I was raised in the evangelical church, but my first exposure to Advent was at the age of 12 through the movie Courage Mountain. (Please don’t consider this a movie recommendation. My 6th-grade self thought it was great. I’ll leave it at that.) What I remember is the characters being stuck in the Alps somewhere, hoping to get home for Christmas. Each night of their exile, they faithfully sing and light a candle. I remember thinking this was lovely, and that it must be some strange ritual practiced long ago, in a far away place.
Many years later as my husband and I were preparing for the arrival of our first child, I began thinking about habits and practices we ought to establish around the holidays.
I thought it would be “cute” to somehow mark the time leading up to Christmas. I did a little reading and a lot of googling. What I discovered was the rich heritage we have as believers in the keeping of the church calendar.1
I read a newsletter recently where Peter Leithart says,
“We don’t keep the rhythms of the church calendar out of traditionalism. We mark time Christianly in order to honor Jesus, the Lord of ages whose Advent starts a new age of human history. We observe the church calendar to evangelize time.”
Obviously, we want to do this in our churches. But I think, taking our cue from the practice of the church, we can carry it into our homes, too. I don’t want my kids (or myself!) to mark time based on how many Christmas shopping days we have left, or the countdown to the Super Bowl, or the start of a new school year.2
I want to instill in my kids that we are Christians—a people set apart, living lives that ought to point to the Jesus we follow, rather than the culture at large. I think one good way to do this (among many) is by marking our time/calendar differently.
For those of you who are new to this concept, Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year. It begins four Sundays prior to Christmas. This year, it happens to start on December 1.
“Advent” simply means “coming” or “arrival.” It is a season of soberly and gratefully remembering the first coming of Christ for the sake of deepening our yearning for the second coming of Christ.
Historically, Advent is not a time for joviality and feasting. This is what makes Advent such a challenge in twenty-first century American culture. We are frantically shopping, wrapping, baking, decorating, and partying so much prior to Christmas that when it finally arrives we’re often left feeling drained at best, and at worst depressed.
We can do better. Below are a some basic ideas for observing the Advent season in your home.
1. Read Together
As Christian parents, we want to cultivate in ourselves, and in our children, the discipline of regularly reading Scripture. What better way to start or end our days than with the routine of reading together? There are countless on-line resources for daily Advent readings. Here are a few that I have used and enjoyed:
- Advent Readings for the Very Young was written by my friends, Alex and Betsy. They add a new piece of Playmobil’s Nativity each day during Advent. It’s great for toddlers and preschoolers. Don’t have the Playmobil scene? Me either. We print pictures at home that correspond with each day’s reading. The kids color them as we read and discuss the Scripture reading. Then we cut them out and tape them to the fridge, filling out the scene a little more as we progress through Advent.
- Jesse Trees are wonderful for all ages. The readings take you through all of redemptive history in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. There are ornaments that correspond with each reading. The ornaments range from elaborate (check Etsy) to simple paper circles that can be printed and colored at home. We like what the Reformed Church in America has put together. Perhaps your church or denomination has a resource you could use.
- Do you have older children with longer attention spans? Maybe some readings from the Revised Common Lectionary would be right for your family.
- There are also many Advent devotional books available. Personally, I’ve enjoyed Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas
2. Light Candles and Sing
It’s possible that your church lights candles during the Advent season. Our family has enjoyed bringing this practice into our home. Each evening after dinner, we light candles (one candle every night during the first week of Advent, two candles each night during the second week, and so forth), and we sing a simple chorus like “Trisagion,” or “Come Light our Hearts” or a hymn like “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”.
Because our kids love the ritual and familiarity of it, we usually stick with the same song through the season. But you could certainly do a different hymn each week, or learn a new verse of a single hymn each week.
3. Wait on the Tree
For the past several years our family has waited until December 24 to put up our tree. I know, I know. This is a hard one. I used to be a day-after-Thanksgiving person myself. Now, when I sheepishly answer that worn-out question “Did you put up your tree?” with, “Actually, we wait until Christmas Eve,” the looks I get range from incredulity to personal offense.
We still put out a few winter decorations after Thanksgiving. Our mantle will get a simple greenery and holly berry make-over, and we’ll put a wreath on the door. But the decorative crown of Christmas is reserved for when Christmas is right on the doorstep.
Here are three reasons we do this:
- If Advent is a season of sober remembering and longing, I want my home to visually reflect that reality.
- It builds anticipation for our family. Christmas decorations are already up all around us. When we see these, we start talking about how delightful it will be, in just a few weeks, to adorn our home for Christ’s coming.
- It’s different. Different isn’t always better. But I feel that consumerism has highjacked Advent and Christmas. This is my simple and silent protest.
4. Celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas
I realize that this is a post on observing Advent. But I would be remiss not to mention the culmination of Advent: Christmas!
The coming of Christ is so great it pulls out of us not simply one special day, but a whole season of feasting. Traditionally, this church festal season has been called Christmastide. Another more familiar way of describing this season is the twelve days of Christmas. It’s more than a kooky song (my favorite rendition is by John Denver and the Muppets)!
I would love to see a revival of this rich tradition. This is the time for levity and celebration. Now, we stuff ourselves with good food, exchange gifts, and sing Christmas carols.
At our house, we try to plan something special for each of the twelve days. It might be going sledding, working on a special craft or project, inviting another family over to make homemade pizzas, planning and hosting a New Year’s Eve party, or a game night with popcorn and cookies. The possibilities are endless.
5. The Manger
Because we still have young children at home, we also pay special attention to our manger scene during Christmas.
Mary and Jospeh arrive on Christmas Eve. Jesus appears on Christmas morning and the shepherds come out that evening. We put our three Magi on the opposite end of the house and move them a bit closer to the manger each day of Christmas. They spend at least one night in each of the children’s bedrooms. They finally arrive on the Twelfth Night - Epiphany, the church feast celebrating the arrival of the Magi, and recalling for the church its present place and role in the redemptive story, the place or time of mission to the ends of the earth and light going out to the nations since the Desire of the Nations has come.
Epiphany is usually the day we take the tree down and conclude our celebration with a special dinner and a king cake for dessert. There are lots of opinions out there about what king cake should be. At our house, it’s a bundt cake decorated with gumdrops so it looks like a jeweled crown.
What are your Advent traditions? What resources has your family used and enjoyed? What’s your favorite version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? Share them in the comment section below.
However you choose to recognize and celebrate Advent and Christmas this season, we at Clapham School pray that it’s a peaceful and blessed one.
1. For some very basic background on the church calendar and some great ideas on honoring it at home, see Let Us Keep the Feast, edited by Jessica Snell.
2. For more on this see, Daniel J. Brendsel, “A Tale of Two Calendars: Calendars, Compassion, Liturgical Formation, and the Presence of the Holy Spirit,” Bulletin of Ecclesial Theology 3 (2016): 15–43.