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Illustration by Drew Shannon

My family was late to the adoption of Advent calendars to herald the Christmas season. Which is surprising, Christmas was a holiday keenly anticipated in our party-happy family. A five o’clock bell rang daily; it was an imaginary bell to make it easy for my parents to mark the cocktail hour no matter where they were in the world. At home, cocktails were always served on a special rectangular mahogany tray with a silver jug.

But it wasn’t until I had my own children that Advent calendars became a significant ritual, a concrete counting down of the nights of sleep until Santa’s visit. It didn’t hurt that my birthday is on Dec. 1, which I identified as “the most important day of the year,” because it was both Mummy’s birthday and the first teeny door on the Advent calendar. One of my criteria for our Advent calendars was that there had to be an element of surprise when the door was opened, so we never had the ubiquitous chocolate versions. Sometimes it was miniature toys, sometimes jokes or stickers, often little pictures. One of my favourite calendars had a series of stained-glass stickers from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that made up a panel on the window of our back door. When my daughters were young adults, I’d mail them a calendar or get them one filled with tiny tins of tea or 24 different flavours of chocolate (finally, the chocolate).

For my 50th birthday, my daughters blew all my efforts out of the water, however, when they hung a tabletop Christmas tree with Lilliputian wrapped gifts of chocolate, coffee, lip gloss or beribboned scrolls with songs that were recorded for a 50th Advent Playlist CD delivered at the end of the month. Each number was hand-beaded onto the package, and these are now framed, on raspberry-coloured velvet, in my bedroom. The top of the tree had an origami stellated dodecahedron with its number one dangling and my birthday gift inside. On my 55th birthday, they wrapped and arranged numbered gourmet and luxury treats in my fridge and on my bookshelves. And then last year, for my 60th, they outdid themselves again and crowdsourced a wine Advent calendar, with a special bottle from friends or family members for every day of the month until Christmas Eve.

Every morning I removed a numbered tissue flower from a bottle, tied it onto a wreath that collected them for the month, and unwound the tissue to see bottles that ranged from old favourites to best buys, from extravagant treats to wine picked simply because of the label (which may or may not have been embellished by the giver).

One of my sisters and her family have had their own DIY Advent calendars over the years, too. The first year, they challenged each other to create and fill an Advent calendar for another member of their immediate family. Their teenage daughter ran upstairs to her stash of craft supplies and created an exquisite tree-shaped box of tiny drawers with wee knobs. My brother-in-law built a triangular (he would say tree-shaped) pile of bricks on the back deck with nooks left for the gifts. Their son used a shoebox and replaced the surprise every day. My niece took the prize for effort. Last year, hunkered down together for the pandemic, they took turns writing clues for a daily treasure hunt, and it was more of a joint effort.

Our family’s best effort has to have been what we created in 2018. Dad’s health was not great and it was hard to know how to help or how to celebrate Christmas. One of my sisters had the brilliant idea of creating a whisky Advent calendar, canvassing family, in-laws, friends and neighbours for contributions. Her husband approached pharmacies and bought four-ounce brown plastic medicine bottles (none of this “wee dram” business for Dad). A triangle-shaped box was built, wrapped in Christmas paper and outfitted with shelves to lay the numbered bottles of liquid treasure down. We ended up collecting 23 different whiskies and one barrel-aged gin. There were old familiar brands, expensive single malts and custom blended kitchen whiskies. Each bottle had a label to identify the whisky, then carefully overwrapped with a colourful strip of wrapping paper and a number was placed on the cap. It was a thing of beauty, in both appearance and spirit (so to speak).

And so began the December, 2018, ritual. The mahogany tray with the silver jug, the footed whisky glasses and the Scotch (or Irish) drink of the day. It was ceremoniously poured and tasted, first neat, then with water and finally, the label was unwrapped for identification and discussion.

Midmonth, the doctor visited on his way home to tell Dad there was no more they could do. Fortunately for the doctor, he was also there for the silent, five o’clock bell. Fortunately, he was also a rye man. The ritual was shared more generously that day. Dad savoured every one of those whiskies until Dec. 24, when he declined his share. He died a week later.

Mum lives with me now. This Advent, I’m going to dust off the tray and perhaps, after almost two years of isolation, invite some guests to join us for the cocktail bell. I have also filled a little village of 24 sparkly cardboard houses with treats for my daughter. It’s to thank her for her past efforts and to give her a surprise every morning as she wakes up with my brand new first grandchild. Next year will be a whole new Advent calendar adventure.

Colleen Gaffney lives in Hamilton.

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