A few months ago, in thinking about the coming holidays, and our thin budget, an Advent Calendar seemed like an easy way to economize. I could make my own, or not at all.

I passed over chocolate filled options as too expensive, and what was left seemed a little random: open this window this day, and there might be a picture of a tree. Or a bird. Or a candy cane… a hodge-podge thrown together at random. Or, as my mother-in-law put it, “It just seems like a big countdown to inevitable disappointment”.

So I thought perhaps I would make my own. Something not count-down-y, but more mindful, a way to celebrate the season each day. I was brought up with a clear idea of what Easter was all about, and have lists of traditions for 4th of July and Thanksgiving celebrations. But contemplating the “The Meaning of Advent” , and trying to find activities, or gifts, or sayings to fill all those dates left me at a bit of a loss, perhaps because we moved around so much when I was a child, and between so many different traditions. Or perhaps because Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Elves, Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, have obscured reality.

My earliest Christmas memories are from England, where the tradition is for the 12 days of Christmas (Christmastide), which spans December 25th through January 5th, Lords of Misrule, Punch and Judy shows, Kings’ Cake. Later, in Italy, a “Good Witch” (La Befana) brought me presents in mid-December (I imagine this must have corresponded with St. Lucia’s feast day), and candy came when the Thee Kings arrived on January 5th, Epiphany. And of course once I moved to the States, there was Santa Claus, and White Christmas.

In searching for inspiration to make my calendar, I started reading about Hanukkah, Diwali, and Solstice, and really, these are all holidays involving light. So much of our modern Christmas imagery centers in light and white, too– sure in the form of (fake) snow, but it’s there nonetheless.

From what I’ve gleaned, historians believe that the British Fall/Winter traditions of Halloween, Twelfth Night, and the Lord of Misrule are all vestiges of celtic/pre-christian worship. These holidays and traditions are representative of the battle observable in nature between light and dark. This battle culminates in Solstice, the longest night of the year. Similarly, Lord Rama returns; preserving a tenuous victory, a drop of sacred oil illuminates 8 nights. The Twelfth night signifies the end of the “topsy turvy time” when the lord of misrule ends and the world returns to normal. When the days begin to grow longer, and hope starts to win out.

It has gotten colder lately, and the Great Recession hammers on, but (luckily)

Jasper's first Christmas

it is still hard for me to imagine what winter must have been like even 100 years ago, when winter meant the “skinny season”. Or to be in Israel 2000 years ago, praying for salvation from oppression, when hope was like a candle in the night.

I ended up making our advent calender out of envelopes and ribbon and a ceramic branch. There are one or two toys, and I might make a sweet, but mostly these there are homemade coupons. Coupons for experiences, not things; for ways to acknowledge despair and the hard times, and so to relieve them. And coupons for stuff that celebrates the good times, and so, I hope, ignites and fans hope, for both my family and our larger community. They go hand-in-hand: light and dark, good and evil, hope and despair… But for everyone this year, I’m hoping the balance tips a little more in the direction of the light.

Puppet Shows and more merry-making
We feature Paxton’s Gate almost every week, and for good reason: there is always something fun there to do. This week, join them for a Holiday party– complete with puppet show (no word on if it feature Punch and/or Judy)….
This year, the Community Music Center is mounting a performance of La Posarela, commemorating Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of “posada”. With Latin music and Christmas carols sung in Spanish and English.
Paxton Gate’s Curiosities for Kids’ 2nd Anniversary & Holiday Party. Saturday, December 4th, 3 – 6 p.m. All Ages. Free. Paxton’s Gate, 766 Valencia Street at 19th.
La Posarela. Saturday, December 11th, 7 p.m. All Ages. Free. Capp Street Concert Hall, 544 Capp Street at 20th.

Dance Dance Dance
Jasper is a little young for the Nutcracker, and really, I’ve seen it enough. But this year, both ODC and Dance Mission Theater offer up a little visual-kinetic Holiday celebration.
ODC/Dance Presents The Velveteen Rabbit. November 26 – December 12, 2010. All Ages. Tickets: $15-$45. Purchase online or by calling 415-978-2787. Novellus Theater at YBCA 700 Howard Street at 3rd.
Dance Brigade presents The Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie. December 11-12. Saturday, 2 p.m. & 6 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. & 5 p.m. All Ages. $15 – $17. Purchase online or at the door.
Brava Theater, 2781 24th Street at York.

Light up the night
For the next few weeks, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is focusing on light-themed activities, including handmade lanterns… or learn how to make beeswax candles at Randall Museum this weekend.
Drop-In Art Making: Starry Starry Light. Sunday, December 5th, 1 – 3 p.m. All Ages. Free with museum admission. CJM, 736 Mission Street at 3rd.
Crafts Day. Saturday, December 4th, 10 a.m.- 3 p.m. All Ages. Free. Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way.

Give Back
My son and I are taking a donation over to Homeless Prenatal, and we’ll be pitching in at the next Alemany Farm Day. I’m shooting for one service activity a week. He’s a little young for Martin de Porres (my favorite), but there are a lot of other activities listed at Hands On Bay Area. And we’ll probably stop by Humphrey Slocombe for a cone of Fluffer Nutter, too.