Advent comes and goes nearly unnoticed. The only thing worth recognition between Halloween and Christmas is Thanksgiving, and even that has started to take a back seat as major stores start “decking the halls” and TV stations start putting on Christmas movies in late October and early November. Advent, a delightful period of quiet waiting and anticipation for the coming of the child Jesus, passes by largely forgotten.
My husband is a Maronite Catholic. Any of you familiar with Eastern Catholicism may have heard that the Eastern Catholic rites follow a different liturgical calendar. Most major feasts, like Christmas and Easter, fall on the same dates, thereby emphasizing the unity of the church, but other feasts and the general cycle of the liturgical seasons differs. Since we’re a mixed family (I’m Roman Catholic), I like to joke that we can opt for the longer Advent (Maronite calendar) and shorter Lent (Roman Catholic calendar).
In all seriousness, though, I deeply appreciate the length of the Maronite Advent, which averages out to be six weeks instead of four. This gives more time for contemplating the Gospel narrative leading up to the birth of Jesus and for allowing a sense of longing for the Lord’s coming to grow in our hearts.
Right now, my husband and I have three kids, 4 and younger, all born in the month of February. If you do the math, this means that I’ve been about six months pregnant during three of the last five Advents. Expecting a child is a wonderful way of getting into the Advent season and teaching kids what we mean when we say that we’re waiting for baby Jesus to arrive. But we can’t count on that natural way of celebrating Advent all the time, so we have to come up with other hands-on family traditions that can teach the kids about Advent, making the season come alive and make a difference.
1. Get the kids’ senses involved: fill your home with the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of Advent.
• Play Advent music. There are many beautiful hymns and songs specifically focused on Advent. You can play these in the background, or, if you still sing to your kids at night, simply include an Advent song to mark the season. A few Advent songs you might consider include: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “O Come Divine Messiah,” “Come Oh Long Expected Jesus,” “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry,” “Rorate Coeli,” “Hark, a Mystic Voice is Sounding” and “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted.”
• Decorate for Advent. This could be as simple as an Advent wreath on the dining room table, or you could get more elaborate, putting symbols and Scripture verses that remind you of Advent around the house.
• Have special foods. We tend to associate special foods with Christmas more than Advent, but you can adapt some of the same treats, like sugar cookies or gingerbread, for Advent by changing the color of the frosting to pink and purple and using Advent-shaped cookie cutters (e.g. star, candle, angel). Talk to your kids about the meaning of these symbols and how they relate to the time of Advent.
• Get creative with Advent scents. There aren’t really specific smells associated with Advent, aside perhaps from the evergreen scent that emanates from the Advent wreath, but you can get creative here and set aside certain smells that you only use in your house during Advent, so your kids associate them with the season. You might consider, for example, boiling orange peel, cinnamon sticks and clove — this will give off a warm, inviting smell that permeates throughout the house.
2. Do something Advent-related every day as a family. This could be setting aside a few minutes to say an Advent prayer as a family (if you have an Advent wreath, you can light one of the candles at this time), using an Advent calendar or making a Jesse tree.
3. Use Advent images. Introduce your kids to classical art related to Advent (pictures of John the Baptist, the Visitation, the Annunciation, etc.) and talk about the stories depicted and what we can learn from them. You can also build anticipation but putting the Nativity scene out before Christmas and gradually adding the figurines in preparation for the big day, placing baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve.
4. Celebrate the saints during Advent. Several feast days in the month of December can take on a distinctive Advent flavor, including St. Nicholas and St. Lucy. Each of these saints has a rich history and a variety of traditions (costumes, special foods, etc.) connected to their feast days that can help make the season come alive for your kids.
5. Do some sort of additional outreach as a family. The Lord once told us in a parable, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). One of the best ways to get ready to receive Jesus is by opening our hearts to other people. This starts in the home, with kindness toward each other, and can then extend to our parishes and local communities through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
Wishing all of you and your families a blessed and peaceful Advent!
Mady is director of the diocesan Office for Marriage, Family and Life.