I was raised to love Christmas. We decorated the tree early and took it down late. We were particular about using the best cookie recipes, and ate our handiwork all month long.
Money for presents was a bit tight, but that didn’t stop us from giving each other homemade, inexpensive, and even thrifted gifts. My sisters and I are still so present-prone that even though we now technically draw names at Christmas time, we each still give eight gifts to six people, because we hand out “big presents” to our two official recipients and “stocking stuffers” to everyone. Our Christmas spirit is pretty irrepressible.
I love Christmas, but I married an Advent stickler. His family puts the tree up on Christmas Eve. He frowns at the concept of hanging lights on the porch until it is “really Christmas.” He thinks anything red before December 24th is in extremely poor taste. Bless his heart, he suggested—in a sincere spirit of compromise—that I could bring our tree into the house before the 24th as long as I didn’t put any lights on it. Somehow, this didn’t strike me as quite a solution.
Even though we still sometimes disagree about the details, I’ve come to be grateful that my husband has always insisted we celebrate Advent first. His influence keeps me from missing out on a beautiful season in the church year.
Advent Is More than ‘Not-Christmas’
Advent isn’t just “not-Christmas.” We modern Americans tend to blur distinctions and stir all the ingredients of life together. Often our fusion cooking results in a muddled dish that always tastes the same and always leaves us unsatisfied.
This happens, for instance, when we blend courtship and marriage by demanding the privileges of wedded life without the commitment and sacrifices. It happens when we fail to recognize the unique roles of fathers and mothers and instead demand generic, feminized parenting. This makes it harder for us to recognize that differences can be good, that waiting is important for the soul, and that a good life holds seasons and rhythms.
We are tempted to turn November and December into a single Christmas pie. It can seem almost unfair to wait for the joy of Christmas trees and twinkling lights, but Advent makes Christmas feel more like it did when I was a kid, back when the wait and anticipation were big deals.
As we participate in Advent rituals like lighting candles and counting days, I find it easier to focus on little things. It’s a reminder that the mundane—a cup of tea in a pretty mug, a child who does his chore, a friend who laughs at my jokes—is good and beautiful.
Advent Recognizes that Life Isn’t All Jingle Bells
Like the seasons of nature, the liturgical church year is built on a pattern that creates both change and continuity. In this calendar, Advent is the beginning of the new year. It is a time to remember that we wait for our Lord.
Not everyone spends Christmas in a glow of lights and laughter. For those who find themselves alone, sorrowful, or jaded, the holidays are at best bittersweet. A Christmas built on fluff isn’t much comfort.
In contrast, the season of Advent recognizes sin and suffering. Advent doesn’t tell us to paste on a smile and drown our sorrows in eggnog or materialism. It takes our hand and mourns too. Yet it doesn’t stop there. It points us to the joy of true Christmas, to the birth of one who will bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, and who will wipe away every tear.
When Christmas follows Advent, it become a real holiday—a holy day—not just something we build from giftwrap and department store sales. Advent isn’t something I grew up particularly aware of, but I love the customs and traditions my family now practices during this season. Here are some of the ideas that we find helpful.
1. Think through what you really want to do for Christmas.
It’s hard to celebrate Advent if December is a blur of pre-Christmas stress. Do you feel obligated to produce and perform at Christmas? To go over-budget? To meet some unexamined standard in your head?
Studies find that couples who throw expensive weddings are statistically more likely to get divorced. It seems logical that families who fall into the equivalent trap in December are less likely to enjoy what really matters. So don’t feel obligated. You can always try skipping stuff this year and seeing which things you really miss.
Perhaps read stories about old-fashioned Christmas celebrations—the kind they had in the Little House books or in “An Orange for Frankie”—and consider how people have celebrated the Nativity of our Lord throughout the ages. Try spreading the events, cheer, and excitement of December 25 throughout all 12 days of Christmas instead of trying to squeeze it into one day (this blog post has excellent suggestions).
