Advent is a time for quiet reflection, prayer, almsgiving and sacrifice, with which we prepare ourselves to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord more deeply. But the fact remains that the spiritual dimension of Advent is in stiff competition with the cultural expectations of gifts, lots of food, cookies, decorations and parties. Add to that the regular demands of job, school and family life and it’s no wonder the spiritual dimension of Advent gets lost. But that doesn’t keep the spiritual dimension of Advent from being the most important. So what can a family do to make Advent more meaningful? Here are five simple ideas.
1 Pray the Advent wreath prayer before bed. If you already say prayers before bed, this will be an easy change for you. If you don’t, it will be a small adjustment. But it doesn’t have to take more than five minutes, unless you want it to. Purchase an Advent wreath with candles. Each evening of Advent, light the appropriate candles for the week of Advent and say a quick prayer. There are many prayers to choose from. Most wreaths come with a brochure with weekly reflections. There’s something special about lighting the candles and counting down the weeks to Christmas together. The increasing light from the candles reflects the increasing joyful anticipation of Christmas. This is something children understand. And it’s healthier than those countdown calendars with the chocolates!
2 Build a Jesse tree. People are buying their Christmas trees earlier and earlier. My family tries to hold off until Gaudete Sunday (the “rose candle” week). But by then, picking gets pretty slim. So go ahead and buy your Christmas tree (or set up an artificial one). But instead of decorating it for Christmas right away, find a Jesse tree kit and have your children make a new ornament each day of Advent. Each ornament represents a story from salvation history, leading up to the Incarnation of Jesus. Review the Bible story together, say a quick prayer and hang the day’s ornament. It’s a great way to learn the Bible, to understand the context of Christmas in salvation history and to build anticipation toward Christmas.
3 Decorate your home for Advent — and build toward Christmas. Christmas decorating is a big chore for some people (others really enjoy it). But it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Start out with a house-cleaning weekend to prepare your home to receive Jesus. Next, lay out some simple decorations — including the Advent wreath and Jesse tree, if you choose to do those activities. Then, each day or each week (depending on your schedule), bring out a few Christmas decorations. Let your children feel the growing excitement as your home slowly transforms from Advent to Christmas décor.
4 Prepare the manger. You might be tempted to save the manger for last. But a great practice is to lay out the manger early in Advent, but don’t put Baby Jesus in the scene yet. Prepare the manger by laying straw in it each day. Some families put straw in the manger for every good deed they do during Advent — so Jesus has a bedding to lay on made out of love. On Christmas, make a big deal of putting Baby Jesus in the manger, made soft by your family’s acts of charity.
5 Buy gifts ... for complete strangers. Why not use the time you’re already out shopping to spread even more Christmas joy? While you’re shopping for your family, buy an extra gift for someone in need. There are a lot of programs to guide you — from Project Angel Tree, which purchases gifts on behalf of incarcerated fathers, to homeless shelter programs that makes sure homeless children get a Christmas meal and a gift. Giving money is part of almsgiving — an important practice in Advent. But buying gifts for those in need is much more personal. Another great practice is to have your children make homemade gifts and secretly leave them at the front door of friends and neighbors.
We have an Advent prayer we have used for the past 20 years, with actions appropriate for toddlers on up. We include
this as part of the Advent wreath lighting and praying we do each night after supper. We also, as a family, serve the community during Advent by taking a turn with Salvation Army kettle duty, volunteering at the Winter Wonderland, which collects food for local food pantries, and caroling at a nursing home.
– Kitzhaber family, St. John the Baptist Parish, Marshfield
We have an Advent calendar that someone made for us. The kids take turns every day putting coins in it and then they donate it or put it in the church basket every weekend. The kids love it; they will often want to put in whatever they have in their piggy bank. It’s great to see, because they say they like helping the poor people in need. – Gerling family, Mary Mother of the Church, La Crosse
One of our family’s favorite Advent traditions is to say the Christmas novena together each evening. Unlike the usual nine-day novenas, this novena is nearly a month long, starting on the feast day of St. Andrew, Nov. 30, and going to Christmas Day. In our experience, it is a beautiful and powerful prayer! – Haas family, St. Mary Help of Christians, Colby
During what feels like a huge rush of activity for Christmas, our family tries to slow down and think of others. Typically, we sponsor a family and provide them with Christmas gifts. On our grocery shopping trips, we pick up extra food items so the kids can give to the many local food drives. – McGee family, Immaculate Conception, Eau Claire
As a child growing up, we had the traditional Advent wreath in our home. Now that we have three children, to make this a bit more personal, we found an Advent candle-making kit. As part of our preparation for Advent, we take a Saturday to use the beeswax kit to roll our own candles. This is a fun day where we talk about what Advent means and what the end of Advent means; it also gives us time to choose Advent angels.
– Justman family, St. John the Baptist Parish, Marshfield