Advent Futures / Troubling Presents
Advent = coming.
From the Latin adventus – advenio (arrive) + tus (the action suffix).
Advent is the beginning of the Christian liturgical year. The emphasis is on this action of coming, of the approach. It’s an interesting way to start, with the collapsing of time, because the anticipation is a preparation for the Nativity – the birth of Jesus – an act thought to have occurred 2017 years ago; and it’s also a preparation for the second coming, for the action on which the church waits. And then it is an anticipation of the end times.
We’re mid-way through, and half the doors of the Advent calendars are open. Advent calendars emerged from the German Lutheran tradition in the 19th century as Nicholas calendars, given to children on the Feast of Saint Nicholas (December 5th). Card pictures were cut out for display on the wall. The first commercially printed version was published in 1908 by Gerhard Lang, inspired by his own childhood experience of twenty-four cookies to be unwrapped each day of Advent. Initially depicting the Nativity, each day a part of the story that ends with the birth of Christ, calendars now range from familiar nostalgic winter scenes, to chocolates behind Spiderman. At home, my niece and nephew have got over an initial indifference to their “More Snow Coming” scene from the Vermont Calendar Company (who advocate bringing this charming Old World tradition home to your family [to] create some treasured memories), with suggestions of Christmassy things to make behind each door. Now the kids are demanding help in making gingerbread men (door four).
In the Heritage Futures lab, the calendar is a less seasonal affair. Playmobil, alongside more traditional manger and pastoral farmyard scenes, have Advent offerings that seem peculiarly discordant with the spirit of Christmas. I have eschewed the road traffic accident and freak fire in favour of the more heritage-themed museum heist. A pop-up cardboard museum forms the backdrop to a rather secular story of a thief, with bicycle, and his nemesis, an armed policeman. In accordance with the Feast of St Nicholas, the calendar nods to tradition in that the policeman – a strange clean-shaven Father Christmas proxy, but nevertheless, intended as such – arrived behind the sixth door. The arrival of his car behind door 24 hints at a final triumph of good over evil.
“The waiting of Advent is a real waiting, an authentic expectation of an event that has not yet taken place, an event that still lies ahead of us,”
while also being that “strange and profound idea that is inherent in ritual … [O]ur common distinctions are collapsed, past-present-future are made one and experienced as a single whole” writes Philip Pfatteicher, scholar of literature and theology. The writer JB Priestley, whose fascination with different theories of time led him to explore its conceptions in his plays and other writings, contrasted “the all-at-once of the Great Time” with the “one-thing-after-another” time. Pfatteicher distinguishes the one as “sacred” and the other as “profane”, and describes the paradox held in tension within the Church:
“There is the prophetic view that preserves and relies on the promises of God, and there is what might be called the situational view reflecting the actual everyday experience of humanity”.
“The Playmobil Police Advent Calendar has 24 boxes to count down to Christmas. As each box is opened it creates a fun-filled scene, with the policeman arriving at the museum on his quad to stop the armed robber before he steals the treasures. Includes a police detective badge and working alarm with trip beam and siren.”
The concept expressed in Advent of the end times has, of course – given their twin emergence from theological strains – much in common with the Judeo-Christian understanding of the Apocalypse. In a sense, while the liturgy continually warns us to be watchful, it is an affordance of time. In this condensed time, we have time to change our ways. In its early weeks, the liturgy leans towards the solemnity of death – the emphasis on the rising of the slain – before the element of rejoicing towards the birth with which the Advent season ends.
We can see parallels here – and trace two millennia of core thought – in the practices of future-making and its undertakers: those charged with preserving the world’s heritage and the futures that they work toward. Advent is reflective of a restoration in some senses – for the Second Coming promises a return to the purity of that world before sin – but more seriously in a belief that after the end times are better times, and we must prepare. And it is not just people who rejoice, but the whole world and its elements:
“Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains” [Isiah 49:13].
The Sunday before Advent begins is colloquially known as Stir-Up Sunday in the Anglican tradition: it is the day that the Christmas pudding is traditionally prepared. The Stir-Up, however is from the day’s prayer, from the Latin, excita. From a different root, turbidus, Donna Haraway uses stir up as an invective against “making an imagined future safe”. “Our task is to make trouble,” she says, “to stir up.” The danger of condensing time, of comings, is our loss of capacity to dwell in “a thick present”. The present is risked as
“A vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures.”
We can see parallels here – and trace two millennia of core thought – in the practices of future-making and its undertakers: those charged with preserving the world’s heritage and the futures that they work toward. Advent is reflective of a restoration in some senses – for the Second Coming promises a return to the purity of that world before sin – but more seriously in a belief that after the end times are better times, and we must prepare.
Futures become the restorative vision that prevents the now time (kainos, to Haraway, “now, a time of beginnings, a time for ongoing, for freshness”). The earth has no investment in the future salvific moment: it is the earth of now, though its now may be different from ours, and its songs in a different key and time signature. She diverts from the inevitability of the anthros of the Anthropocene to the possibilities of the Cthulucene (from chthonic, Greek: kthonios, of the earth). This takes us to a different understanding of Advent, and to precursors – the Roman Saturnalia, the Northern Yule festivals – in the midwinter festivals of the Northern hemisphere. The shortest day, the barren winter in the thick now attends the digging and planting. The chthonic system at play.
What does this mean for my calendars? In the Playmobil calendar, the museum has a classical façade, its antiquities presumably looted by colonial powers; control is exercised by arms of the State, here equated with a saint famed for giving. In the Vermont calendar, a joyful scene of pre-mechanized play and sport: skating, sleigh-riding, companionable ice-fishing, hockey on the frozen lake. The only sign of another life is the mill, its waterwheel frozen still.
The story that I know, that the doors inevitably reveal, must be troubled. A chthonic reading would dispense with the binaries of good and bad, the idealized pre-industrial landscape; and look instead at how we might stir up the stories reproduced by its recreations of manufactured pasts and the unquestioned replications of narratives that project a redemptive future without embedding themselves fully in the thick present.
Philip H. Pfatteicher, 2014. Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Oxford University Press
Donna Haraway, 2016. Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press
“Our task is to make trouble,” says Donna Haraway, “to stir up.” The danger of condensing time, of comings, is our loss of capacity to dwell in “a thick present”.