Advent builds anticipation for the holidays Activity: Preparation rituals in the house included baking cookies and building the train village.

November 28, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

IT'S BEEN A GLORIOUS Baltimore fall and I'm still savoring the golden weather. No, my Christmas tree will not be up in a few days. Leave that chore for the obsessives. I've got another three weeks.

I love to procrastinate, but this character default has nothing to do with what needs to be done. I celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 and the days afterward, not before.

Outside of the Christian church there isn't too much talk about the season that begins tomorrow. It is the first of four Sundays in Advent, a term derived from the Latin verb "to come to." It's a time when "the faithful are admonished to prepare themselves worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord's coming into the world," according to the definition listed in my ancient edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia.

It is also one of my favorite times of the year, a short span of time when the hours of daylight grow more precious and the stars and the moon seem to glow more brightly. Is it my imagination, but is the late fall evening sky the darkest indigo we ever see? I often stand at the corner of 27th and St. Paul and look to the west, toward Druid Hill Park and the graceful temple dome in the twilight distance.

I am a devotee of the Advent preparation ritual I experienced as a child and try to keep going as an adult. It isn't difficult, but is occasionally harried.

It begins in a couple days. I think back to the very first sound of this three-week busy time, when my grandmother Lily Rose walked into the front bedroom and took the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus off the wall. The picture hid the wall safe, a 1915 device where the household records were stored.

Her fingers worked the combination (it was no snap) on the safe's dial. Those little metallic pings were the signal the Christmas season had started.

Among the stored papers was a crumbling recipe for fruit cake, a complicated recipe that was written out twice. One was in Victorian script rendered in brown ink. The other was typed sometime before Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House. Both copies had tears and blots and I think my grandmother studied both and then worked out a consensus.

My grandmother and her sister chattered about this ancient formula, its eccentricities and the length of time it took in the oven. They chuckled at some of its archaic measurements -- the gill of French brandy. Then they complained about the price of nut meats.

The fruit cake was the first of the baked goods they set aside for consumption after Dec. 25. The second order of business was cookie production. They made but one model, one style, as good as any I've ever tasted. It was a long, thin butter-nutmeg-vanilla strip issued from a metal gun with a crank handle. They made hundreds so we could eat hundreds.

The cookies were stored in in the cellar in stoneware crocks. Then the other cakes followed -- the Christmas pound, the chocolate, orange and coconut.

The kitchen, ever filled with the bright daytime sunlight that a south-facing room gets this time of year, was but one of the places of pre-Christmas work.

The cellar, with the purring furnace, was another. It was strictly off limits to the eyes of the children in the house. There, my father, grandfather and uncle worked away. They dislodged the wooden Christmas garden platforms stored near the hot water heater and went to work. They opened the cupboards filled with barns, celluloid roosters and speckled mountain paper. They unwrapped orange-and-blue Lionel train boxes. They uncoiled wire. They sprinkled green sawdust.

They were building the miniature village so beloved by Baltimoreans.

The anticipation was everything -- even though I couldn't see their work, I could hear the banging and sound of the electric saws and drill presses. I could hear the vocal eruptions when a hammer hit a thumb instead of a two-by-four.

I could smell the scent of pine wood being cut into the forms that held up the mountain paper. It was all a pre-Christmas tease and a delightful one at that.

There was no visible display of the holiday. No lights. No wreaths. No parties. But in its own warm way, this rush of #F concerted household activity was just as much a party as the big day itself.

Pub Date: 11/28/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.