Before any important event in human life, there is generally a period of preparation. Before First Communion, before Confirmation, before Marriage, we prepare ourselves through study and works. Before going on a vacation, we prepare and plan for weeks or months.
Even before the arrival of guests, we prepare by cleaning and straightening our homes. Such preparations move our thoughts and our souls toward the things we anticipate. It would make sense, then, that before such an awesome mystery as the Birth of Our Lord, we need time for quiet contemplation.
In a poetic meditation on the meaning of Advent, the mystical 20th-century writer Caryll Houselander contemplated this need for quiet preparation before Christmas. She described Advent as “the season of the seed. . .the season of the secret, the secret of the growth of Christ, of Divine Love growing in silence.”
As Catholics, we recognize that Advent is a time when our joy is muted; we remember a pre-Christian era, a time when Christianity was but Mary’s seed, hidden deep in her womb. Advent recalls to us our deep need to work within ourselves, to prepare anew the soil of our souls, so that at Christmas, Christ’s light and love may burst to full life in our hearts and homes.
Around the world, many of the best Advent traditions carry forward the idea of the hidden seed, a hidden seed of faith and charity that we nurture quietly in preparation for our Lord’s arrival. Some of our readers shared with us their favorite Advent activities, and we share them with you in the hopes that this year’s Advent will be inspired and fruitful for you and your family.
While the rest of the world chases tinsel, rushing from one ‘winter’ party to another, as Catholics, our Advent activities place Christ firmly front and center.
1. St. Andrew’s Novena
Many people pray the St. Andrew Novena, which is a short but powerful meditation on the actuality of Christ’s birth, the fact and glory of Christ being born to us at a very real time and place.
Prayed 15 times a day in conjunction with a series of Glory Be’s from the feast of St. Andrew through Christmas Eve, this novena is a gentle way of keeping Christ at the center of our thoughts during Advent.
2. Craft a Jesse Tree
Some families craft a Jesse tree, a special Advent tree that is decorated a little at a time each day beginning December 1st and ending on Christmas Eve. Every new day, the Jesse tree decorations focus on a different aspect of man’s history and Christ’s genealogy, right up to the final few days when they shift to representations of Christ’s various titles fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies.
Combined with special prayers and Scripture readings, a Jesse tree is the perfect way to journey toward Christmas.
In keeping with the quiet, humble nature of Our Lord’s arrival among men, many Advent traditions focus on secret charitable actions and good works.
3. Straw in the Manger
Laurie, one of Seton’s homeschooling mothers, discusses the family tradition of placing straw in the manger to make a soft resting place for baby Jesus. “At the start of Advent,” she says, “there is no straw. As good deeds are done, a construction paper strip is added, so by Christmas the manger is full.”
People may use real straw, yarn, feathers, or anything else that works, and when the manger is full on Christmas Eve, a figure of the Christ-child is laid amongst the soft strands provided by kindness and virtue.
4. Charity Chains
Another Seton friend, Debbie, talks about her family’s new tradition of making charity chains. She says, “Everyone has their own paper chain to make. Each day we all try to do at least one thing charitable and selfless for someone else. At the end of the day, we write on a strip of paper what we have done that day and attach it to the link from the previous day.
“On Christmas Eve, before Mass, we put our chains on the tree as our birthday gifts to Jesus.” The more good deeds accomplished, the longer the chains that decorate the tree.
Following such traditions as these keeps virtue at the forefront of Christmas preparations and teaches children that what God values most are the quiet sacrifices we make for the good of others.
5. A Time to be Present
So much energy and effort are devoted to the getting and giving of presents that oftentimes, we forget the value of actually being present. Simply taking time out from the rush to be present to Christ and to each other might be the best Advent activity of all.
6. Make a Holy Hour
Many families make a Holy Hour for the weeks of Advent, going to the stable, as it were, to await the birth of their King.
7. No More Shopping
Other families stay away from the stores during Advent, choosing instead to work together at home on crafting hand-worked gifts.
8. Take Extra Time Off
Some families take extra time away from work, school, and extracurriculars during Advent just to stay at home and be with one another.
Kelly C. tells of her family’s peace-filled Advents, saying “We take the entire Advent season off and concentrate on celebrating the season as a family. Everyone participates. . . .We decided long ago to keep the emphasis on Christ at Christmas and this tradition has allowed us to keep the days separate.”
9. Light the Advent Wreath
Kelly C. continues, “We light the Advent wreath at every dinner [served on special dinnerware only used between the 1st Sunday of Advent and Epiphany] and… spend a lot of the season making items to share with friends and family.”
Such simplicity and quiet togetherness fosters the opening of hearts and ears to one another and to grace, so that the way of Christ into our souls is made more smooth and straight.
10. Become Christ’s Candles
For those among us who do not have the luxury of taking all of Advent away from work or school, who may be caring for the sick and dying this year, or who mark their days on a battlefield, Caryll Houselander provides a worthy perspective on living Advent in less than perfect circumstances. In her book, The Reed of God, she reminds us that,
“Christ lays a great trust upon us. During this tender time of Advent we must carry Him in our hearts to wherever He wants to go, and there are many places to which He may never go unless we take Him to them.
“None of us knows when the loveliest hour of our life is striking. It may be when we take Christ for the first time to that grey office in the city where we work, to the wretched lodging of that poor man who is an outcast, to the nursery of that pampered child, to that battleship, airfield, or camp. . .
“Sometimes it may seem to us that there is no purpose in our lives, that going day after day for years to this office or that school or factory is nothing else but waste and weariness. But it may be that God has sent us there because but for us Christ would not be there. If our being there means that Christ is there, that alone makes it worthwhile.”
Perhaps our resolve this year should be that whatever else we may or may not be doing for Advent, we will become Christ’s candles, lighting His way into the world around us. One candle is a relatively small and hidden thing, but when many are lit, the whole world glows. May God grant us all a blessed and holy Advent!
Thank you to everyone who shared their Advent traditions with us on Facebook. Your suggestions helped craft this article!