How My Family Celebrates Advent

Do you suppose the angels in the sky looked at all like this picture on the night Jesus was born?  The following is a guest post from my lovely wife about how my family celebrates the season!

Advent is a word that has many different meanings to just as many people.  For some, it is a season of the church calendar, celebrated by lighting a candle at church in the weeks before Christmas.  For others, it is a way of counting the 25 days of December until Christmas by opening a paper calendar (called an Advent Calendar, of course) and enjoying the chocolate or surprise hiding inside. 

For my family and me, Advent is the season of preparing our hearts, homes, our lifestyles, and our minds for the Christ child to take his rightful and foremost place there.  The purpose, for us, of celebrating Advent is to make sure that in all of the wonder that is Christmas in the modern western world, we never lose sight of the baby, born in an ancient, middle-eastern world.  Just like any other daily discipline, it brings a focus to our day's activities, and a constant rhythm in the midst of what can be the most hectic season. 

So, for us, Advent means gathering daily as a family to read from the Bible about Christ's coming, to light a candle (or 2 or 3 or 4 depending on the week), sing a song about Jesus, and remember those in our world who are celebrating the season in less-fortunate surroundings.  The connection we share with each other as we do these things is very meaningful for us and bonds us together.  Some families add another wonderful layer of a family activity such as making an ornament together, watching a fun movie together, etc.  Our season already seems so full of those activities that I don't add that in.  

I try to make an Advent wreath to hold the candles that we use to celebrate each day.  I like to make this around Thanksgiving time.  Ours looks different every year.  This year, I'm hoping that this advent wreath will arrive at our home in time to use it for this season.   Last year, ours looked very similar to this.

For me, the wreath itself is not as important as the doing it is.  But, in the past, especially our first few years, we used candles that were white, purple, and pink. Ken Collins explains the significance of the colors on this page.  

Once the wreath is made, it hangs out for the whole month on or near our dinner table. Sometimes, I've had to clear it to make room for food when we've had a houseful.  But even on those nights, once the meal is over, all of us, company and family, clear a space, light the candles, and do the readings and singing together.  Most of our guests really love it!  Some have written to me afterwards asking for the readings for the rest of the season so they can continue on.  But, I'm getting ahead of myself!

For the last ten years, I've also made sure that this child-friendly creche or nativity nearby.  

It has lasted through three of my boys and many of their friends.  I've also used whatever inexpensive ones I pick up on sale after the holidays.  The point here is that the kids have the chance to handle them and move them around so that they can be as immersed in the story as possible.

So, the wreath hangs out on the dining room table, and we light the candle when we sit down to eat.  Then, after the meal, we clear our spaces and get out our reading material. 

Again, these can come from so many sources.  When the boys were young, I combined this schedule with these coloring pages.

I've tried using all kinds of reading plans.  Most of the daily plans are written by liturgical churches. Depending on your theological background, you may want to use the calendars as a guide and adapt or change as you find it appropriate.  Most calendars start with prophecies about the coming Messiah and end with the Christmas story.  Depending on the reading and the ages of our kids, we've needed to add the nativity sets and the coloring sheets to keep them engaged in the Advent time.   For me, as long as they were doing something related to understanding that Jesus came to earth as a baby, and that God had orchestrated marvelous miracles (prophecies, barren women conceiving, caravans of kings, Angels!) as a part of it all, I considered it a success.  As the kids began to read, we would use their Bibles and have them read the passages.  I've used picture cards, kind of like trading cards, for them to hold and build a collection thru the season.  Once a week, we may add in a story from one of their Bibles or some of our favorite children's books that tell the advent story, etc.  

This calendar of readings is from Focus on the Family.

Once the reading is done, we sing!  This makes listening to scriptures that may be hard to grasp worth the while.  I have some little booklets of collected Christmas carols from my teaching days, words only, that we pass around.  We take turns picking songs from the religious section.  The number of songs is determined by the amount of time our readings took, how tired our kids are, and now that they are older, how much homework they still have left to do.  Typically, we sing at least 2 songs.  Occasionally, we will keep the books out and when the advent time is completely done, we sing a fun carol like Jingle Bells.  Also, we've had the kids play instruments in the past as well.  I do try to keep the time reverent as a way to keep the mystery and awe of the miracle of Christ's birth before them.  So, we don't do instruments in a silly way.  But it is a great time to work on playing softly and in rhythm.  

After singing, what is left is the praying.  Here we often just take turns thanking God for the particular part of the advent story that we read about.  We might also petition God on behalf of suffering Christians.  Equally, we pray for loved ones and friends, especially those who don't yet know Christ.

Once we are done, we arrange everything back where we can find it the next day and go on with our evening.  When the big boys were little boys, we always ended by walking over to the "pretty" creche, standing in front of it, and singing Away in a Manger.  Then, they would go off to bed.  (We also ate late at that time in our lives!)

Finally, sometimes if we were in the middle of a long week of prophecy readings where it was hard for a 2 or 3 year old to understand how talking of freedom had anything to do with Christmas, I probably made some popcorn, had some hot chocolate, or some sort of something to keep the kids sitting at the table w/o having to use threats or timeouts.  We didn't and still don't want to make punishment a part of our celebrations.  For the most part it worked. Sometimes, we would modify and just play with the nativity.  But 90% of the time, I'd say we were able to do the whole bit!

So, that's advent for our family.  Candles arranged together, Bibles, a creche, song books, and other items as needed.  Time devoted everyday to remembering the mystery and awe that ushered Christ into the world. I've tried to resist being married to a certain plan.  I've also somehow ended up not buying a lot of family Advent books, even though there are many great ones out there.  I'm sure one reason for that is that I was often overseas, and I didn't want to pay for the shipping.  There are plenty of online resources that I could pull together, and of course I was saving my extra money for Christmas presents.  For me, I wanted to avoid having "the latest and greatest" book or device for Advent.  For me, that seemed contrary somehow to the whole spirit of what I hope to accomplish by going to the effort of the daily practice.  I want us to come away from the must haves of our modern Christmas season and be immersed, even if it is only for part of the evening in something that is simple and humble and just about Christ.  

I've strayed from that thought once, this year in fact.  Last year, I stumbled on the wooden wreath mentioned above when I was gathering ideas for our family celebration.  I thought it was so lovely and that the author of the blog, the mother of the child who created the wreath, had some helpful thoughts for a Christ-centered season.  A few months later, I put 2 +2 together are realized she was also the author of One Thousand Gifts.  When I saw that her son had made a few to sell and would give the proceeds to Compassion, I knew it was time for me to order one.   I mention her only to say that she is a very deep and reflective author with some fabulous ideas for incorporating the advent experience into family life.  

She makes another great resource available for free on her website.  

This Jesse Tree that she writes about is another way to celebrate the season, with an emphasis on the continuity of the Biblical narrative and the roots of the Christmas story in the Old Testament.  Many families find this a great activity to do at Christmas time as it also involves hanging ornaments on a tree.  She also writes extensively about Advent on her blog.

Well, what about you?  What does your family do for advent?  

A Ten O'Clock Scholar: Nativity Carnival: Keeping Advent -- Nov 13th  Here are some other ideas that one reader has started a collecting from various bloggers.  

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