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…
- Treasuring Christ in Christmas – suggestions and photos from our celebration a couple of years ago (you’ll see the original version of my names-of-Jesus Advent calendar!)
- Christ the Light (an Epiphany message)
- Celebrating Epiphany – practical suggestions and photos
(other great resources)
- Keeping Advent — A 31 Days series from One Deep Drawer
- Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus — A collection of Advent readings edited by Nancy Guthrie
- Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room — Family devotions for Advent by Nancy Guthrie (I have not read this, but everything by Nancy Guthrie is incredible!)
- The Greatest Gift — Ann Voskamp’s latest book is an Advent devotional. I haven’t read it, but I’m sure it’s great!
- The Jesse Tree — tips and instructions for a great family tradition from Tsh at Simple Mom
- Distinctive Traditions of Epiphany — great practical suggestions from the Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University
Keep Reading: Lent/Easter