There was a newspaper cartoon a few years back that had the Thanksgiving Turkey scolding Santa for not waiting his turn. “You can have December,” he says. It was humorous take on how the secular American celebration of Christmas is a bit out of whack, affecting our ability to enter the spirit of other important days during this time of year.
The liturgical season of Advent often gets overlooked because it overlaps with what is usually called the Christmas season. In the liturgical calendar, the season of Advent precedes Christmas, while the Christmas season begins on Christmas day.
The word “Advent” comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.” The Catholic Tradition distinguishes three different comings of Christ: God’s incarnation in a particular time and place of history; Christ’s mysterious final coming at the end of history, when creation will culminate in the “new heaven and a new earth”; and a third, more hidden and mysterious, coming of Christ in the present. Like the parable of the five virgins who brought enough oil to watch during the night for the coming of the bridegroom, Advent reminds us to be prepared for the coming of Christ into our lives at any given moment.
I wrote a post about the significance of the Advent season for my own spiritual life.
There are a number of traditions and symbols that can help bring the spiritual meaning of Advent into focus at your home:
1. Nativity Set
According to lore, the nativity display was initiated by St. Francis of Assisi after his visit to the Holy Land. Hoping to bring the narrative of Christ’s birth to life for an Italian village, he borrowed local farm animals and recruited some of the locals to play the roles. Eventually, craftsmen began carving sets for families to place in their homes.
Some might say that this is more of a Christmas tradition that has seeped into Advent. That’s probably true, but it’s also totally an appropriate way to stay focused on what we are preparing for during Advent – the birth of the Son in the world.
The kids love setting up our nativity set, and Sophie plays with the figures for hours. The other day I overheard the shepherds having an argument with Joseph – over space issues in the stable.
There are so many different styles of nativities out there. For young kids, I recommend plastic or sturdy wood that can be banged up.
There are certain localized traditions associated with the nativity set. When I was growing up, my Mom would keep the Christ child hidden until she brought him out to the manger on Christmas Eve. As the feast of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) get’s closer, we’ll take turns moving the wise men around the house, as they follow the star to the stable in Bethlehem.
And then there’s that Catalonian tradition…
2. Advent Wreath
The Advent wreath is a beautiful symbol of keeping hope alive in dark times. It is also a ecumenical tradition, coming to us from both the Catholic and Lutheran communities of Germany. The wreath holds four candles: three purple and one pink, representing the four weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas. The evergreen branches are said to represent eternal life and the candles represent light of Christ in the midsts of darkness. We tend to light ours for family meals, but they can also be lit during prayer time.
Some modern day adaptions include a white candle placed in the middle of the wreath and is lit on Christmas Eve.
There is an official blessing of the Advent wreath that families can pray.
3. Advent Calendar
“Is Christmas next week?” Sophie asked as we were driving home from Thanksgiving dinner.
You can’t blame her for wondering, as she sees the Christmas lights on the houses decorations stocked in the stores. Not to mention that our piano studio is abuzz with the practicing of Holiday tunes.
The Advent calendar can help your child to count down the days to Christmas while learning a story connected to the birth of Jesus. In some calendars, each day is marked by a symbol from the Hebrew Scriptures that points to the coming of Christ. Our calendar tells an elaborated version of the biblical infancy narratives.
4. Advent Chain
In addition to the Advent calendar, Megan made a countdown paper chain to help Sophie get a better idea of how close were are getting to Christmas and marking some of the important days of Advent. For example, we have St. Nicholas day (the 6th) marked by a red paper. The Sundays of Lent are marked by 3 purple and pink chains; Sophie knows that these days are special because we go to Church and light another candle on the Advent wreath.
The first thing she does each morning is rip off another link.
5. St. Nicholas Day
We don’t know much about the historical St. Nicholas other than that he lived in the 3rd to 4th centuries and was Bishop of Myrna in what is modern day Turkey. Legends originating from the early Middle Ages tell us of a man who embodied the generosity of Christ in both word and deed.
There are a number of good resources to help tell the stories of St. Nicholas.
There are some great picture books:
On the production side of things, this movie is pure cheese – but it tells some of the legends well enough:
On eve of the feast of St. Nicholas (December 5th), we put out our shoes. St. Nick comes during the night to leave a little something in each of them. I’m not particularly fond of telling elaborate stories of magical gift-givers, so we keep it all pretty simple and open to mystery. If Sophie ever asks who really puts stuff in the shoes, I don’t plan on telling her anything other than the truth.
In the spirit of St, Nicholas, Advent is a great time to be a little more intentional in how our family gives our time, talent and treasure to help others.
Local food pantries and organizations like Catholic Charities can be great places for the whole family to volunteer during this time of year. Be sure to call ahead of time to find out if there are any age restrictions for volunteering.
There are, of course, so many great organizations to donate to. Heifer International is particularly family friendly, as you can include the kiddos in the decision making process on what animals and other resources to buy for struggling family farmers in economically disadvantaged areas of the globe.
7. Feast of the Immaculate Conception
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception always falls within Advent (December 8th) and is a “holy day of obligation” in the Unites States. Our Lady, under this title, is the patron of the United States. Given the growing political, cultural and racial conflicts in our country – not to mention the looming threat of nuclear war- we need the prayers of the Queen of Peace more than ever.
Advent and Christmas cannot be an escape from the violence and suffering in the world. Jesus, after all, was born on the run; a political refugee. Be honest with your kids (as is appropriate to their age) that not all is good with the world today. Teach them to pray for peace in the world and their hearts, for their future depends on it.
8. Christmas Tree Blessing
The Christmas tree: another wonderful symbol of the light of Christ in the midst of darkness. The USCCB has a family blessing for the Christmas tree.
9. Lamb wool/Guiding stars
I must confess that we’ve never put these ideas into practice. My mom, a retired first grade teacher, described them to me when I told her I was writing this blog. You cut out a paper sheep, hang it up somewhere, and keep a jar of cotton balls handy. Each time someone in the family does something kind for someone else, they get to put a piece of cotton on the lamb.
An alternate version of this would be to make a poster with the traveling wisemen on it. Put a star to the sky above them for each act of kindness; the idea being that our love points the way to Jesus.
10. Lucy’s Lights
St. Lucy, whose name means light, was a fourth century Christian martyr. Her feast falls on December 13th, the old winter solstice before the Gregorian calendar was reformed in the Middle Ages. For those reasons St. Lucy’s day was honored with a number of customs involving fire, from lighting special candles to having a bonfire. We’ll be roasting smores – weather permitting.
What are some of your favorite Advent traditions?