Ah it approaches, that weeks-long season in which concerts and recitals and projects and final exams and class parties and work parties and special once-a-year events all seem to crowd the calendar. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, in our modern world, are a source of delighted excitement, building anxiety, and abject stress for so many families.
These are also the weeks that the liturgical calendar marks as Advent. Advent derives from the Latin and means ‘to come;’ so this is quite literally the season of anticipation, of waiting for that which is coming. This season is our yearly opportunity to slow down and mark, alongside Mary and Joseph, the final days of the expectation of a miracle. How do we set that time aside, in a culture that seems to scream at us to go, do, and buy, more and more?
Knowing that adding more to any parent’s to-do list, especially now, would be cruel, I’d like to offer some simple, practical, realistic ways to bring a slowed-down sense of anticipation to your home and family during Advent this year.
An Advent wreath is a simple circle of candles, 3 purple (or blue) and 1 pink. There are a variety of ways to create or buy one, if your church doesn’t do this, and setting it up on the first Sunday of Advent (December 3 this year) can be an important moment for families to mark the season. Many years ago when a dear tired-mama friend forgot to blow out the Advent candles one night (miraculously a scorched dining room table was the extent of the damage), I placed votive-sized candles in a large flat-bottomed glass bowl filled with sand, and we used this happily for years when my boys were small.
Whatever physical set-up you choose, the lighting of the candles on your wreath can hold space to pause as a family, to tell the nativity story. If you’re not sure about it, there are many wonderful Story Bibles out there that can help. Make the candle lighting itself a moment of wonder; let children help, with adult guidance of course, and take time to simply ponder the light. Wonder together how Mary felt when the angel told her she was favored by God, how far it is from Nazareth to Galilee, and how that journey would feel for someone about to give birth. There are many resources and prayers for the lighting of each candle; use what works, but take away the pressure of doing it ‘right’ because it is the moment of doing, of marking time to be with God as we await the coming of the Christ child, that is right. If sitting down to dinner together isn’t working at your house right now, add this to your bedtime routine or to breakfast.
Another of my favorite traditions when my boys were small was the bin of Christmas-oriented picture books that came out along with the Advent calendar. We collected favorites, and put them away on Twelfth Night every year, only to await with joyous anticipation their reappearance every year at Advent. Many were secular, Santa made his appearances, but bedtime reading each night reminded us of this very special season of waiting with these only-in-Advent beloved stories.
I encourage households to acquire a kid-friendly nativity set when children arrive in the home to tell and retell the story, from the angel’s appearance to Mary, to the road to Bethlehem, to the manger. When my boys were young, the Magi would spend Advent and much of Christmas journeying around the living room, the kitchen, the bookshelves…it was a trek. I kept the baby put away until Christmas Eve, when we would lovingly place him in the manger and the boys would position the rest of the figures to gaze wonderingly at him. Usually at least a sheep or two would be off nibbling at Santa’s plate of cookies and carrots.
Parents, I hope with all my heart that whatever you do to mark Advent in your home this year is, first and foremost, an opportunity for you to take a breath, to sit in wonder, and to hold space for your own soul to connect with the mystery of this season. Children have a miraculous and innate spirituality and they only need a little time and space to share it with you. All will not be perfect this Christmas, but Christ will be born, once again, bringing hope for joy and peace, if only we make room.
Are you looking for a way to extend the mystery beyond the craziness of Christmas Day? Explore how to engage in The Twelve Days of Christmas as a family here.