The church season of Advent begins this Sunday. "Advent" -- the time of coming -- the season where the Christian community looks in happy expectation to the arrival of the Christ Child. There are many ways that families can incorporate elements of Advent as ways to help teach children the story of Christmas that is not told in the holiday TV ads and department stores. Advent is a lovely and meaning-filled way to balance the family of faith during a season often colored by excess.
Christa is in Hong Kong, and as the weather gets a bit cooler there, she is really missing home, and how her father would start off every Advent by bringing evergreens into the house. She talks about the inequities she sees around her and concludes in part by saying: There is reason to look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus, as if for the first time. There are reasons to look round for ways in which we can help make the world a more fair place.
Here are some of the Advent elements you may wish to consider adding to your family's time together:
Giving in honor of Advent
Explaining Advent to your children, and selecting charities together that you will support in the coming year is a fine balance to commercialism. A friend of mine, a single mom, used to save up "appeal letters" and advertisements. After setting up the holiday tree, she would sit down with her kids, and they would decide together which charities they could support, given their income. They'd hang those letters or ads on their tree.
How are you incorporating charitable giving?
The Advent Calendar
This is (most often) a one page wall-hanging that has little "flaps" to open each day in December before Christmas. Some are paper with pictures of verses behind the door. Some, like this fair trade version offered by Divine Chocolate have little chocolates behind each flap and the nativity story on the back.
Others are made of cloth for use year after year, or of wood, like little boxes in calendar shape.
Monica didn't like the store-bought ones, so she built a spectacularly simple and effective secular (but adaptable any way you wish) Advent calendar that is a free-standing 3-D assembly - very clever - and her kids love it!
An Online Advent Calendar -- every day reveals a Christmas tradition from somewhere around the globe.
The Advent Wreath
The Advent wreath sits flat on a tabletop like this:
There are (most often) 5 candles, 4 of which are at the outside edge, and the final one at the middle. One candle is lit every Sunday in Advent, until all four are lit. The center one is lit on Christmas Day. There are various traditions around these candles, one being that three are purple or royal blue (to symbolize the royalty of Christ) and one is pink (to symbolize our joy) and the center one is white (for purity). The outer candles are also thought to symbolize faith, hope, joy and love.
Wreaths were also used in pagan cultures that predate Christianity. During long Scandinavian winters, candles were lit around a wheel. The god of light was asked to turn “the wheel of the earth” back toward the sun to bring warmth and longer days back.
Sandra a stay at home Mom, gives a fine description, pictures included, of how she made her family's Advent wreath from things around the house. She also talks about the meaning of the wreath and how she plans to incorporate it into her family's time.
Paula talks about how to build a wreath for Advent on a budget, and gives a fun idea about how to involve the children.
Michelle provides several crafty ideas about DIY Advent calendars.
The Nativity Scene
This is my favorite. When I was a kid, my parents gave me my own plastic nativity set. Impossible to break. I could set it up in my own room. The three kings were placed w-a-a-a-y on the far end of the room, and every day of Advent I could move them a little bit closer to the manger (until their "official" arrival date on Epiphany, January 6th.) I would even have the shepherds somewhat far away, walking across the hills and valleys of pillows and books in my room until Christmas Eve, when the star and I finally got them to the manger.
Nothing tells the story in more graphic terms than a manger. And how delighted I was to have my very own! There was the family manger, but that was a more hands-off unit than my indestructible plastic figures. When I got older I got my own non-plastic set, but you know what? I don't remember so well what that new one looked like. But I recall every detail of my first one.
Aisling tells a touching story about her Nativity set:
In a few days, we will put up the nativity set that my mother-in-law made for Limerick and I as a gift for our first married Christmas, 22 years ago. It is a full set, with camels and camel master, a beggar, and shepherd boy besides all of the important central figures. It is the first bit of Christmas to go up in our house every year, and the last to come down. Cleaning the hutch allows me to clear the center shelf for the nativity. At night, through the holiday season, we turn on the light in the hutch and the nativity scene looks very beautiful, with its lovingly painted color and detail.
This annual cleaning rite, a seemingly mundane chore, connects me with special people in my life... to the friends and family who made and gave all of the little touchstones that have gathered there through the year. When the holidays end, and the nativity set is carefully wrapped in newspaper and put away, the collecting will begin again. New mementos and keepsakes, new photographs and poems written in a child's wobbly script will be displayed in the hutch between the simple pieces of my Grandmother's china.
Christine discusses Advent and how she has each child build a small manger each year, with each straw added to the manger representing a good deed that the child has done in honor of Christ's birth. She also refers folks to the Just One World site which provides Advent and Christmas prayers and resources (including a downloadable Advent calendar for children) from around the world. Here is an example of one of many Advent prayers:
People of hope
In this season of Advent, inspire us to be a people of hope.
Encourage us not to be greedy for material possessions, but for justice and truth.
Enflame us with a love for others, which crosses boundaries of race, religion and nationality.
Stir within us a desire to fight for the integrity of creation and appreciate the immense beauty of the earth.
Be with us, Lord, at this time, that we may be a people of hope. Amen.
A personal and unabashedly religious note from me --
Not everyone shares my faith. I respect that from the bottom of my soul. But I'd like to take a moment to talk with folks who do. Sometimes I see my own journey on Advent as being part of a pilgrimage to "my own personal Bethlehem". I see myself walking along the road with so many others, walking with me. This year is a good year, on the whole. Some years I can barely step - I stumble and fall from the weight of the year that I have gone through. Some years I run with joy, hastening to the manger. Other years, especially years when I am mourning a loss, have felt that I was crawling over shards of broken glass, barely able to reach the shelter of the spiritual manger. But there is something in Advent that keeps me moving forward. I love the Yeats phrase -- Slouching Towards Bethlehem because that is how it often feels at this summing up time of the year. Those of us who share faith get to really lean into it at Advent. There is, waiting for us at the end of this season, the Nativity, and the "welcome home" there of all time. I am so thankful that my family took the time to give me Christmas faith traditions of substance that help sustain me through the years. I promise you that I would not be alive without them. Honestly. So let me wish you and your families a good Advent, knowing that many years are harder than others. If you have sadness, may you find hope and peace and comfort in the nativity and in the love of friends and family. If you have joy, may you use its strength to spread your compassion to those who are less fortunate.
I'll close with my favorite verse of O Come, O Come Emmanuel, the great Advent hymn -- in loving memory of Elmer Blackmer, the former organist at Wittenberg University Chapel. Elmer would make the angels sing with his majestically longing version of this hymn:
O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Mata H also blogs at Time's Fool
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