Trees and lights, gifts and bows, party invitations and brightly colored cards, the excitement leading up to Christmas can tempt us to lose focus of the important task of preparation. Advent, however, invites us to slow down and make ready our hearts and minds. Like the Magi, we can spy the eastern star in the distance and take our time traveling the path towards it. Additionally, if we give Advent its due, then we can avoid the premature rush to throw Christmas to the curb on December 26th.
Years ago we were gifted with an advent box that has a numbered drawer for each of the December days leading up to Christmas. Each drawer gets filled with a piece of candy or a quarter for each child. As you can imagine, my children love the sweet beginning of a day that starts with a yummy treat. Of course, you could fill an Advent calendar with all kinds of non-edible items, but I like to keep it simple and it’s fun to allow a little innocent self-indulgence once in a while.
As a small child I remember the anticipation of opening the paper doors on my advent calendar. After searching the pictured scene for the proper number of the day, I was rewarded with a tiny image of an angel, a shepherd or a manger animal. I was an only child at the time so there was no one to argue with about whose turn it was to flip open the little flap. I’ll be honest and admit my own brood isn’t quite as interested in our card stock calendar, but the wait time in between turns may have something to do with it.
the wreath of candles
Of course, we couldn’t celebrate advent without the traditional wreath of candles. We place ours in the center of our table (around which most of our life revolves) and I have a set of the Holy Family to accompany it. The warming glow of the candles invites us each evening to recollect where we are in the journey toward Christmas. Also, this tradition welcomes our older kids to get involved as only they are allowed the privilege of lighting the candle. For the little ones I have a felt wreath with four flames that Velcro on the three purple and one pink candle.
st. andrew novena
In the past I’ve prayed the St. Andrew novena by myself, but this year I’m going to introduce it as a new tradition to replace our regular family bedtime prayers. Honestly, our night time invocations can become rote at times so this seems a wonderful way to inject a bit of newness into those evening petitions and thanksgivings. Since the novena is meant to be recited 15 times a day, we may split it throughout the day.
Our priest encourages everyone to wait until Christmas Eve before erecting their Christmas trees, but I have to admit that with eight children that idea invokes images of a stress-filled day. Additionally, I relish the fragrance of the tree and the magical luminescence of colored lights so we opt to trim our tree about one week before Christmas day (this way we can enjoy it all the longer). So as not to get stuck picking through the remainder of rejected trees, we usually purchase one earlier in advent and simply leave it outside in a container of water. This method insures our tree will last throughout the twelve days of Christmas without turning into a fire hazard. Last year was one that had us postponing our hunt for the perfect evergreen, but to our delight we got a great deal on the price as the local salesman wanted to move his remaining inventory and close up shop.
Perusing blogs, several others have suggested starting a family story time tradition to keep the excitement and joy enduring all Christmas long. The idea is to wrap twelve children’s books and open only one each night during the twelve days starting on Christmas day. Thinking that a brilliant idea, but wanting to avoid breaking our budget, I sent a son to retrieve all the holiday themed books we already own (so that I only had to purchase a handful more). Later during a shopping spree I happened upon a providential find at Barnes and Noble bookstore. They carry a book that contains 24 stories to be read throughout Advent, so we’ll begin with that one. Going forward, I’ll send all of the books into the attic once Christmas passes. This way the stories will be “new” again year after year.
My stepdad hand made a manger for our family when our numbers were far fewer. Now that he’s left our earthly embrace, that gift has become my most favored decoration. After the advent box, it is the next thing to be carried down from the rafters. It remains empty, albeit for some animals and a lone shepherd boy, until Christmas eve. The wise men are positioned in a distant “land” while Joseph and Mary begin their travels from shelf to shelf. Rather than just setting up this piece and leaving it untouched until Epiphany, I find it helpful to engage our senses by moving the holy players about. The manger is also the last reminder to get packed away because I feel compelled to allow the Magi their time in adoration.
praying through the twelve days of christmas
During the twelve days we, as a family, assign each day for a particular person/persons. We pledge to offer up the whole day (our actions, sacrifices and prayers) for the person of the day. Preparation for this happens in Advent. I print up slips of paper with blanks for the assigned date and name then we determine who will be the designated recipient from December 25th through January 5th. To save on postage we include these love offerings in the envelopes with our cards (that way I also don’t forget to mail them later in the season when life gets busier- I make sure to keep a list of names and dates on our own calendar).
Our family has a few tried and true traditions that we look forward to each year, but this year we’re adding some new ones. My goal is to keep us focused on the true purpose of the season, a preparation for and anticipation of the joy to come on Christmas. Craft fairs, parties, gift wrapping and cookie exchanges are all fun ways to fill up our holiday dance card, but the preceding ideas are meant to call our family closer and to quiet our bodies and minds for awhile each day. From the sweetness our the early morning treat to the evening’s story time snuggles on the couch, we’ll be reminded that the joy of this season lies nestled in our hearts and in our faith.