The Liturgical Calendar: Advent/Christmas/Epiphany



Even if you don’t know much about the liturgical calendar, you probably know about Advent.  It’s a trendy thing to celebrate these days, thanks to Pinterest, I think, and most people I know have some sort of advent wreath and/or calendar as part of their seasonal decor.  But you have to be careful, because “Advent” is not just a church-y sounding name for “25 Days of Christmas festivities.”  If anything, it’s exactly the opposite.

Advent is a season of expectation, of holding your breath, of groaning impatience for a coming joy.  Think of Mary, great with child, waiting out her final weeks before delivering her firstborn son.  Think of our own world, creaking under the weight of brokenness, injustice, and sadness, waiting for the return of the King who will set all things right.  Advent requires making some space in your heart and mind to feel this sadness (no easy thing amid all the smiling Santas, extravagant decorations, and 24-hour-movie marathons!), to heighten the joy that comes from celebrating Jesus’s first arrival to Earth.

Even in December’s lengthening darkness, this seed of joyful hope grows within us. We are pregnant with it. In our waiting, we are enlarged. God is coming! …The prophets and psalmists can help us.  Old Elizabeth and Zechariah can help us. Young, expectant Mary can help us. We can enter their stories and listen to their words and pray their prayers over these weeks. By so doing, we deepen our longing and heighten our hope for God’s coming. By so doing, we become more attuned to the joyous wonder of Christ’s incarnation and better prepared for the fierce glory of his return.
(Gross, Living the Christian Year)

A traditional Advent observance requires a lot more restraint during the month of December than we actually practice.  I do put up our decorations, we listen to carols, and attend Christmas events in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  But I do think (a little harder every year) about what things we can do–and not do– to suspend the festive atmosphere and create a spirit of anticipation among our family.

Here are just a couple of suggestions:

  • keep Christmas presents hidden away until Christmas Day (or whenever you like to open them)
  • Don’t decorate your tree until Christmas (apparently this is an old tradition, anyway… the idea is that Santa brings all aspects of Christmas while the children are sleeping)
  • Use an advent calendar that focuses your attention on Christ and the Nativity story, rather than one that gives you presents or fun things to do every day.



  • light an Advent wreath, and discuss the significance of each candle with your family and guests
  • I’ve heard of a tradition of adding little bits of hay to a manger scene each day, as a visual symbol of preparing for the arrival of Baby Jesus
  • Think through your holiday celebrations (books, decorations, conversations, traditions…)– what are they communicating about the “real” meaning of the season?  If you say Christmas is about Jesus but all of the fun stuff is about Santa and presents, your kids will (rightfully) conclude that the Jesus stuff is the necessary boredom that must be endured so that you can get on with the real celebration.
  • Read the Christmas story (from the Bible!) every night at bedtime.  Retell it as much as possible during the days with dress-up and child-friendly Nativity sets.


Fortunately, we do not live in a land where it’s always Advent but never Christmas.  So after 24 days (or so) of restraint, Christmas is the time to let loose with all of your celebratory energy!  This year, for the first time, we’re going to try to celebrate Twelve Days of Christmas beginning on December 24 (We’re a pastor’s family, remember…so the Christmas Eve Service is a must and a great way to kick off the celebration, in my opinion).

I’m saving up as many of the fun Christmas activities as we can for these 12 days: cookie baking and decorating, driving through a Parade of Lights in PJs, movie marathons, etc.


12 Days of Christmas ends on January 6 with the Feast of Epiphany.  Traditionally, this is the day to celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men (by extension, this celebrates the fact that the Light of Christ was made known to Gentiles and, therefore, most of us).  Some Christian traditions also commemorate Jesus’s baptism on this day.  This day marks the beginning of the Season of Epiphany, which continues until Ash Wednesday.

After over a week of Christmas revelry, Epiphany is a counterbalance of rest and quiet for the senses.  The theme is Light, so I put away the red and green and keep out the decorations that are white, and I place white candles all around.  We find ourselves in Winter without the excitement of Christmas, so it’s a perfect time to imagine and talk about Jesus the Light pushing back the darkness and giving us hope that Spring will come again!

Still curious?  Read on…

(from here)

(other great resources)

Keep Reading: Lent/Easter


7 responses to “The Liturgical Calendar: Advent/Christmas/Epiphany

  1. This is great! Thanks for the Advent rundown and the list of resources. Here is our advent calendar that helps us set up the nativity scene:
    Not a fine-tuned machine yet as far as what’s in each bag on each day, but as you say, I want to keep thinking about it each year to make changes and foster the anticipation.

    I love the adding straw to make a soft bed for baby Jesus. My aunt always sets up the nativity scene without the baby, and the kids have to hunt for him on Christmas morning. Just don’t lose Baby Jesus, whatever you do! Or have a back up!

    • I love these traditions! Your Advent calendar is super cute, and I like the idea of slowly building a Nativity scene. Also I LOVE the CS Lewis quote at the beginning of your post! I’ll have to copy that one down…

    • Also, if you ever write a book about celebrating Advent, I think that “Don’t Lose Baby Jesus” would be a great title! 🙂

  2. This is such a great post. My husband and I both come from families that make a big deal about Xmas eve, so we’re having to adjust our expectations now that he’s a pastor. We both struggle with feeling resentment toward the church for ruining “our” Christmas — isn’t that awful? But we get to create our own new traditions as a family, so I really want to incorporate some of the ideas that you mention.

    • I do know what you mean…we almost had a big conflict the year that Christmas fell on a Sunday. No working on holidays, right?!

      It can be hard to juggle responsibilities vs. family time on holidays…all the best to you as you figure out how you’ll make the most of celebrating as a family!

  3. I LOVE THIS. I love advent and I love epiphany. I hate that there are so few advent carols – my favorite is by far “O Come O Come Emmanuel” which makes me cry every time.

    Do you find that people take their lights down, though? I want to do save everything for the 12 days, but here a lot of people are on the ball about taking down lights. Like it’s going to kill them to leave them up for at LEAST NYE, even if they have no faith tradition.

    I had never thought about saving cookies until after Christmas, though! I think it’s brilliant. Also not having the cookies and candy in the house for a solid month is probably good.

    • Neighborhood light displays are pretty hit-and-miss in our area anyway, even if we go out before Christmas. This will be the first year that we have a child old enough to enjoy it, so I’m planning to do one of those fancy drive-through light displays, which I think are open until New Year’s.

      Totally agree with you on Advent songs; I think that’s the main reason I don’t hold out on carols through the whole month of December. I do also like “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

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