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    dark street with one lit window in a building

    Waiting in the Gloom

    Some think Advent should simply extend the season of Christmas jollity, but I’m with those who hold that long, dark nights and feeble candles are more fitting.

    By Clare Coffey

    November 27, 2023
    • Anne Ramirez

      This was an excellent article! I loved it! When I was young my rural Baptist family did not decorate very early and did leave the tree up till after the new year began. We are now Episcopalian and my formerly Catholic husband's birthday is December 13, which gave us a good added excuse to save much of the decorating until after that date. We always wait till Epiphany to take down the tree and pack other things away.

    • Walt Miller

      Clare! What a stunning piece, Spooky Season. Thanks for sharing!

    • Shannon Hood

      Beautifully written and such a thoughtful piece. Thank you for working hard to write things like this for us to read!

    • Springs Toledo

      This was beautifully composed. It also helps clarify a few things for the faithful. All of my Christmas decorations are up, but I decided to leave the lights off until Advent begins in order to begin to honor the difference between the Advent and the Christmas seasons. Bucking commercialism is never wrong, but this makes it a lot easier to do so. Extending "spooky season" makes perfect sense.

    • Daniel Carson

      This is just so good. Thank you Clare

    • Patricia Aguilar

      Wonderful! This resonates with my Irish blood. Thank you.

    One of the comfortable routines of the Advent season is, by now, the return of familiar bickering over what to celebrate when.

    On one side of the calendar wars are the badger-like stalwarts who point out that Advent is its own season, and Christmas comes soon enough, and should last until epiphany at least, so there’s no reason to pile it all on the front end, thank you very much. They dislike the willy-nilly disrespect to the liturgical calendar, the reduction of Christmas to its Coca-Cola form, the abominable and increasing incapacity for delayed gratification shown by the American public every year, the general disregard for the order of things.

    By way of full disclosure, I must note that this is the school in which I was raised. We didn’t play Christmas music, we didn’t watch Christmas movies. Around Gaudete (the third Sunday of Advent) we drove up to the Christmas tree farm to cut down our tree, but we didn’t decorate it till Christmas Eve. Over the course of eight children most types of visionary hardassery lose the war of attrition, but this one has remained. Last Sunday dinner saw my youngest sister asking my father, in notes of sweetly wondering frustration, why we couldn’t just be normal. It’s nice to see some things never change.

    On the other side from the stickler badgers are the jolly hedgehogs. Preparation can be understood many ways, counter the hedgehogs, and besides, is a little extra Christmas spirit in the air really the great crisis facing Christendom?

    Some hedgehogs make the historical argument: Christmas has always been a folk holiday as much as a liturgical one, many of the elements we consider fundamental to the Christmas celebration are accommodations to or ingrafted borrowings from a preexisting wider culture, so the liturgical police are engaged in a battle as futile as it is ahistorical.

    dark street with one lit window in a building

    John Atkinson Grimshaw, November, 1879

    Leaving aside the tenure of grousing about the way things should be done as a delightful folk tradition in its own right, let me present my own reason for coming down on the side of the badger school in which I was raised. It has less to do with keeping the Christmas lights wrapped up as it does with leaving the jack-o’-lantern lit. It is that Advent is the final phase of spooky season.

    A common complaint from the badgers is that the secularized Christmas model shortchanges both Advent and Christmas – piling all the celebration too early, only to haul off the tree to the curb December 26th. It’s true, but everything that happens to Christmas happens to gloomy November first. There is a larger folk holiday that Advent participates in and illuminates, and it is spooky season.

    Halloween is properly the inauguration of the spooky season. It marks the turning from the golden late summer and fall harvest season to something darker. The Jack-o’-lanterns go out, the days become shorter, the chill more serious, the stars between the naked trees cold and admonitory. The death of everything is in the air.

    But you can’t sell candy after October 31, so spooky season ends with Halloween rather than beginning it. The grimacing pumpkins are tossed and the jingle bells go up.

    But despite the outrages to the noble Halloween, spooky season cannot be kept entirely down. It is the season when walking at night brings a sense of things you cannot name and perhaps do not like you very much. It is relief at the sight of a light gleaming from a human habitation. It is the season of graveyards, of the wet brown leaves rotting in the compost, suffering what they must so that life will return in spring. It is the foreboding of winter. It is the knowledge of your own death, hurtling toward you faster than you would like to admit. Not only your own – it is the season when the earth and everything seen and unseen on the earth turns on you with the same hostile reproach: we are dying, dying, because of you.

    If the golden harvest marks the high point of our comity with nature, our sitting down together at table, the spooky season is the late point in the night when tempers begin to unravel, when the contentment of the moment gives way to the old grudges underpinning everything: the bitterness and shame of that first traitorous act of our regency, all the envies and enmities and ambivalences of things older and more powerful than we are.

    The gloom lasts through the cozy, huddled punctuation of Thanksgiving into Advent. Advent is the last gasp of spooky season – something is coming that dispels all shadows – and boy howdy does it go out with a bang.

    A fate we could not foresee or even comprehend has already come upon us, and it was our tiny wriggling salvation.

    The readings are filled with hope, but also with warnings about what is coming, a doom we cannot grasp or even really conceive. One shall be taken, and one shall be left. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world. Judgment is upon us; as in horror movies, real violence is about to irrupt into our daily round of manageable, pettifogging wickedness.

    The music is full of a beautiful gloom. Ever since I was a child we sang progressively more verses of “O Come O Come Immanuel” around the dinner table every night, in that characteristic medieval minor key.

    O come, Thou Dayspring from on high
    And cheer us by Your drawing nigh
    Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
    And death’s dark shadow put to flight

    Then there is the Jesse tree, the piling on of sin upon sin from every story of the Bible. That first betrayal was not quarantined, not a regrettable incident that could be expunged after a decent interval. It was a tree that grew steadily into the shape of human history, though with salvation immediate and promised threaded through each branch.

    Foreboding looks backward too, at the old evil at the root, in fear that it will catch up with us.

    But at the end of all those warnings, of long nights lighting candles against the shadows of old sins and praying for deliverance from old enemies, is Christmas, the simultaneous end and reversal of spooky season. A fate we could not foresee or even comprehend has already come upon us, and it was our tiny wriggling salvation.

    Christmas still bears some traces that mark its closure of the spooky season. There’ll be scary ghost stories / and tales of the glories of Christmases long long ago, goes the song. And the most beloved piece of Christmas literature outside of scripture is in fact a ghost story. But as the bright lights twinkle through the season, any memory of shadows and hauntings dissipate into merriment, let the cold bite as it may.

    That’s as it should be. Spooky season is almost over. Christmas is coming to kill it, thanks be to God. But for a few weeks more, I will indulge in the gloom and doom, the left hand of salvation history, before the lights go up.

    Contributed By ClareCoffey Clare Coffey

    Clare Coffey is a writer living in Idaho.

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