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.