By Anna Mussmann
I love Christmas, but I’m glad that my husband has always insisted we celebrate Advent first. He and I quibble sometimes about the details. We’ve disagreed about when it’s appropriate to hang lights on the porch or decorate the tree (he says on Christmas Eve). I’ve complained once or twice that he’s a stickler, but overall, his influence keeps me from missing out on a beautiful season in the church year.
Advent makes Christmas feel more like it did when I was a kid, back when the wait and anticipation were big deals. But Advent isn’t just about refraining from rushing Christmas. It is special in its own right. It heightens my awareness of little details as we participate in Advent rituals like lighting candles and counting days. It’s a reminder that the mundane--a cup of tea in a pretty mug, a child who does his chore, a friend who always laughs at one’s jokes--are good and beautiful. It’s also a reminder that we are waiting. We live in a world that holds as many wrongs and griefs as it does good cups of tea, but we wait in hope for the Savior who rights all wrongs. It makes it easier to remember why we really celebrate our Lord’s birth.
Advent isn’t something I grew up particularly aware of, but I love the customs and traditions my family now practices during this season. Here are some of the ideas that we find helpful.
First: Think through what you really want to do for Christmas.
It’s hard to celebrate Advent if December is a blur of pre-Christmas stress. Do you feel obligated to produce and perform at Christmas? To go over-budget? To meet some unexamined standard in your head? Studies show that couples who throw big expensive weddings are statistically more likely to get divorced. It seems logical that families who fall into the equivalent trap in December are less likely to enjoy what really matters. So don’t feel obligated. You can always try skipping stuff and seeing which things you really miss.
If possible, buy fewer gifts. One present per child is fine, you know. Maybe your relatives and extended families will agree to draw names instead of having each person provide everyone with more stuff). It’s also nice when you can do your shopping early so that most of December is peacefully free.
Perhaps read some stories about old-fashioned Christmas celebrations--the kind they had in the Little House books, or in An Orange for Frankie--and consider how Christians have celebrated the Nativity of our Lord throughout the ages. Consider spreading the events, cheer and excitement of December 25th throughout all twelve days of Christmas instead of trying to squeeze it into one day (this blog post has lovely suggestions).
Do Advent devotions. Involve flames.
I must confess that in my house, we are not always as good as we mean to be about evening devotions. This is, however, not a problem during Advent, because then there are candles. The children are not about to let us forget those. I own this candle holder and use a package of these candles. I generally buy an inexpensive wreath of fresh greenery from Trader Joe’s (although making your own looks fun) and pop my candle holder into the center of it. Someday, perhaps I’ll splurge and get a beeswax candle kit like this one.
We keep the wreath on the dining room table. Each evening we light the candles for our devotions. Because our children are still small, we keep devotions short and simple. Sometimes all we do is a Scripture reading and a verse of “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” At the end, one of the kids gets to blow out the candles. That, let me tell you, is a big deal!
If you are interested in working through a Bible study this Advent, you may want to consider this one from The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod Commission on Theology and Church Relations on how “Christmas justifies us.”
Consider some form of Advent calendar.
This year, we will be incorporating a Jesse tree into our evening Advent devotions. It is so termed because Jesus is a “shoot of Jesse,” and the idea is to cover the history of the Old and New Testaments as they lead up to Christ’s birth through a series of Bible readings. We will have 24 little ornaments that correspond to the readings and that can be hung on a small tree made from wooden dowels. It’s our substitute for an Advent calendar. I’ve been sewing ornaments (you can see my inspirations here), but if you aren’t interested in sewing, a quick Google search turns up a variety of free ornament printables. Etsy is also a good place to look for Jesse tree stands and ornaments.
Concordia Publishing House carries a basic Advent calendar that you can use to tell the story of Jesus’ birth while also counting down the days until Christmas (note: next year, buy it during the big November Warehouse Sale). Someday, I would like to make this calendar out of felt and let my children move Mary, Joseph, and the donkey along the path throughout December.
I like the idea of writing names of people to pray for (perhaps including our synodical and national leaders) on 24 strips of purple paper, then making the strips into a paper chain. The children can take one link down each day and the family can pray for the person whose name is on the paper. If the kids aren’t old enough to use tape and make the chain, they could probably just crumple the paper into a prayer jar instead.
Put out a nativity set. Hide Baby Jesus in a drawer.
Children are extremely tactile. They learn through play. Rather than filling the house with Christmas decorations in Advent, we put out a few things like our wooden Melissa and Doug nativity set. Of course, Baby Jesus isn’t born yet, so we hide him in a drawer until the 24th. The key is not to forget which drawer.
Speaking of nativity sets, this free printable for a nativity mobile looks pretty cool.
Choose a few Advent customs.
Here are some of the activities that we enjoy. The list shouldn’t feel more like an a la carte menu than a to-do list.
1. Listen to Advent music. Cheryl’s piece from last year includes a number of good suggestions.
Lutheran Public Radio is also a great source of Advent music: during Advent they stick to Advent hymns. Introducing your children to Handel’s Messiah or memorizing an Advent hymn together is always a good choice.
2. Read Christmas-related books with your kids. Some families wrap their Christmas books in purple paper or decorated pouches and pull one new one out each day of December. I prefer the idea of having four cloth bags--one for each Sunday in Advent--and sharing a few new stories with my kids each week. I have a piece in The Federalist with a list of favorite Christmas picture books. Here are five top recommendations:
The Christmas Story from the Gospel According to St. Luke from the King James Bible, illustrated by James Bernardin. The illustrations are respectful and appealing. Mary and Joseph look Jewish, and the setting looks reasonably accurate. Ages 3-up.
Christmas in Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Ilon Wikland. In this delightful glimpse of old-timey Sweden, we see how a group of children enjoy the customs and traditions of Christmas-time. Young readers can spend a long time examining the detailed illustrations. Ages 3-up.
The Third Gift by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. This one has particularly wonderful illustrations. In the story, a boy works with his father to harvest sap. The sap turns out to be myrrh and is purchased by the Wise Men. Ages 4-up.
The Mole Family’s Christmas by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban. The story of a near-sighted mole family who learn about Christmas and try to request a telescope from “the fat man in the red suit,” this one’s out of print but well worth hunting down. It’s an example of clever storytelling, delightful wordplay, and satisfying use of characters. Another of my favorites. Ages 4-up.
Mortimer’s Christmas Manger by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Jane Chapman. It’s hard to find a story about cute Christmas animals that isn’t a sappy mess. This one is actually both cute and well written. When a little mouse discovers the nativity set, he pushes the figures out and makes himself at home. Eventually, he realizes that the baby who keeps getting in his way is Jesus. Ages 2-up.
For tiny readers, try this board book or this one.
3. Craft gifts or cards for teachers, Sunday School leaders, relatives, and neighbors. These don’t have to look like something on Pinterest. If all else fails, just give the kids cardstock and crayons.
4. Let older kids address and stamp Christmas cards for you.
5. Bake Christmas cookies and put most of them into the freezer to enjoy during the twelve days of Christmas.
6. Choose a way to give to others. This year, we will go to a toy store and my children will each choose a nice toy to donate to the local children’s hospital. We may also participate with a local group that prepares “welcome bags” for children taken into foster care. I like the idea of involving my kids in thinking about what kinds of gifts would be fun and useful for others. As they get older, we may bring cookies and cards to shut-ins from our church.
Have a blessed Advent!
After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.