It had been handed down to her by her mother to whom it had been handed down by her mother. The story was that her doughboy grandfather had picked it up cheap at a shop in France just after World War I ended. Somehow it had made it home undamaged, all the way to Chattanooga. It had in fact arrived there before he did, which had almost given his mother a heart attack, because she took it to mean that his stuff was coming home but he wasn’t but they gave her some smelling salts and read the Psalms to her and by the time he got home the next day she was fine. In fact, that day she acted quite normally for a woman whose only son had just come home after spending the better part of a year dodging German artillery and poison gas except that he caught her crying at the sink as she washed the dirty dishes from the homecoming meal and he came up behind her and squeezed her and she gasped and clapped her hand over her mouth and turned around and kissed him on the cheek and said, “What’s in that box that came yesterday?” “Let me show you,” he had said.
He had opened the box on the kitchen table and together they had carefully unwrapped each piece. The figures were varnished wood carvings that were intricate in detail. There were angels, shepherds, wise men, camels, donkeys, and sheep. As his mother had continued to unwrap the pieces he had picked up one of the shepherds. The shepherd figure held a crook that had somehow been carved from a very small stick. He was kneeling and the folds in his robe had wrinkles within them. His hair had waves in it. What really stood out, though, was his face. Had anyone pressed him to describe the expression on the shepherd’s face he would have had a hard time doing so. It seemed to reflect a combination of wonder, fear, reverence, faith, and maybe even shock. He could hardly take his eyes off that face.
He was shaken from his spell by his mother’s voice. “While you’ve been staring at that fellow,” she was saying, “I’ve finished unwrapping the pieces.” She was shaking the baby in his face as she spoke.
“OK,” he said, “but didn’t you see this?” He removed the tissue paper from the box where his mother had been dropping it. From the bottom of the box he pulled a large flat piece of wood. It measured about three feet by three feet. It had a stand built into the back so that it could be propped on a tabletop so he propped it on the tabletop and then stepped back to observe it. Intricate carvings of trumpets and angels formed a border; at the very center of the top was a star. The square of wood was divided into other smaller squares by strips of raised wood. He quickly counted. There were twenty-five squares. At the top of each square was a tiny metal loop. He picked up one of the sheep and, using the small hook on its back, hung it on the first square. The sheep and he stared at each other for a moment.
“It’s pretty,” his mother said. “What it is?”
“The fellow who sold it to me said it was an Advent Calendar.”
“How nice,” she said. “What’s an Advent Calendar?”
“It’s a thing you use to count down the days until Christmas. That’s what you do during Advent; you count down the days until Christmas. It’s a church thing.”
“I never heard of such a thing at our church,” she said.
He thought about the raucous worship services that they held at the Beulah Holiness Church. “No, I guess you haven’t,” he said, “but this Presbyterian fellow in my unit explained it all to me.”
“Well,” his mother said, “I don’t know if I hold much truck with such things.”
Nevertheless, the hand-carved Advent calendar that her grandfather had sent back from some little village in France a few weeks after Armistice Day had become a valued part of the family’s Christmas tradition. For over eighty years now parents and children had stood reverently around the Advent calendar while adults and teenagers had read Bible verses and children had hung the figures of the shepherds, the wise men, and the animals on the calendar. Three days before Christmas Joseph was placed on the calendar. Two days before Mary took her place. The climax came on Christmas Eve when the baby Jesus was placed in the small manger that was build into the bottom of the twenty-fifth square. The artisan who had carved the calendar and the figures had apparently thought it inappropriate to put a hook on Jesus.
A couple of years after getting home from Europe her grandfather had gotten married and a couple of years after that he and his wife had produced their first child. The first question their daughter ever asked about anything she asked one year after about twelve days of hanging figures on the Advent calendar: “When’s Jesus coming?” She had asked it that year—it must have been around 1926—for the next twelve nights until she asked it on Christmas Eve, and her father had answered and watched her little freckled face light up like a lamp as he said it, “Tonight’s the night that Jesus comes.” It had become a part of the family liturgy that year and had remained so ever since—the youngest child in the family who was able to talk would say each night, “When’s Jesus coming?” until on Christmas Eve the oldest member of the family who could still talk would answer, “Tonight’s the night that Jesus comes.” And all the family would say “Amen.”
