My wonderful wife, Tracy Bradford, has written more on the subject of celebrating Advent with children. Full of practical ideas fueled by spiritual consideration, take some time to see what's here!
I remember the first time that my husband and I sat with our
two small boys to officially celebrate the Advent season 13 years ago. I had made a lovely little wreath and found
candles in just the right hue. I had
song books and a crèche set up near by.
I had great expectations for a warm, memorable Christmas moment. And then we started, and I didn’t understand
why my husband had chosen such un-Christmas-like passages, and the kids were
distracted by the candle, and they didn’t appreciate three full verses of Oh
Come All Ye Faithful. Thankfully we
ended with Away in a Manger which gave us all a happy feeling and off to bed
the boys went. It was a start for sure,
but far from what I had expected.
Over the years I have learned a lot about Advent and
realized that I had approached the daily practice with my mind filled with
ideas and images inspired largely by the likes of Norman Rockwell, Bing Crosby,
and Coca-Cola. Eleven years since that
starting point I have a much richer and more accurate understanding of the
purpose of daily Advent readings. Changing
my expectations has led to our whole family having a more involved and deeper
experience as we daily consider Christ’s first Advent together.
Now, eleven years from that first attempt, the starting
place for anything I do related to celebrating Advent with my church or family
is remembering what I am doing and why I am doing it. No matter who is participating in the
celebration with me, it is important to me to remember the essential elements
of the celebration. Here are some
thoughts about what we are actually celebrating and why we are celebrating that
as well as some practical tips about how we celebrate.
In my Advent celebration time, I want to focus
solely on the concept of Christ’s coming to dwell on Earth in human form and
all of the implications of that. Of
course the Christmas narrative is an important part of the story of his
coming. It is not, however the beginning of the story, or the most important part of the story. The story begins way back in the Garden of
Eden when God promised to provide away for His creation to be restored to Him. This promise is affirmed often throughout the
Old Testament, often in the form of prophetic reminders that a Savior, a
Messiah is coming.
It is so hard for us to relate to the mindset of the Old
Testament readers. We live on the resurrection-side
of this eternal plot, equipped with the New Testament, literacy, excellent
Biblical teaching in so many places, and a Holy-Spirit-nurtured, personal relationship
with the Savior. The Jewish readers or
hearers of the Old Testament prophecies really had little concept of how the
fulfillment of these prophecies would turn their world around. Their great expectations were not at all like
what actually took place. They were
looking, understandably, for a political end to some pretty serious political
problems. They were looking for a king
in royal robes and with a golden crown, not a teacher with a cross and a crown
of thorns. I don’t find fault with
them. I myself came looking for a
certain something in starting the discipline of daily Advent celebrations. I didn’t understand how all of the various
parts of God’s redemption plan fit together and how Christmas plays its part in
that plan. My expectations were off, and
then so was my experience. This is only
a small sampling of what the Jewish people of that time were living.
Here is some of what I have learned. Jesus’ coming started a series of actions
that led to the climax of the Christian story: the resurrection of Christ from
the grave. THIS is the climax of the
story, and now we are living on the other side of this event. In doing so, we can find the Christmas story
of Luke 2 warming and mysterious, but lose the perspective of how amazing it is
that Christ came and intervened in the world.
A lot of our Advent readings focus on the longing expressed in the Old
Testament for a Savior to come and save the world and right the wrong way life was
going. I was at first frustrated that
the readings were not centered on the Bethlehem events in the gospels. Now I know that this reading of scriptures
that seem so distant from shepherds and mangers actually helps me to better
understand how Isaiah’s contemporaries heard his words.
My hope, in participating in Advent, is that my family and I
will have a renewed appreciation for the enormous impact of Christ coming to
the world. Of course our ideas can only
be understood through the lens of redemption and grace. But by reading the prophets, I have a better
understanding of what civilization can be like without his presence. This gives me a greater appreciation of my
relationship with him and the impact of his coming on the world.
Finally, I am celebrating Advent as a direct response to the
commercialization of the Christmas season.
