I move away from the fitness subject today. I find that I become easily frustrated this time of year. It’s not the hustle and bustle, the baking and decoratons, or even the Christmas cards (which I am hoping to finally get out this year). It’s the bombardment of the “shopping mall version” of Christmas that always seems to get me down. Don’t get me wrong… good ol’ Saint Nick himself isn’t the cause of my angst. We celebrate his visit in our home on December 6th (the Feast of Saint Nicholas) when shoes are filled with treats and surprises and we get a glimpse of the special giving of the Christmas season. Even the modern jolly, plump Santa is hard not to like, after all.
I become frustrated because, regardless of how hard I try, the shopping mall Christmas intrudes on my own version of what this beautiful season should mean to my children. Inevitably I hear my kids talking more about presents and wish lists and less about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph than I would like. The other day I turned off the radio because a constant “holiday” barage seemed to come from every station. But when I did, my little ones in the back said they liked those songs mommy and why did I turn them off?! I felt like a big scrooge.
When my oldest children were very young, a fellow homeschooling friend was in the process of writing a book about keeping Advent and Christmas a Holy time of year. Her name was Laurie Gill and the book was called, Advent and Christmas For the Christian Family. Eventually it was published and it is a wonderful resource for activities and traditions to help celebrate Advent and Christmas. When I got out of the car and into my house the other day, I quickly grabbed the book and started to read it again. It might be like someone reading abook from a favorite fitness guru for new encouragment. I am grateful for her tremendous resource and want to share some of her ideas (many of which come from a very old book by Mary Reed Newland called The Year and Our Children).
Advent (from the Latin adventus meaning “coming”) is a liturgical season observed in many Western Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. It begins on Advent Sunday, the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, Dec. 25. For Christians, the season of Advent serves as a reminder both of the original waiting by Israelites for the birth of the Messiah, and the waiting by Christians for the return of Christ.
My favorite Advent activity is the Jesse Tree. We made our first one 17 years ago, and I pulled it out on Sunday (first day of Advent) like I do every year on that day. Our Jesse tree ornaments have been re-done a few times, and we add new homeade ornaments as the old ones fade or tear, but the tree itself is the same one that has graced our kitchen every Advent. The name Jesse Tree is taken from Isaiah 11:1, in which Jesus is referred to as a shoot coming up from the stump of Jesse, the father of David. The ornaments on the Jesse tree tell of Jesus’ ancestors, and of the events leading to Jesus’ birth. So during the Advent season, the Salvation story is told as the children place the ornaments on the tree in chronological order until the story of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is told in the last few days. I love this tradition because it is a tangible, daily reminder during the days Advent of what it is we are anxiously preparing for.
Another great family Advent tradition (I found this one in Laurie’s book as well) is the Manger of Straw. All you need for this one is a simple roll of yarn (it might be purple for Advent) cut into 3 inch segments. Children are told that every time they do a kind deed or make a small sacrifice for another person in the family, they can take a piece of yarn and place it in the empty manger in the Nativity scene. By the time Christmas Eve comes around, and the Christ Child is placed in the manger, He can be laid on a soft, bed of good deeds! Here is a link for directions on making a homeade manger at Holy Heroes. There are lots of other ways to help kids to focus on the real reason for the season. There are even CDs that are full of mainly Advent songs, so that saving Christmas carols for closer to the 25th is possible.
Although there are some things we can purchase as ways to add new Advent or Christmas traditions, we really don’t have to spend any money at all. A Jesse tree can come from a branch found in our yard, or from a large piece of cardboard from an old box lying around the house. We can simply add some felt or background material we have at home and make the ornaments from paper like we have! If you are interested in purchasing some Advent materials or would just like to learn more about some of them, here is a good resource… four top Advent traditions.
Actually, sometimes simple distractions from the shopping mall Christmas are good ways to help kids to avoid getting caught up in the consumer mentality as well. My sister-in-law “Aunt Nancy”, always comes for Christmas, and we enjoy baking with her and making some kind of Christmas craft every year. However, one of the greatest things she has done for our family is to introduce us to letter-boxing. Every December, just a few days before Christmas, she takes my kids and heads out to some state park, landmark, or historical site in the area and they go on an amazing scavenger hunt for the pursued letter box (letter-boxing has nothing to do with Advent, …it is just happens to be when Nancy visits and when we do it). Without even meaning to, she has helped to keep my children out of the stores and be outdoors in the days leading up to Christmas. I am grateful to her for this!
Yesterday, while pulling out the Advent wreath, candles, and all the old Jesse Tree ornaments, I decided to turn on a favorite Advent carol, O Come O Come Emmanuel. Listening to the soft, sweet words, and contemplating the coming season, I thought about how silly I have been to allow myself to get so frustrated. No doubt I will probably always cringe a little this time of year, yet a thought occurred to me as I listened to these words in the carol…
O Come O Come Emmanuel..and ransom captive Israel. That mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears. Rejoice, Refoice, Emmanuel…Shall come to Thee, O Israel.
Perhaps the reason the shopping mall Christmas doesn’t satisfy is partly because nothing ultimately will until “the Son of God appears”. It is actually during the Advent season that we await that coming. That’s why Advent in the Catholic Church has traditionally been known as a “little Lent.” As in Lent, Advent is often marked by increased prayer, fasting, and good works. There is a time for rejoicing…and that is Christmas. Advent, is really more about anticipation. But that anticipation can be a wonderous time as well. When we try to prepare our hearts, and the hearts of our children, then we can truly celebrate when Christmas arrives. Like putting in the time to exercise, these extra efforts pay off for our families in the end.
The inevitable talk of presents and wish lists shouldn’t stop me from enjoying Advent. It is a part of the anticipation of Christmas, as long as it does not become the focus. It is good to remember Luke 12:34 which says For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The consumerism of the Christmas season is a strong pull away from the spiritual. However, if we start in our homes, we can find small ways to help our families to combat the consumerism culture. We live in the world, and while sometimes it would be nice to just shut our doors and not have to come out…that’s unrealistic, and not really what we are called to anyway. Thanks to my friend’s book, and to the many wonderful, inexpensive ways to bring meaning to Advent, we can live in the world, but not of it, and utlimately celebrate a truly Holy Christmas this year. What are some of your favorite family Advent traditions?