Used to be when my wife kept me up all night, I was grateful for a week. But that changed five years ago when she launched a nocturnal ritual taking place at the end of November.
It's all because of a German invention known as the Advent calendar, which at first glance doesn't resemble an instrument of torture. But I have discovered that it awakens the obsessive, sentimentality of youth rarely seen in Germans. My wife combines this with maternal competition to create someone I cannot love but have to obey – as deep into the night we prepare a custom calendar for our children intended to make other German mothers feel equal doses of envy and inadequacy.
When I was a kid growing up in suburban America in a Keep on Truckin' t-shirt and a bowl-cut hairstyle, K-Mart had these funny little calendars that hid pieces of chocolate behind doors representing the days of December. I thought I could trick my mother into buying me some chocolate by pointing out their utilitarian side. The world needs calendars, I argued, and I like chocolate. I reckoned we could meet in the middle.
She didn't agree and Advent calendars remained an odd curiosity of my childhood. Sort of like the bible pamphlets my born-again great-aunt Lena sent for Christmas that threatened damnation or the “adult novelties” at Spencer's Gifts at the mall. I didn't know there was any proud Teutonic tradition behind the Advent calendar.
As I now know, they aren't a gimmick for Kaufhof to peddle more sweets, they were invented here a century or two ago to celebrate Adventszeit. Of course, Advent itself was invented centuries before that to get people psyched for the birthday of Jesus. And I have it on good authority that Jesus was a nice guy who may or may not have been invented twenty centuries ago to mark a turning point in how we keep track of centuries.
But for me, it's all about the month of November, when my wife turns into a manic squirrel. She starts gathering trinkets, tiny toys and other made-in-China trash to be wrapped up into individual packets and given to our kids, one December day at a time. Each evening, I'll hear a gentle knock at the front door. My wife will then lean into the apartment.
“Are the kids here?” She will then pull me into the bathroom, lock the door and force me to fawn over whatever crap it is she discovered that day that will make this the Advent calendar of the decade.
This culminates on November 30 as she, like a kid eager for Christmas herself, waits for the offspring to fall asleep. Then out come the tools and accessories for crafting a tailor-made calendar. One year we used crepe paper to wrap the doo-dads, the next old rubber balls (held together with matching rubber bands!). They are then hung in the window, ostensibly so the kids get to see each day's present in the light of day but, after five years of Advent calendars, I know the truth – it's so other mothers can see how much better our calendar is than everybody else's.
This is a silent maternal competition. An unspoken contest. Every time we go to friends who have children, my wife gets that manic squirrel look. Her eyes dart around like Boris Becker in a room full of Russian waitresses.
One time they landed squarely on 24 little socks draped in the window. “Oh that,” our hostess said, “those are just socks from my childhood I repurposed as an Advent calendar.” The hostess smirked. My wife sweated.
Another friend had what looks like a mobile of pictures from exotic but downtrodden countries. “The kids have enough stuff,” the woman of the house told us, “so this year we donated to 24 charities and we talk about each one with the kids every morning.” I could hear my wife stop breathing next to me.
And so December undoubtedly goes, each window becoming a door in my wife's Advent calendar of envy. Eventually Santa Claus arrives finally, calling an end to the jolly season of Advent-inspired waterboarding. “Next year,” my wife will say, “I'm just buying a commercial one.”
I will make sure to cart her past the discount Christmas stuff at Target as we visit the grandparents in the States, pointing out the super cheap Yankee Advent calendars. “The other mothers would laugh at me,” she will say, already forgetting her previous proclamation. “Yes,” I'll reply, “but think of how envious the fathers would be.”
But she won't believe me.
Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in the comments area below.