Thursday 30 November 2017

Advent is a feminist issue (and so are posh Advent calendars)

Posh Advent calendars. They're a real thing this year. I'm old enough to remember when you couldn't even get chocolate in a Advent  calendar, just either a Christmassy picture behind each window, or a Bible quotation. Chocolate started a few years too late for my childhood, but hell yeah. And then, silently but surely, posh Advent calendars have developed as a thing.

My kids got a Lego one six or seven years ago, and absolutely loved it.  I think I first became aware of gin ones three or four years ago in Twitter. Then make up ones last year. I can't justify £50+ myself, but a few weeks ago I saw a scented candle one in Home Bargains and snapped it up.

 'Deeply ironic', the Archbishop of Canterbury said of the rise of posh Advent calendars last week. Pshaw, say many clergy and others, deeply rooted in the Anglican Church year - Advent is a time of fasting, a time of abstinence and preparation, to be contrasted with the feasting that comes in the 12 days of Christmas.

It's taken me a while to think through what I feel about Advent. I do deplore the loss of the twelve days of Christmas . Personally I go to the panto then, and last year I worked with the Real Chocolate Company to produce a Twelve Days of Christmas box of champagne truffles - a Christian add on to your Advent calendar. We should celebrate more, not less!

But I have a deep unease about the demonisation of 'secular' feasting in Advent. Every year when clergy moan about carols in Advent, or Christmas decorations before Advent, I cringe. And in the fuss about posh Advent calendars, I think I've finally identified the source of my dis-ease with this pious insistence on observing the season of Advent 'properly'.

Fast and feast is the cycle of the church year. We are often told to stop in the busyness of Christmas preparations as this should be a season of prayer and contemplation, not of busy activity to prepare for the coming feast - that comes later. But in a cycle of fast and feast, only the privileged - elite men, some elite women - could hold themselves wholly above the preparations for the coming feast. While you were fasting, praying, reading, contemplating the meaning of the season, ready to enjoy the contrast with the coming 12 days of feasting, who do you think was getting the feast ready? It simply isn't possible - and even less in the past - to have 12 days of feasting without a good few weeks of baking and making and larder filling.

So the exhortation to a holy Advent is actually an exhortation to everyone to behave as the elite were able to behave in the past, while the servant classes prepared for them to feast at the end of their fast. To demonise those who are working hard to allow others the luxury of the fast/feast cycle is literally to add insult to injury.

This is of course both gendered and class-bound. Women have always borne the brunt of domestic activity at all class levels, as the lower classes have borne the brunt of the preparations for the leisure of the upper classes.

And so I am unsurprised that the majority of the luxury Advent calendars that I have seen have been largely aimed at, and in my experience purchased by, women. (I'd be really interested to see any market research data on the market that anyone has access to, to see if this experience is borne out by the figures).

 It is a well known fact that in a recession, sales of red lipstick go up - because, apparently, women bearing the brunt of coping feel the need to splash out on an affordable treat. I suggest that the rise and rise of the posh Advent calendar - with its daily treat of chocolate, make up, booze or a scented candle - is a result of exactly the same dynamic. Those who are bearing the brunt of the work of preparing for others to celebrate the Christmas feast feel the need for 'a treat each day during a busy period' (as @lamnotRach said in response to my question on Twitter asking why people bought posh Advent calendars).

Seen from this perspective, I suggests that the rise of posh Advent calendars is neither ironic nor a sign of encroaching secularism, but rather a sign of increasing self-confidence, self-worth and self-care amongst those who have historically been marginalised in religious praxis. We are familiar with the idea of the mother-whore double-bind that women often find themselves in; I suggest that Advent typically presents women, and lower-status men, with a similar dilemma: prepare for a sumptuous Christmas feast, whilst simultaneously being expected not to look busy. It's a common trope in Christian feminism that the besetting sin of women (on average, of course) might not be pride but over-humility. I wonder if the rise of the posh Advent calendar perhaps reflects a rise in awareness among these groups, that this is an unrealistic expectation, and that we need to look after ourselves and find our own Advent calm and peace in a moment of self-indulgence rather than a moment of self-denial made in the comfortable knowledge that someone else has the preparations in hand.


  1. Spot on, I think.

    As a musician I've often been rather bemused by the idea that we shouldn't do anything Christmas-y until Christmas itself. I mean, if you really want the choir to not rehearse any of the Christmas music until then, we can do that, but it won't be very good...

  2. really thoughtful. thankyou. I'd like more thought re the role of consumerism (as distinct from secularism) - is the rise of these advent calendars about lengthening a market? I appreciate the feminist lens and the reality of feasting. Steve Taylor

  3. Thank you for identifying for me one of the reasons why, as one of those preparing the feast of physical and spiritual food for others, I often find Advent a stressful season, especially if I neglect to look after myself.

  4. Interesting perspective (came via the 'Thinking Anglicans' link).

    "To demonise those who are working hard to allow others the luxury of the fast/feast cycle is literally to add insult to injury."

    I of course agree; but isn't the thing being demonized (if that's not too strong a word) not hard-workers, but luxury advent calendars containing ten grand's worth of booze?

    Don't get me wrong, I too tire of cookie-cutter rants about consumerism churned out as routinely as Santa suits; but that said, on this, they've got a point. I've nothing against people treating themselves during the holiday chaos, but pharaonic overindulgence in the name of what's supposed to be a time of austere self-contemplation pushes my irony-meter past breaking.

  5. Love this. Just like those who were wealthy and privileged enough to follow all the dietary and "cleanliness" rules in Jesus day.

  6. On Thanksgiving Day, I go "all out" with turkey and the fixings for my family. On Christmas, we do a much more manageable (and less labor-intensive) ham, because years ago I made the conscious decision to not spend Christmas Day in the kitchen. I am grateful for the privilege of making those decisions, as well as knowing there will be ample food on our table. I must admit I find the extravagant Advent calendars rather hokey, and am happy to enjoy a simple piece of chocolate in each square.

  7. Nothing wrong with feasting - and in Jewish celebrations women are much at the centre of the table liturgy - but I think some of the unease around commercial Advent calendars is about the ever increasing divide in our society between those who can afford champagne and chocolate on a daily basis and those who can't. Let's not kid ourselves this is about successful businesses making big bucks. And knowingly supporting that is not part of my Advent Feasting.

  8. I was given one of those beauty product ones last year. I kept it and for Dec 2017 made it up with all sorts of ordinary, everyday things because so often we fail to celebrate that which we take for granted. That sense of more is not necessariy better or good for you or the planet. However the faces of my son and husband were a picture when the 1st of December revealed new toothbrushes... there were little chocolate later on ... I'm not that mean but I really wanted to test our assumptions on rampant consumerism. Thank you for your thought provoking blog.