In our daily life we see countless messages that tell us that Christmas
is about having a picture-perfect feast with the best and shiniest gifts being
exchanged. There are very few messages
about the people who are part of those celebrations or any notion of sacrifice,
self-denial, or our world’s need for a Savior.
We do still see a nod to helping those less fortunate than us, but it is
not connected to our common need of a Savior or to our looking to Christ to redeem
us all. It is connected to feeling warm
and cuddly knowing that we have done a part to help someone else. I do celebrate the Christmas season with
special baking, present-giving, and even have a shelf full of figurines of “the
man in the red suit.” I enjoy these
cultural moments, but I keep Advent as our focus for the season and the other
parts as side shows.
So, practically speaking, I find it very important that my
family be entrenched in the Biblical narrative of Christ during our celebration
time. I am carrying out this Advent
practice so that they have a full understanding of why we as Christians make
such a big deal out of Christmas. It is Jesus’
birthday, true, but it is also the beginning of the big event of the Christian
story. I want them to know that we are
not just celebrating the fact that Christ came as a baby. We are celebrating that he came and brought
redemption to our world—a world in desperate need of a Messiah, a group of
people clinging to a promise made thousands of years earlier. (As a side note to this, children learn from
an early age that God fulfills his prophecies and his promises, and this is
such a gift to give your child!)
This entrenchment takes on different forms depending on the
age of the child. Each developmental
stage that a child passes through has unique characteristics that suggest
various methods of teaching and experiences for the most transformational
As our children have grown, we have invited them to
participate in all parts of our celebration at age-appropriate moments: lighting and extinguishing the candles,
reading the passages, handing out song books and collecting them, sharing
thought on the passages we read, putting together puzzles of the Christmas
scenes, serving snacks from time to time, leading our family in prayer,
etc. Our boys who were just 1 and 2-turning-3 when
we started are now 12 and 13-turning-14, and they seem to anticipate our Advent
time as much as we do.
It does take a bit more effort to engage preschoolers during
our family time. Below are some
practical tips that we have found useful over the years, both with our two
older boys and now with our young son who is a new 5-year old.
Toddlers and Preschoolers
Developmental Characteristics: “hands-on” manipulative play,
imaginary play, tactile, short attention span, thrive on repetition and
Advent Focus: The
basic Christmas narrative from Luke 2 and Matthew 2; simplified versions of the
prophecies, light coming into darkness, the difficulty of waiting
Items I have found
Useful for this Age
(I am assuming you have a Bible and a list of Advent
scriptures to read each day. You can
look on our church’s website for a suggested list of scriptures.)
A child’s version of a crèche (see Playmobile or Fisher
Price) or any crèche that you won’t mind children playing with,
Instruments to be played softly while singing Christmas
Carols about Jesus.
A song list that you are familiar with—We do sing some
lullaby songs about baby Jesus, but we also sing Christmas Carols so our
children become familiar with them from early on.
A children’s Bible from which the story is read multiple
times a week. This reinforces the idea
that all of this Christmasy-ness is rooted in The Bible.
A flashlight. If your
child is more the serious type, they might enjoy holding a flashlight as one of
the Advent lights. Making a point to dim
the house lights and let the candle(s) be the main source of light emphasizes
the idea of Christ being the Light of the World. Kids who love to tease and be silly will most
likely lose attention on anything Advent and will instead start flashing the
light into various corners! Perhaps a
flameless candle is a good compromise!
Notes: Keep this time
short enough for the child to stay engaged.
Try to anticipate how your child will interact with the celebration and
have various items ready to help them stay focused. Talk to them, ask them questions they can
answer (who is in the manger? Who saw
the star in the sky?), and invite them to sing with you. Allow them to share who they are holding in
their hand or show you the picture they are coloring. Keep the candles out of their reach for safety.
Avoid mixing secular (Santa Claus, reindeer, Father
Christmas, elves, etc.) with this Advent time.
Keep these two concepts separate during the daily Advent time to help
the child learn the true Christmas story.
Labels: advent, Bible, Bible study, Christianity, Christmas, discipleship, family, Jesus Christ, prayer, prophecy