by Caren Prentice
There’s six of us. I’m going to make it bigger.
And just like that, with those seven little words, “I’m going to make it bigger.” Christmas changed forever.
They weren’t said with any kind of emphasis or volume or jubilant enthusiasm. My husband is a low-key taciturn kind of guy and he delivered those life changing words as unremarkably as he turned and walked out the back door. I heard them, but the truth is, I didn’t give it another thought. I was glad to have his depressed countenance out of our tiny 100 year old farm house. Hopefully, the project would give him a sense of purpose. It was the early nineties, the era of corporate buyouts and mergers. He had just learned that he was a victim of the “last-hired-first-fired” philosophy of budget cuts.
So Bill, my undemonstrative husband, headed out to our 100 year old shed that doubled as a workshop, with a teeny L.L. Bean catalogue picture of a cute advent calendar in one hand and fate in the other. Over the next few weeks, he built the HUGEST Advent Calendar you could ever imagine.
Unfortunately, when he eagerly unveiled it to me, I was not beaming with joy, excitement, or awe at what he’d created. I was horrified! H.O.R.R.I.F.I.E.D.
“No way!” burst out of my mouth in a most unkind tone. “I am not filling all those huge cubbies with candy and cheap trinkets that will just end up littering the floor. That’s not what Christmas is about.”
“You’ll think of something,” he tossed back at me. It felt like a "bait and switch" ploy. How was this now my problem?
Well, here’s what Bill knew, I had given up my career as a set and costume designer to be home with our four kids and was working part-time as the Youth Education Director for a small church we attended. It was a great fit. I loved kids and had always been a spiritual seeker interested in learning about different religions and traditions. Add to this my creative skills and I seemed to have a natural aptitude for making church lessons fun and meaningful for kids.
"Just the other day, my 5 year old, Tate, asked if we could "do that thing where we read and light candles and have a card in the box". I said next week and he said "but I want to do it now!". I am glad he is looking forward to it without me having mentioned it yet. It's like he knows that it is coming!"
The saying, “The Gods always enter through the back door” comes to mind. They sneak in the back door while we’re watching the front door, waiting for those big momentous events that will impact our lives. They quietly go about changing the trajectory of our paths with small, innocuous, barely noticeable words, comments, or actions. Those seven little words I barely noticed, were that moment.
I gazed at this monstrosity and wondered how I could possibly make these 25 huge compartments reflect holiday values that I want my children to grow up with? We had four kids, 2-12 years old, and if I knew anything, I knew that it would have to be fun and engaging if the kids were going to look forward to opening it every night. How could I do that without filling the damn thing with sugary treats and “MORE STUFF”…
Then I remembered angel fairies!
As angel fairies we secretly roamed the grounds and halls of the annual Retreats for Youth Education leaders during the evening vespers. Our job was to sneak into everyone’s rooms and leave a few pieces of candy, a love note, and some sparkles on each person’s pillow. We were to then quietly rejoin the activity so no one was the wiser.
These evening forays had opened my eyes to the fun of secret acts of kindness. And it finally dawned on me… this new monstrosity could give me 25 days to bring the fun of kindness and secret giving into my family. I went for it. I spent hours and days painstakingly coming up with activities and creating hand-drawn, colorful yet simple cards to go in each cubby that would announce the activity or treat for that day.
And that’s how it all began. No grand ideas. Nothing that cost a lot of money. Just a simple hope to bring kindness and fun to our Christmas Season. We began doing activities we called Drop a Dollar and SSSS and Being Santa’s Elves that all involved doing things in secret. We all loved it.
On any given day, nothing we were doing with the Advent Box—it definitely wasn't a calendar so we'd taken to calling it a box—seemed particularly magical or enchanting. And yet, as the years passed and our family continued to gather each evening in December, lighting candles and invoking the qualities of hope, love, peace, joy, and light, these unremarkable moments began to weave themselves into something magical, a deeply meaningful tradition that was—and still is—our favorite part of the Christmas Season.
When people saw our Advent Box prominently hanging on the wall of our living room, and heard bits and pieces about our family’s Advent Box tradition, they asked how they could create something similar in their own homes.
In 2000, I called on my years of design and art training to create a set of Activity Cards, write up a little instructional book, and created 25 Daily Readings for others to use. I brought this first version to living rooms and churches around the country showing others how to create the tradition in their own homes. Adults and kids grew to love it as much as we did. The stories I got back telling of how this simple tradition was touching the lives of others let me know it wasn't just us, there was something magical here.
But, as with all things, after fifteen years on the market, twenty-five years since it was first created, our Advent Tradition began to feel outdated. We needed a new name, the word Advent was misleading. Ours had never been a "religious" tradition. It was simply a way to focus the season on kindness, giving, and family connection. It needed new activities. We had started all this long before texting and cell phones, before emails and social media, and it wasn’t quite resonating with the faster paced, technologically advanced, more security conscious world of the 21st century.
The Gods tiptoed back in...
Although many of us were still doing the tradition each December, my heart wasn’t in the business piece of it and so in 2015 I sold off the last of my inventory and let the whole thing go. My attention was now fully engaged in teaching meditation, opening a meditation center and teaching others how to find the peace and equanimity I had been cultivating for decades through my meditation practice.
And then I got a phone call.
Just a little phone call during Fall 2020 in the midst of Covid. An old friend from the church I’d attended all those years ago called and asked if I still had any of the product. They were looking for something to give their families during Covid that would bring some light and joy to Christmas. My heart lit up as I felt the hands of fate open my heart and I heard myself say, “No, the inventory is all gone. But, let me see what I can come up with.”
And in that moment, the new name danced through my heart and the next generation of CandleTime was born.