture of the cattle lowing! I demand to have a picture of the cattle lowing!
There are other reasons to dispense with the advent calendar this time around. When you have been eating chocolate – and quite a lot of it – before 9am most mornings since March, the novelty does begin to wear off. So while the extra, elf-shaped piece of cheap chocolate is not unwelcome, it might feel less like a treat and more like a top-up. The same goes for those booze-filled advent calendars. Last year: “Ooh, this is a bit naughty, shall we share it?” This year: “A mini bottle of gin? What good is that to me? Out the way, I’m opening the other doors.”
Worst of all, though, is that those traditional advent calendar pictures have assumed unfortunate connotations over the past 12 months. You see the three wise men, huddled together, breathing over the manger, and think only of masks and social distancing. A pair of mittens has you fretting about PPE contracts. A snowman? Lose some weight, my friend, if you know what’s good for you. Father Christmas? The ultimate superspreader.
It needn’t always be like this. Please, don’t worry. By next year, Whitty-permitting, we will be counting down to Christmas with renewed vigour, determined to make up for this year’s slim pickings. I’ll probably have three or four advent calendars. Chocolate, booze, maybe a musical one – a proper party every morning.
But an advent calendar this December is a daft idea. Unlike the three wise men, you won’t enjoy the journey and you certainly won’t enjoy the destination. Happy Christmas, everyone!