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Opinion

The ultimate Christmas gift

In an age of instant gratification, Advent’s penitential design trains our hearts and minds for the bigger hope to come.

By Emily Walshe / December 16, 2009



Brookville, N.Y.

Santa Claus is coming. We know, because we track him on NORAD’s satellites. 

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That’s what we did last year – shuffled the kids off to bed as he left Western Samoa, confident that he’d be here by morning.

Last year, too, we skipped the whole “sitting-upon-Santa’s-lap” thing. Instead, we texted him directly: “we cnt w8 4 xmas!,” from which we relished the automated reply, “b g%d!”

While reaching into the attic recently for our digitally remastered Dickens DVDs, I contemplated the season of Advent, and how remarkably adept we’ve become at collapsing the essence of things – even Christmas. It’s just one of the insidious ways, I suppose, in which we have come to take on the characteristics of our technologies.

Advent is – literally – the season of looking forward. It is predicated upon the idea of arrival, and in this way, it clashes with digital culture and the instantaneous, 24/7, asynchronous architecture of the Internet. 

Last December, our children cut-and-pasted their wish lists from an ethereal host of dotcoms, uploaded them for distant relatives, chatted live with avatar elves, and even logged on to Rudolph’s webcam in an 11th-hour attempt to substantiate faith (a faith that, in all of their 11 years, had never failed them).

People who study the spatiotemporal aspects of technology understand that, much like the mechanical clocks of the last millenniums, our computers are affecting and changing temporality – our perceptions of time; its measurement; and the ways in which it is organized, consumed and chronicled. At no other point in the year is this more apparent to me than at Christmas, when calendrical and liturgical times converge under a woolly blanket of subjective, global space.

For our kids, the sweet, slow penitential design of an Advent season is, like, sooooo 20th century. Why wait? 

This is precisely the question that lines store shelves with seasonal novelties in early October. It’s the question that betinsels our main streets and broadcasts Bing Crosby before Thanksgiving. And it’s the question that trumpets incessantly now in the form of glossy secular circulars and countless QuickTime tidings.

Advent is a discipline. It is a waiting – and we’re not accustomed to that, partly because of the tools that render it wholly unnecessary. This year, as I watch our children ready their lists (unplugged), I marvel at how technology can contract life’s mysteries. Wise men looked to the sky. We have GPS. 

“Technology ... is a queer thing,” says comedian Carrie Snow. “It brings great gifts with one hand and stabs you in the back with the other.”

There is a time for proof and a time for providence. 

Now – perhaps more than at any other time in our history – we must pursue a sense of wonder and, when we find it, cling to it self-consciously. Because Christmas lacks meaning without a forward-looking Advent; and we need the future tense. We need – if only for four short weeks of the year – a litany of hope in what is unseen and yet to come.

Emily Walshe is a librarian and professor at Long Island University in New York.

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