It seems that there is little daring in a pure critique of Advent. There are many well-deserved and necessary sieges that have yet to laid, and it would be deceptive to not mention the poverty of institutional lucidity in much of the old world when the Advent tradition is considered. The peril of a reductive view is of course its betrayal of faith. Faith in the intellectual prowess and humanity of an audience to understand a deeper complexity. I will therefore dare to venture beyond a critique.
For most of us abroad, the fourth Advent represents returning home. The pre-reading-week-December futile attempts at prioritizing a few holiday songs in a Spotify-rotation fall far short of any redeeming notions of a joyous time before returning home. Any outer-worldly spirit is only called upon in the rapacious struggle to finish the last essays and to study for the last exams. I had
purchased a candle counting down the 24 days until Christmas, but within a week any hopes of burning it even a third way down had been blown out. By early December I had already begun working the skeleton shifts at the library, and any time for yuletide pertained only to a few glances at the garlands in the dining hall. On an American college campus there is a multiplicity of Holiday traditions being celebrated in various decentralized and institutionalized contexts. The culmination at Yale is a Holiday Dinner where first-years partake in the most ostentatious and lavish spectacle. A shockingly, almost grotesque display of wealth being paraded in a procession as if the stretchers of food were palanquins in a Roman triumph carrying in their excess the very source of excellence and glory. I doubt it. I, as a junior, partook in a more enjoyable Holiday Dinner with my residential college.
There is little time in these weeks to feel the longing for home, and it comes upon one suddenly. Engulfing you in the realization that soon, soon the exams are all over and you will be sitting on a flight bound for home. It is best kept at bay, sacrificed on the altar of the scholar, but it springs fourth between the penultimate and the last exam. It seems almost futile to study and you just want to go home.
This year I heard a few Scandinavians argue in different tongues at the check-in at Newark Airport and it made me so happy, because it meant I was just about to be home. It did not even disappointment me that I returned to rain instead of snow. What did it matter? I was home.
Specifically, the fourth Advent precisely represents a return home that is starker in its contrast than any other times one might be fortunate enough to be homebound. The precipice of the holidays force you to be confronted most drastically with your nature as an emigrant. Largely, the last December Advent and the Christmastide is a going home for culture. Not unequivocally of course, but for some of us, we return for Christmas. This is distinct from the return for work, a return for a birthday or a return for summertime. It is a deeper and more heartfelt return. I suspect that many novices would understand this as a unequivocally joyous experience, but I would decry that it is exactly this return out of all returns that makes you confront the ways that you have changed. I would never proclaim to have any elucidating insight, but this year, when I returned home for the third time for Christmas, I have the clearest grasping of the biface of return.
You are confronted with your departure as you return home. When you venture aboard as a vacationer, you can experience a place and a culture with the distance of an observer. You change only superficially. When you move abroad and uproot your life to study in a foreign country, you force yourself into metamorphosis. Your very essence transforms. The luxury of the sojourner is the bliss of their ignorance and that protection from vulnerability that international students lack. It is a tenant of the experience that you reject the unipolarity and monoculture of the place you departed from. Should this be mourned? Absolutely not. For most of us the metamorphosis is an evolution.
The embeddedness of life abroad soothes the experience of being changed, but the return in December confronts you drastically with how you have changed. The stasis home becomes the introspective lens for understanding your own transformation.
The reactionary impulse is often to reject the stasis. The problems in their infinitude protrude most distinctly. They are so jarring and penetrating. Why? I have come to understand that the discomfort arises as many things that were understood as good are revealed as evil. The abomination of the Antichrist is the portrayal of evil as good.
In most logical value systems, it is often impossible to reconcile old and new upon return. You diverge as you go abroad. It is as if you bilocate. Easily observed for example linguistically, but imperceptible in the inarticulable minuteness of how character and personhood change. It is inexplicable to family and friends. Any attempts at verbalizing the depths of this leaves listeners dumbfounded and coherent phrases describing it deceives the gravity of the experience.
As I wrote in the beginning of my text, the easiest deductions from this experience are narrow-minded and reductive in nature. Initially, I attempted to integrate the dualism of my expatriate and vernacular identity. This leads however to a Faustian bargain, where one must trade a wholeness for the comfort of simplicity. Such integrations of self where all sides square are idealistic. You insult your own intellect and the complexity of culture by embarking on this path.
At one point you were confronted with the imaginative nature of the holidays’ mysticism. The revelation of the humanity of a Santa Claus or a similar shattering experience of a no longer whole cosmology. You lose a certain innocence. We would however pity those who continued to live in a permanent imaginative state. We all seek enlightenment and truth. Going abroad you lose the same innocence; a curtain of unity is broken. When the chasm is crossed you can reject that you were ever a child, that you were ever ignorant. An alternative is the holding of contradicting truths.
When I went to my local municipality library before I moved abroad, I took excessive and vain pride in only borrowing inter-library loans. Only English literature was fine enough for my taste. Now when I return, I exclusively want to read Danish books during my break. Blixen, Pontoppidan, and Kierkegaard. Such are the incongruities and idiosyncratic nature of the December return. Returning home becomes rejuvenating only when you allow yourself to exist in a dualism. Paying homage at the same time, both to who you were and who you have become.
I encourage you, those who are so lucky to return this winter break, to revel in being at home. At home in contradicting comfort.
By Carl Bager