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DREW SHANNON

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Today, it seems that preparations for Christmas begin right after Halloween, even during Halloween. But whether you are an early shopper or not, Advent officially begins exactly four Sundays before Christmas. And if your kids are in Catholic school (like mine are), this period is when their teachers start coming up with ever more creative ways of cutting through the clutter to remind children of the meaning of Christmas.

A few years ago, we received a note from my son’s junior kindergarten teacher: “The Joy Bag is our class’ way of celebrating and sharing the season of Advent. Each child will bring the bag home for one night and then pass it on to another family the next day. … Please write a few sentences in the book to share your experiences with other families in the class.”

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The Joy Bag arrived in our home on the first Tuesday in December, tucked in my youngest’s knapsack between a red and green paper chain and a Ziploc bag with a squished cucumber. It was small and velvet, with a drawstring, vaguely reminding me of my father’s Crown Royal bags.

My oldest son helps loosen the strings. My daughter climbs up to the table to watch. Grubby fingers are thrust into the soft velvet abyss, landing on a Halloween-size pack of Smarties. “Don’t open them yet!” I cry (of course, who else around that table would say that?). “Let’s see everything that’s in there.”

He puts the Smarties down on the kitchen table. Then, figure by figure, animal by animal, he pulls out a full nativity scene, complete with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, a few shepherds and kings, and some cattle. I see a metal star and a laminated paper with a prayer to say together. A notebook, with one entry already completed, details the first family’s reflections on and experience with the Joy Bag.

Now, my youngest is four years old. He’s a bit of a scrapper. Gentleness is not his strong suit. The star lasts precisely 8.4 seconds before snapping in two. There are tears. But being calm, patient and Catholic, I take the high road. I assure him that it was an accident. God will understand, as will the kindergarten teacher (I hope).

I wipe his tears, and he begins to lay out the nativity scene, each figure in its place. “Mommy, why are there only three kings?” “Mommy, how come there are no doggies by the manger?” His siblings get in on the game, helping him put the animals in their place. They look around the house for some wire out of which to fashion a new star of Bethlehem. He counts out the Smarties so they can be shared evenly with his brother and sister. Warmed by his generosity (and fairness) and the calm and harmonious scene before me, I leave them alone for a few moments to catch up on some reading in the living room.

Two articles in, I overhear the unmistakable sounds of boys in battle. Joseph is being sent into a Transformer-style duel with the angel Gabriel. “The angel can fly but Joseph can’t!” “Here he comes he’s shooting with his huge gun, see?” “Watch out, the angel is going to get him. Nyyyeeerrrrmmm ..." SMASH!

I bolt from the couch, but it’s too late. A grisly scene awaits me. My eldest child holds the decapitated head of Joseph in his hands. He looks strangely manic, similar to a villain in a creepy Christmas horror movie. My daughter pleads innocence. My youngest picks up Joseph’s broken body. Everyone is crying. Oh joy, where are you now?

I do not react well. I point fingers. I yell. I try to untangle the scene. I pin blame on the eldest, who should have known better than to dive bomb with Joseph. I ask them what they were thinking, making these special figurines fight to their death. Then I ask myself why I thought they would do anything different? Their version of joy was perhaps not quite what the teacher had anticipated.

Together, we pick up the pieces and consider whether Joseph can be surgically rebuilt. We leave the nativity scene set up on the kitchen table for their father to see when he gets home, Joseph’s head balanced precariously on his shoulders. We consider what we should write in the little notebook. A warning, perhaps? My daughter helpfully suggests we draw a picture of Joseph without a head.

The evening does not get worse. My husband finds the humour I could not. My eldest hauls out his piggybank with a promise to pay for a new Joseph. There is a late-night basement encounter with a glue gun. Joseph comes through the surgery intact, if a little unstable. But the star’s light has gone out forever. I check online to see whether the Dollar Store opens before the morning bell. I review the class list and shoot off a warning e-mail to the next family.

The day begins with two nervous boys, but an understanding of what must be done. When we arrive at school, my daughter hugs her brothers, then skips off with her innocence. The oldest and youngest approach the kindergarten teacher together with their explanation and their allowance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she does understand. She accepts their apology and refuses their money, dialing up their joy ever so slightly. In fact, as she explains to me later, she buys several nativity scenes at the beginning of the season for just such a situation.

In recounting the story to friends, I discover that Ethan’s mom found the severed hand of the baby Jesus floundering at the bottom of the velvet bag. We laugh and wonder what other casualties must have taken place by the time the last family had their turn.

Advent is a period of waiting expectantly. But most often, exactly what we want or expect, just doesn’t quite happen. Joy is messy.

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Jennifer Bizzarri lives in Toronto.

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