She was remembering all of that family history on this Christmas Eve, the one in 2007, as she put the dirty dishes from her family’s Christmas Eve supper of chili and cornbread into the dishwasher. In an apparent fit of Christmas-inspired generosity both of her teenaged children had offered to help clean the kitchen but she had said “No.” And so her family—her teenagers, her husband, her mother, and the little one of the family, the unexpected caboose who had just turned four in October—waited patiently in the living room, chatting quietly as the white lights on the tree flickered and the ornaments produced their great joy by doing no more than hanging there, which is how most things that bring great joy go about doing it. The little one had been the star of the Advent calendar show this year. For twenty-four nights now she had dutifully and sweetly asked the question as that night’s figure was being hung on the calendar: “When’s Jesus coming?” Everyone had smiled and sighed and oohed and awed. She would say it again tonight but this time her grandmother would answer, “Tonight’s the night when Jesus comes” as she placed the baby Jesus in the manger and then all the family would say “Amen” and then they’d see what was in their stockings.
As she placed some spoons in the dishwasher’s silverware holder her mind went back over it one more time. She had thought about it over and over since it had happened at lunchtime. She had thought about it as she did some last minute shopping that afternoon. She had thought about it as she tried to hustle her family out the door so they wouldn’t be late for church. She had especially thought about it during the Christmas Eve worship service when one of the readers had read a Scripture that contained a phrase that she was sure she had never heard at the Christmas Eve service before: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” And now she was thinking about it again.
She and some other ladies from her civic club had volunteered to serve lunch at the homeless shelter, something they did several times a year but always made sure to do on Christmas Eve. The words “I enjoy it” always sounded strange to her when she said them in response to someone’s query about why she did it but on some level it was true. So she had been enjoying herself that day at lunchtime as she had scooped the dressing out of the pans and dumped it on the plates for those men, women, and children who obviously needed it so much. She was looking up to say “You’re welcome” to one of the many she served who said “Thank you” when she saw them. A man and a woman—they looked to be around seventy—were going around the room. They obviously went together although they were going around separately. Each held a big red cloth bag.
She kept watching them as she served the dressing. She watched them talking to the people at the tables like they were long-lost family members. She watched the lady sit for a while at this table and then for a while at that one. She watched the man bounce toddlers on his knee while their parents ate. She watched the lady wipe more than one runny nose. She watched as one mentally ill woman who always frightened her when she came through the food line shoved the lady away and then she watched as the lady bowed her head in an obvious quick prayer even as she tried to keep from falling. She watched them as they pulled gifts, all carefully wrapped, out of their bags and gave one to every person in the room. She dipped dressing and watched the man and woman do what they were doing.
Then she watched them leave. After they left she asked the social worker who ran the shelter who they were.
“They’re legends, that’s who they are,” he replied.
“No,” she had pressed him, “I mean what are their names?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “They’ve been doing that here for years. They do it all over town in places like this. And, before you ask, yes, we’ve asked their names. They just smile and say ‘Merry Christmas’ and go on their way.”
She put the last dish in the dishwasher and walked into the living room. As she entered everyone got up and gathered around the table that held the Advent calendar. Her mother already held the baby Jesus in her hand. Her teenaged daughter read the Christmas story from Matthew and then her son read the one from Luke. Her husband said a prayer. And then it was time for the big moment, the moment that had been repeated according to the script for three generations, the moment when her little girl would, in voice sweet and innocent, utter the words “When’s Jesus coming?” and when her mother would place the baby Jesus in his manger and triumphantly proclaim, “Tonight’s the night when Jesus comes.”
Her little girl spoke: “When’s Jesus coming?”
And that’s when she said it. She couldn’t help it. It just came out. It just came out because it was the truth. Before the scripted, traditional response could be offered by her dear mother, who had earned the right to say it by living so long and so well, the words jumped out of her mouth.
“I think he came this afternoon.”
And every jaw gathered around the Advent calendar dropped.