Like most children, I looked forward to Christmas with great anticipation when I was a little girl. The holidays were filled to the brim with magic. Time seemed to stand still as school projects made way for family gatherings, endless caroling sessions, and late-night ponderings among my siblings over Santa's ability to squeeze down our narrow chimney.
Sadly, now that I'm an adult, Christmas Day arrives too quickly and has all the glory and wonder of a shopping hangover from that last-minute trip for extra wrapping paper and tape. This beautiful season has gone from joyful to stressful, magical to materialistic.
So, in an effort to slow down and focus on the true heart of Christmas, I've found myself returning to those blissful childhood days. This time, though, it’s not to relive the legend of Santa Claus or to justify eating an entire batch of cookies solo, but for one simple tradition: Advent.
You see, along with all the usual holiday trappings, I was raised in a family that practiced this ancient Christian tradition. Advent (which comes from the Latin term “adventus,” meaning “arrival”) is marked by the four Sundays preceding Christmas, and is a season set aside to help Christians prepare. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, Advent prepares us for three events:
"During this time the faithful are admonished to prepare themselves worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord's coming into the world as the incarnate God of love, thus to make their souls fitting abodes for the Redeemer coming in Holy Communion and through grace, and thereby to make themselves ready for His final coming as judge, at death and at the end of the world."
In layman's terms, Advent prepares us not only to commemorate Jesus' first, humble arrival in a manger, but also helps us more fully invite Christ into our present lives while anticipating His final, glorious coming. Christians of all backgrounds can benefit from preparing for Christmas through Advent. The spiritual focus offers a meaningful way to cut through the madness of the secular Christmas season as well as an opportunity to mature in our faith in Christ.
An Excellent Tool to Pass on the Faith
Probably one of the most profound advantages of Advent is the impression it can have on the faith of a child. I have fond memories of my sisters and I clamoring for a chance to light the Advent wreath every Sunday at dinner. I recall the hushed darkness of our church draped in purple. I cherish fun memories of counting down to Christmas with chocolate-filled Advent calendars.
Perhaps all these traditions seem silly – or even empty. But, just as our family tradition of nightly bedtime stories made a lasting impression on my love for books, the season of Advent ingrained important spiritual truths in me at an early age by making abstract spiritual truths tangible. The Advent wreaths reminded us of the importance of waiting alertly for our Savior's arrival -- and prompted us to ponder why we needed a Savior in the first place. The darkened, purple churches inspired us to slow down and focus on God after a rowdy trip to an over-decorated toy store. The calendars taught us to anticipate Christ's coming with joy.
How to Celebrate Advent Meaningfully in Your Family
Even if your church does not officially celebrate Advent, you can pass the traditions down in your own home. The most popular activities thankfully take little time to execute. This year, Advent began Sunday, Nov. 30th:
Purple: While the rest of the U.S. spends December drowning in glittery green and red, the color purple is the primary color of Advent. Why purple? Purple is symbolic of repentance for sins, and is also a deep color that symbolizes spiritual darkness outside the light of Christ. The sheer contrast in the color schemes could be an opportunity to discuss how faith in Christ changes one’s focus from the more secular celebration of the holidays to the spiritual meaning behind Christmas. Have a few purple decorations in your home, along with a nativity scene. Read from the Old Testament and imagine together what it must have been like to live in the centuries before Christ's birth. Pray for those who currently do not know Christ. Wait for Christmas Day to draw near to bring out the sparkling gold, red, and green decorations.
Advent Wreath: Probably one of the most well-known symbols of Advent is the Advent wreath. This is basically a simple, evergreen wreath surrounding four candles. Many craft stores have ready-made ones now, or you can make one as a family (just be sure to place the candles in sturdy candle-holders). Three candles are the traditional purple, and one is rose-colored. Some families also place a white candle in the center of the wreath for the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany (Dec. 25th - Jan. 6th).
The four candles represent the four Sundays before Christmas day. Before dinner each Sunday, help a child light the new, corresponding candle as well as all the candles representing Sundays already passed. Say a prayer as you light the candles thanking God for the hope found in His Son, the light of the world.
Light the rose-colored candle on the third Sunday (not the fourth!). The “pink Sunday” symbolizes a break in the darkness, and a time of joy as Christ’s birthday gets closer. The pink candle is a good benchmark for setting up your Christmas decorations if you don’t want to wait until the night before Christmas to do so. On Christmas day, light all four candles, along with the fifth, white candle which symbolizes Christ’s official arrival and the beginning of the end to earthly darkness.
Advent Calendars: Advent calendars represent a fun side to this season of waiting. You’ve probably seen them in stores – thick cardboard or wooden calendars with manger scenes or other Christmas-related images. For each day in December you’ll notice tiny, numbered doors. Starting with the first Sunday of Advent, have a child open door #1. Continue to do this until the 24th day, taking turns as each family member gets a chance. Typically, a piece of chocolate awaits the opener, but to stretch this tradition beyond a sugar-high, buy a calendar that has Scripture or religious symbols behind each door. Read and discuss as a family.
For parents and teens who want to prepare for Christmas on a deeper level, there are special Advent devotionals for this time of year (check out your local Christian bookstore) as well as opportunities to add fasting and prayer to your weekly schedule. Given the traditional penitential nature of this season, it is also a wonderful time to reflect on the past year and ask God's forgiveness for any sins in your life that may be hindering your relationship with Him. As you set time aside to really contemplate the meaning of Christ’s coming, don’t be surprised if this Christmas Day holds an extra measure of joy for you and your family as you experience an increased awareness of His presence in your lives.
Let go of the busyness and stress of the holiday season and open your heart and mind to peace by experiencing the joy of Jesus' birth as you use 12 Advent Prayers! Finding quiet time during the holidays will help you reflect on the reason for Christmas and preparing our hearts to celebrate Christ's birth. Let us know in the comments how you are preparing your heart!