I honestly have no objection to seeing the pumpkin and ghost decorations in my local CVS give way to Santas and snowmen so early. I like the sparkly, pretty aspects of celebrating Christmas as much as the next person, and retailers have their own schedules based upon people’s purchasing habits. That really has nothing to do with the celebration of the birth of Christ, which is really what we should be preparing for. Rather than focus on a “war on Christmas,” let’s actively try to bring back an observance of Advent, which will serve to create a more meaningful Christmas for everyone.
In these more secular times, a child could really spend his whole childhood not having any idea what Advent is, or never hearing the word. Several years ago, I spent our last CCD class before the break with my special needs students helping them craft a simple Advent wreath out of paper and cardboard. One of the mothers, when she arrived to pick up her son, had never heard of an Advent wreath and had no idea what it was. I was not all that surprised, but it did make me a little sad.
One of the drawbacks, as seen by the culture, to Advent, is that it is penitential–hence all the purple. It is a time to prepare for the coming of the Christ child, so it is wholly appropriate that we settle our minds, prepare our homes and do the best to cleanse our souls. It’s not nearly as popular as decorating your home in lights and evergreen but it will ultimately do you more good.
My advice for the observance of Advent is always to be as sparse as possible. It’s just such a busy season with so many wonderful things driving us outside the home that I really feel it’s important to not take on too much extra; just pick one thing a week to observe Advent.
One fun way to start off is to make the night before the first Sunday of Advent a New Year’s Eve party. The new liturgical year is starting, so why not ring it in? I buy the sparkling apple cider and we have a fun, junky dinner and watch a movie, or we have some friends over and make a real party with hats, horns and confetti.
On Sundays in Advent, as a family, we light the wreath right before dinner and my husband leads us in the traditional prayer. We use this inexpensive booklet, but there are many printable resources available. This prayerful moment really connects the children to the preparation aspect of Advent, and then a candlelit dinner is always a little more special. It really is amazing how it quiets everyone down and allows for real discussion and connection.
On that first Sunday, I also put out the Nativity sets ( I have the ones you can play with and the one that came to me from my grandparents, which means a lot to me–that one is up high). After dinner I usually read a picture book of the Nativity Story.
Another great resource to add to your Advent is a wonderful story called Jotham’s Journey. It is a daily Lenten read-a-loud which tells the story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem from the eyes of a young boy. It’s written by a Protestant, but there is nothing incompatible with our faith in it. It is all biblically based and very compelling. I believe there is a similar book written by a Catholic but I’m not familiar with it, so I can’t really comment on it–although I would love to hear people’s opinions if you have read it. A small caveat about Jotham’s Journey: the story can be a little intense, so maybe not for very young or very sensitive children–Jotham gets sold into slavery for a little time and is ill-treated. The same author, Arnold Ytreeide, has several of these tales for Advent, and they are worth exploring.
Another tradition we keep is to add straw to the manger for sacrifices and good deeds, much like the Lenten crown of thorns. It’s an important and simple reminder to the children that Advent is a penitential season.
We also observe St. Nicholas Day every year: the children put out their shoes the night before and I put gold chocolate coins and small gifts to put in their shoes.
We then spend the day reading St. Nick stories, coloring, making spoon saints and then feasting. St. Nicholas Center is a wonderful resource and from there you can glean all the information you need about this great saint and his commitment to the poor.
There are several Advent feast days that can be incorporated into your season that exemplify the meaning of Advent. Our Lady of Guadalupe can be observed with the story of St. Juan Diego (whose feast also falls in Advent) and a taco dinner.
St. Barbara’s day (patroness of architects) can be the day you construct a gingerbread house, or like me, a fake one built with graham crackers and canned icing.
The best thing you can do for your family is just think of Advent as a cozy time. Lots of reading, singing, crafting, cooking and playing. If you just focus on binding the children to their faith by building simple family traditions you will have a really nice season and it makes Christmas all the more joyous for your family and that of your students.