I have a hard time talking about Christmas without first mentioning the beloved Season of Advent. Advent – a time of majestic silence, a time glimmering with the grace of Hope.
Advent – a time to repent and sacrifice, not with the looming sense of the Agony of Christ hanging before us, but instead, with the quiet joy of the Christ Child awaiting.
Do we really realize what we are doing when we celebrate Christmas? I mean, do we comprehend the magnitude of the impact we make when we pass on traditions of faith to the impressionable little hearts of our children?
At this time in our lives, we may, or we may not. But I do hope that we can realize this together, and learn from each other how to live our Catholic Faith in its fullness, year-round, honoring the Church’s time-tried rhythms.
1. Lighting Our Advent Wreath
At our house, we open up the Advent Season with an Advent Wreath, handmade by my husband Michael, which is to be lit every week along with the recitation of the O Antiphons. As Mary Reed Newland writes, “Advent is a four-week-long condensation of the four thousand years mankind waited for the Redemption…
The lighting of the Advent wreath, the family praying nightly in His presence, the weekly ritual of candle-lighting, these rites are sermons in themselves.”
2. Setting up the Historical Jesse Tree
During Advent, we also set up our Jesse Tree, which carries with it quite the family history. My mother-in-law made many of its ornaments with her 10 children after they decided to homeschool, nearly 35 years ago, when homeschooling was not officially legal in North Dakota.
My husband’s parents were pioneers in homeschooling, and things like the Jesse Tree filled their daring homeschool experience with joy and peace.
The tree has real personality. Each year, we go out and find a good-looking branch and hang all kinds of ornaments on it – everything from a snazzy, golden Old Testament ladder to a colored rainbow representing Noah’s Ark.
We also keep two different Advent calendars so that the kids can take turns sharing a variety of Scriptures with the family. As we read them off together on frigid December mornings, our hearts are warmed with the Word, and prepared for the coming of the Messiah.
3. Singing Advent Hymns
When I was living with Mother Teresa’s sisters, I learned to treat Advent as a time of purification, charity, repentance and enlightenment, similar to that of Lent. I have passed on this attitude to my children, and have encouraged them to make as many sacrifices as they can during the Season.
We regularly visit the Oratory next door and sing our favorite Advent hymns together before Christ in the Tabernacle, as well as in front of the empty cradle of the Nativity Scene.
We also await the opportunity to give to the poor in different ways throughout December, such as by buying a gift for a needy child through the Giving Tree at church, or making cards for nursing home or shelter residents.
4. We’re German – so St Nicholas Feast Day!
With my father being a first-generation immigrant from the Netherlands, and my husband being of German descent, St. Nicholas Day takes the cake at our house.
On the eve of Dec. 6, I take the children to pray at the Blessed Sacrament while ‘St. Nicholas’ visits our home.
I tell the children that Daddy has something pressing to do during this time, and he can’t visit Jesus with us. When we come back from our visit, the family room is filled with toys.
5. Craft Kits & Cards
As Christmas draws near, we buy some uniquely beautiful craft kits from Illuminated Ink, and make them as gifts for godparents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. My children’s favorites are the Rosary Holder, the O Antiphon Christmas cards, and the Marian Grotto.
We try to honor the original reason that Christmas cards were invented, which was to give greetings of peace as well as to have Masses offered for loved ones, so we usually use Mass intention cards instead of just plain Christmas notes.
6. Go all out with Decorations!
As far as decorations go, we try to go all out! Jesus is worth it! However, we don’t put them up until the last Sunday before Christmas, in order to respect the solemn stillness of Advent.
We leave them out until the Feast of the Presentation in February (which definitely attracts some attention).
Although only an average of about three cars drive by our house each day (we’ve counted!), we still put out Christmas lights. Why? To remind ourselves of the glory of His birth, and the call upon us to shine like lights in the darkness.
On the Feast of the Presentation, we light whatever candles we can round up – baptism candles, memory candles, etc.
7. Staying Connected to our Community
Each year, my kids also take part in the Nativity Play at our parish, and love being little lambs, stars and more.
On Christmas Eve, we go to church, and afterward, eat chocolates, open presents and play carols on several different instruments.
On Christmas Day, we go out to the family farm and enjoy the presence of Grandpa, Grandma and whoever else came home for Christmas. Some times, Fr. Joseph (Michael’s brother) offers a special Mass just for our family.
8. Prayer before Work
As far as our school schedule goes, we make sure that our Advent devotions come before starting our school work. This sets the tone for studying our best, and being generous in all we do.
This year, because my daughter is preparing for her First Communion and needs to memorize the Ten Commandments, I plan to make a cradle with the kids, and have them put straw from my neighbor’s hay bales in it every time they find themselves obeying a Commandment.
They will also get to put in a piece of straw for schoolwork especially well done. After Christmas, they will get treats according to how many pieces of straw they put into Baby Jesus’ cradle.
Last but certainly not least, we celebrate Advent and Christmas by reading books galore!
As Catholic families in this day and age, we are blessed by the fabulous collection of religious books out there!
9. A Little Extra Time for Me
As a Mom, I try to spend extra time during Advent examining my conscience. Am I as patient with my children as they deserve? Do I reflect Mary’s life and actions in my own humble way?
Am I taking the needs of the poor to heart – especially “the poor” in my own home? This year, I will make sure I am putting straws in the cradle too – it’s not just for the kids.
As a convert, I can’t help but savor the opportunity to celebrate traditions of faith with my children. When I was growing up as a Calvinist, we didn’t really celebrate the liturgical seasons much at all, and I remember longing for something much more profound.
Now that I am Catholic, this longing is fulfilled, and I am so glad I can share the true meaning of Christmas with my children, year after year, season after season.
Peace to all this Christmas Season, and Deo Gratias!
“Living the liturgy gives a Christian his focus… He lives with Christ in the Church Militant, celebrating the same mysteries with the Church triumphant. The liturgy is a bridge between earth and Heaven.” -Mary Reed Newland, We and Our Children
Do you have a favorite Advent tradition?