2. Do Advent devotions. Involve flames.
I must confess that in my house, we are not always as consistent as we intend to be about evening devotions. This is, however, not a problem during Advent, because then there are candles. The children are not about to let us forget those.
I own this candle holder and use a package of these candles. I generally buy an inexpensive wreath of fresh greenery from Trader Joe’s (although making your own looks fun) and pop my candle holder into the center of it. Someday, perhaps I’ll splurge and get a beeswax candle kit like this one.
We keep the wreath on the dining room table. Each evening we light the candles then conduct devotions. Because our children are small, devotions are sometimes as simple as a Scripture reading and a verse of “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” At the end, one of the kids gets to blow out the candles. That, let me tell you, is a big deal!
3. Consider some form of Advent calendar.
This year, we will incorporate a Jesse tree into our evening Advent devotions. It is so termed because Jesus is a “shoot of Jesse,” and the idea is to cover the history of the Old and New Testaments as they lead up to Christ’s birth through a series of Bible readings.
We will have 24 little ornaments that correspond to the readings and can be hung on a small tree made from wooden dowels. It’s our substitute for an Advent calendar. I’ve been sewing ornaments (you can see my inspirations here), but if you aren’t interested in sewing, a quick Google search turns up a variety of free ornament printables. Etsy is also a good place to look for Jesse tree stands and ornaments.
An abundance of basic religious or secular calendars count down the days until Christmas. Please, please, please avoid the ones that create a sugar rush of materialism with gifts each day or some other nonsense. Someday, I would like to make this calendar out of felt and let my children move Mary, Joseph, and the donkey along the path throughout December.
I also like the idea of writing names or topics to pray for on 24 strips of purple paper, then making the strips into a paper chain. The children can take one link down each day and the family can pray for the person whose name is on the paper. If the kids aren’t old enough to use tape and make the chain, they could crumple the paper into a prayer jar instead.
4. Put out a nativity set. Hide Baby Jesus in a drawer.
Children are extremely tactile. They learn through play. Rather than filling the house with Christmas decorations in Advent, we put out a few things like our wooden Melissa and Doug nativity set.
Of course, Baby Jesus isn’t born yet, so we hide him in a drawer until the 24th. The key is not to forget which drawer. On Christmas, the children can hunt through the house for Baby Jesus and carry him in procession to the manger.
Speaking of nativity sets, this free printable for a nativity mobile looks pretty cool.
5. Choose a few Advent customs.
Here are some of the activities that we enjoy. The list should feel more like an a la carte menu than a to-do list.
- Listen to Advent music. This article includes a number of good suggestions, as does this one. Lutheran Public Radio is also a great source: during Advent they stick to Advent hymns. Additionally, introducing your children to Handel’s “Messiah” or memorizing an Advent hymn together is always a good choice.
- Read Christmas-related books with your kids. Some families wrap their Christmas books in purple paper or decorated pouches and pull one new one out each day of December. I prefer the idea of having four cloth bags—one for each Sunday in Advent—and sharing a few new stories with my kids each week. Here is a list of my favorite titles. Additionally, this list may also be helpful.
- Craft gifts or cards for teachers, Sunday School leaders, relatives, and neighbors. These don’t have to look like something on Pinterest. If all else fails, just give the kids cardstock and crayons, or even last year’s Christmas cards to cut up and reuse.
- Let older kids address and stamp Christmas cards for you.
- Bake Christmas cookies and put most of them into the freezer to enjoy during the 12 days of Christmas.
- Choose ways to give to others. This year, I will take my children to a toy store so they can each choose a nice toy to donate to the local children’s hospital. We may also participate with a local group that prepares “welcome bags” for children taken into foster care. As my kids get older, we will bring cookies and cards to shut-ins from our church.
- Clean your house. Which is more peaceful, a semi-grubby house or one in which you’ve just scrubbed the bathrooms and organized all the drawers? I’ve made myself a cleaning to-do list on purple paper. That seems suitably Advent-spirited to me.
However you prepare and however you celebrate, Advent is a beautiful season. I hope yours is lovely.