Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Advent Reading: Madeleine L'Engle's Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas

I recently went looking through my review archives to read over some of the reflections I wrote, in years past, about Advent and Christmas books. One of the Advent books I have loved the longest is Madeleine L'Engle's Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas.  I wrote briefly about it here on the blog back in 2011, and I reviewed it in full on the now defunct back in 2004!

In honor of the first week of Advent, and in honor of what would have been Madeleine's 97th birthday on November 29, I thought I would post that old review in its entirety here. And yes, that precious 2 1/2 year old girl I talk about in the review is now a wonderful 13 1/2.

Last Sunday night, while we were still finishing the Thanksgiving leftovers, we got out our family Advent wreath and set it up with new candles. This is the first year that our daughter, almost two and a half, is really getting "into" the Advent traditions that her Daddy and I had already established for a decade before her birth. The lighting of the wreath, along with a special prayer time each night, is the best part.

For centuries, it has been the tradition of the Christian church to mark the weeks before Christmas as a time of reflection and celebration of the coming of Jesus. A good summary of what Advent is all about is "He comes; He's coming again!" Even as we await Christmas day (the celebration of the feast of the nativity) many of the appointed Scripture lessons focus our attention on the eventual return of Jesus as King. So our vision has a kind of dual focus: the humility of God coming to earth as a tiny child, and the majesty of Jesus' promised return as King to set things right and make all things new.

The wisdom of the tradition of Advent feels more and more apparent to me the older I get, especially now that I'm a parent. In the darkest days of the year, the season of Advent turns our attention to the coming of light. In the frenetic rush and busyness of a consumer crazed culture, the season of Advent refocuses our attention on the gift of the incarnation, God-become-human-being. Advent helps us to "anticipate" with joy, things both small and large. It's natural that our family is excited about good things at this time of year: beautiful decorations, time with family and friends, traditional music, delicious food, the exchange of gifts with loved ones. Taking time out to reflect and rest in the meaning of the celebration reminds us that these good things we're waiting for are just side-dishes, with the real banquet of love and light still to come one day.

Some of my first meaningful brushes with the whole Advent concept of "slowing-down/waiting/anticipating with joy" came in Madeleine L'Engle's marvelous book The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas. First published in 1964, it is still in print. The edition I own, well loved and well read, is the hardback edition illustrated by Joe DeVelasco and published by Shaw. I believe this edition is now out of print, but used copies still seem to be floating around. It's well worth it if you can find it because the illustrations are charming and help bring the story to life.

Fans of Madeleine L'Engle will recognize the family in the story. The Austins were introduced by L'Engle in 1960's Meet the Austins and were the focus of several other books she wrote from the 1960's on into the 1990's: The Moon by Night (1963), The Young Unicorns (1968), A Ring of Endless Light (1980), and Troubling a Star (1994). All of those were novel length, but in addition to these, L'Engle revisited the Austin family from time to time in "long short story" format, including The Anti-Muffins and A Full House which shows the Austins on another Christmas. Of the three shorter books, The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas is my favorite, and I think by far the strongest and most interesting narrative.

Like all Austin stories (except for Young Unicorns and A Full House), this one is narrated by Vicky Austin. Readers familiar with the novels know Vicky as an adolescent, but in this "prequel" she is only 7 years old. Also part of her family: older brother John, younger sister Suzy, father Wallace (a doctor by trade), and mother Victoria. Oh yes, also Colette the poodle and Mr. Rochester the Great Dane. In all other Austin books, one of the most memorable characters is the youngest Austin sibling, Rob. He is definitely a part of this book too, but in a different way: Mrs. Austin is pregnant and Rob makes his somewhat dramatic appearance toward the end of the book.

The Austins live in an unnamed New England village. The book opens with Vicky proclaiming "December is probably my favorite month". That's because the family gets to do something special for each day of the four weeks leading up to Christmas. They start each December with a new Advent calendar, and then each day they get to do something else new and special. Most of these are ordinary but creative family traditions: making cards, making cookies, getting familiar ornaments out of the attic, choosing their tree from the woods. Vicky relates what the family does to celebrate each day in the course of a story packed with all sorts of other anticipation. The children keep waiting for the first snowfall of the year; they are excited about the upcoming church Christmas pageant; and most of all they are excited about the new baby, due in early January.

Vicky makes a precocious seven year old narrator. L'Engle occasionally seems to give her a too "adult" kind of tone/reasoning...but readers familiar with the older Vicky can forgive this a bit, and I think even other readers will find her endearing. A lot of us have known very smart seven year olds (and even younger children) who surprise us with the intensity of their questions and the profundity of their thoughts. What feels perfectly natural about her narration is the undertone of anxiety shot through the joyful anticipation. What if she goofs up her part as an angel in the Christmas pageant? (She overhears the director say she's awkward, and spends much of the rest of the story walking around the house with an encyclopedia on her head, trying to improve her grace and poise.) Worse yet, what if the baby decides to come early and her mother ends up in the hospital for Christmas?

L'Engle delightfully resolves these childish but oh so understandable dilemmas and fears. The end result is a story shot through with the Advent themes of waiting, working, praying and loving in joyful anticipation.

Vicky is very much a member of a family, and readers will enjoy getting to see her interact with her parents and siblings in ordinary ways. Some critics have faulted L'Engle for "unreal" or "ideal" portrayals of family life, but I think that's probably more a commentary on the sad brokenness we're used to than on her writing. The Austins, at any rate, always felt much more real to me than L'Engle's other famous family (the time-traveling Murrys) and I love them here. They fuss, fret, squabble, laugh, cry, eat, pray, and read together. As the youngest member of my own family (and so basically an "only" child by the time I was 13) I loved stepping vicariously into the Austin household. Of course, I also related somewhat intensely to the gawky, introverted Vicky. Still do!

All in all, this book is a wonderful introduction for children and grown-ups to the celebration of Advent. I remember reading this when I was in my late teens and early twenties, and thinking "I want to do those kinds of things with my children some day." Now I'm getting to, and I'm still grateful for the inspiration this story provided.

And it is a story with enough tender moments to make you wish to be a part of it again and again. I am always especially touched by Vicky's night-time thoughts by the creche, and by Rob Austin's birth. Yes, he comes within the 24 days...just!

The story comes in at 48 pages of fairly packed prose, although in my edition a few of those are full page illustrations. It can be read in one long sitting -- something I've done and enjoyed on Christmas Eves past, but that might be tough going for very little children. Alternatively, it can be read and enjoyed as a kind of "serial" since each day of the month is described. Some of the days have long narrative sections and others only brief mentions, so you might want to plan ahead and plot a reading course that works best for your family.

Happy first week of Advent, and happy reading!

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