The word puts me in mind of fireworks and popped corks and plump slices of thickly frosted cake. Treats, feasting, bright lights, noise–a delightful disorder that sets normalcy aside and revels in the uniqueness of the day.
So, it used to strike me as slightly strange that the Church chose to celebrate the start of the liturgical year with Advent. With the purple of penance and the unresolvedness of waiting. Why celebrate anticipation? Why not skip right ahead to start with the anticipated joy?
After grappling with many an Advent–struggling with how to celebrate this strange but beautiful season–I eventually came to the conclusion that we must begin with the waiting because we are not yet ready for the joy.
We must carve out quiet space in order prepare our restless hearts for Jesus.
Where Christmas is a glorious, joyful expansion, Advent is a narrowing. It is a time of hibernation, if you will–of metamorphosis. A time to draw inward, to examine the deepest, stillest shadows of our hearts. It is a time to clean out the spiritual cobwebs and prepare ourselves to receive all that Christ has to pour into us at Christmas!
Advent is a time to surrender to his will, to focus on his beautiful face and allow the goodness of his gift of Self to fully inform the joy that follows.
But in a world where the baubled, bangled trees go up the moment Halloween pumpkins are off the shelves, it can be hard to make space for this sacred stillness.
We may crave it. We may know in our hearts that we need this time, but nobody wants to feel like a grinch when all the world is merry and bright!
Below, I’ve listed my 3 steps to celebrating Advent (without feeling like a grinch). I’ve found it provides a both a balm for my heart and an anchor for my kids’ excitement.
1) ADVENT DECORATIONS
In our house, we have separate boxes for Christmas and Advent decorations. Advent decor is purple (candles, table coverings, etc.) and winter-themed. Anything specifically “Christmas-y” is set aside to be brought out on Christmas Eve. In our Advent box, we keep our nativity sets: the fancy olive wood one from Jerusalem that my husband and I received as a wedding present, and the felt one the kids keep for play. We also keep all the paraphernalia for our Advent feast day celebrations.
2) FEAST DAYS
Advent is stuffed full of feast days! (It’s almost like somebody knew we’d be itching for celebration in the midst of this still season.) Frankly, there are too many to celebrate meaningfully. At least, if you want to remain sane by December 25th! In our family, we celebrate St. Nicholas Day (December 6th), the Feast of St. Juan Diego (December 9th), and St. Lucia Day (December 13th).
On December 5th, the night before St. Nicholas Day, we hang our stockings. The children write their letters to St. Nicholas and leave them in the stockings for him to collect. In the morning, the find oranges, candy canes, and chocolate coins waiting with a note from St. Nicholas, commending them on their growth in virtue through the year and advising them on where to focus in the year to come. We also read all of our favorite St. Nicholas books.
On December 9th, we decorate with roses, enjoy a Mexican-themed dinner, and gather around the fireplace with mugs of spicy Mexican hot chocolate to read Our Lady of Guadalupe. (This celebration could easily be moved to December 12th, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Since our family is Swedish, we prefer to devote the 12th to preparations for the Feast of St. Lucia the following day.)
December 13th, St. Lucia Day, is probably my favorite feast day of the year. I get up early with the children and pile a tray high with plates of pepparkakor (spice cookies) and lussekatter (Lucia buns) to pair with steaming mugs of coffee and hot chocolate. In a couple more years, they’ll be able to do this themselves. Then we process, singing, into the master bedroom where Daddy pretends to have just woken up, and we all curl up in bed and share our treats by candlelight. It’s a poignant reminder of the Light of Christ during this dark time of year, and of the light that we are called to be in a dark world.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up with the greeting card store variety of Advent calendar. You know, the ones with a picture of the North Pole or a winter landscape? Each night, I would open one of the little paper windows to find a tiny piece of milk chocolate. This worked well for an only child, but in our house, this tradition would equate to a lot of calendars–and a lot of cavities! So, instead of chocolates, we have Advent activities.
Any type of Advent calendar will serve, as long as it has drawers or pockets large enough to hold a slip of paper. We’ve had this calendar, which fits easily on our kitchen window sill, for several years now. I absolutely love the idea of this adorable stocking one. (I’ve known several people who have made a version with baby socks!) Target also has some cute, affordable ideas, many of which are plain enough to fit the bill without being too overtly “Christmas-y.”
Each day, my kids take turns opening the drawers and pulling out a piece of paper that has our “activity” of the day on it. Some of these are utterly self-serving for me: “stuff and address Christmas cards” or “bake lussekatter for St. Lucia Day.” The good news is, my kids still love doing these things, and I as a busy homeschooling mom get a leg up and even some help on all the tasks that go into make our Advent–and Christmas celebrations–special! Other ideas might include a winter hike, a sledding excursion, or an Advent- or winter-themed craft.
I try to get a lot of Christmas baking done and set aside during this time, but otherwise, I reserve “Christmas-y” activities (like making our gingerbread house or going to see The Nutcracker) for the 12 Days of Christmas. Hey, I’ve got to have something left to make the actual Christmas season special, right?