Advent is, hands down, one of the richest liturgical seasons to celebrate as a family. Unfortunately it is often overshadowed by the business of our need to materially prep for Christmas. It doesn’t help that our culture starts their Christmas celebration directly after Halloween! This makes living our counter cultural Advent celebrations a bit more difficult.
Advent is given to us by our wise God to help us ready our hearts for the celebration of the gift of the Incarnation (God made flesh at Christmas). It is also a humble reminder that our hearts need always be ready in joyful anticipation for the second coming of Christ. Here are a few ways you can bring the joy back into your family Advent preparation and thus experience the gift of Christmas more fully.
Penance – Yes, you heard me right. I was surprised to find out several years ago that Advent is supposed to be a beautiful time of sincere penance. Fasting, prayer and alms-giving (the three scary words of Lent) have a perfect place during Advent too. All three forms of penance rend our hearts closer to Christ. Most are common sense too. How can we have a Christmas feast without some sort of a fast before? Some examples would be fasting from sweets, from television, online social media, etc. Think of the areas you and your family have possibly put priority over daily prayer or the responsibilities to your vocations(laundry, school work etc.) Most parishes have Giving Trees or extra collections to help the needy. All parishes have extra confession times.
Nativity Scene In our home the Nativity scene is the heart of our Advent preparation. On the first day of Advent (or whenever we dare to go to the crawlspace and bring up the Christmas boxes!), we set up our Nativity scene in a prominent place where all can see and still not break. All of the characters take their positions for the big event, except for baby Jesus who gets placed in the empty cradle on Christmas morning. Some families add one piece slowly over the Advent season, explaining the significance of each. Our children also have a Fisher Price Little People Nativity scene that is perfect for curious little ones.
Advent wreath What child young or old is not directly drawn to the light of a candle? The Advent wreath in the home provides a solid way to bring the liturgical season into a better focus and understanding for children and adults. Each week that passes, another candle is lit; thus symbolizing the joyful entrance of our King, the light of the world. Every night during Advent our children anxiously wait for my husband to light the appropriate candle, say the appropriate prayers, and then together we end in a loud refrain of “O Come O Come Emmanuel”.
Celebrate the Advent Feasts When I think of the horrible ills of giving up my beloved Christmas cookies during Advent, I am reminded of the oodles of liturgical feasts within the penance of Advent. Remember the wisdom of Mother Church? There is the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th, the Immaculate Conception on the 8th (which is a Holy Day of Obligation), Our Lady of Guadalupe on the 12th, and St. Lucy on the 13th. Each of these feasts has amazing potential for easily celebrating the coming of Christ. On the eve of St. Nicolas day, fill your children’s shoes with goodies, go to mass as a family on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, have a Mexican themed dinner on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and finally make the fest of St. Lucy (her name meaning bearer of light) the night you make a family Christmas light tour from your car. There are so many more ways a family could celebrate these feasts. Make them your own; start some new traditions. Having traditions on these feasts not only helps us to spiritually prepare for Christmas, but they also help our family to not get caught up in the “celebrating Christmas during Advent” trap.
Materially prepare for Christmas through a spiritual lens This is the best advice I have ever been given from a priest on celebrating Advent. We are moms and dads. We have to go Christmas shopping, we have to decorate the house, we have to get extra groceries, and we have to clean the house. Try to make each activity into a prayer or a special event. Take a date night with your spouse to do the Christmas shopping together. Instead of insanely rushing through cleaning while screaming at your children, make it a penance to include them in the cleaning (which is so trying with little ones!) When you make your Christmas list, include what you want to ask God for Christmas; for example, I have asked for patience, for strength. These are the best gifts of all! When it comes down to it, Advent should be a peaceful spiritual journey to Christmas. Decide for your family what traditions will help or hinder this peace. Don’t send out Christmas cards or make cookies if that is an extra burden! It is better to read a Christmas book with your child than stress over things that will not truly aid in your family’s preparation. Advent seems to fill up quickly with extra activities that more than likely add stress to the family. Christmas comes, and it is one big blur! The Church gives us grace to overcome this! Decide this Advent to continue or make new traditions in your family that will invite this awesome grace, and last your family for a spiritual lifetime.