2020 has been one wild ride and I’m sure many of you are waiting for it to just end already! Well we still have five weeks remaining in the year, but this Sunday marks the beginning of a new year for the Catholic Church – the start to the new liturgical year!
Yes the first Sunday of Advent is upon us this weekend, and I don’t know about you, but it always sneaks up on me. Every weekend from now until Christmas has been booked out with social gatherings, there’s gifts to buy, decorations to put up and all the end of year activities to keep up with. It can easily feel like Christmas Day is the finish line that we just need to make it to, but amidst all the hustle and bustle we could really be missing out on the beauty of Advent.
Advent is a time of preparation and penance (similar to Lent). Regardless of what the decorations in the shopping centres tell us, it’s not the Christmas season just yet. I find that if we don’t put in some careful thought and planning ahead of the Advent season it’s so easy to miss out on the anticipation and excitement this beautiful season can bring. We are getting ready – not just for presents and feasts – but for the coming of our Saviour!
The Church in her wisdom has given us liturgical seasons which call us to reflect on the different stages of Christ’s life so that we can grow closer in union with Him. Now I have always been the most Christmassy person I know. Playing carols from November, having the tree decorated to perfection, throwing Christmas parties in December. But in the past few years I have found that entering into the spirit of Advent has been so spiritually enriching and has allowed me to enter into the joy of the Christmas season in a new way.
You may already have some favourite Advent traditions, but if I’ve inspired you to up your Advent game then I’ve included a few suggestions below for you. Maybe pick one or two you want to try with your family this year.
1. The Advent Wreath
I’m starting with my favourite here. This is the main Advent tradition we had in our family when I was growing up. I made our wreath last year and tried to get all the symbolism in there:
The circle – symbolises God’s eternal nature (no beginning or end)
The evergreen branches – signifies the immortality of our soul
The red berries – looking ahead to Christ’s sacrifice and death
The pinecones – to represent new life and the resurrection
The four candles – accounts for the four weeks of Advent, representing hope, faith, joy and peace (which gives us our focus for each week)
The candle flames – symbolise the light of Christ
We light the candles and say the prayer for the week every night at dinner time. Our boys love the new centrepiece and taking turns to be in charge of helping to light and blow out the candles (under close supervision of course!). It’s a great way to talk to them about the purpose of Advent, what the wreath symbolises and to talk about the Christmas story.
2. Advent Carols
We all have our favourite Christmas Carols, but did you know there are some really great Advent Carols? We tried this last year, just sticking mostly to playing Advent Carols during the day and I must say it really created a reflective space, which in turn helped to build the anticipation for the main event. Some of my favourites include “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent”, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, “Spirit of the Living God”, “Be Thou My Vision”, and many more. Here’s a great playlist on Spotify you can enjoy.
3. Daily Meditations
Find a short daily meditation which can accompany you in your Advent journey. Last year I enjoyed the ‘Rejoice! Advent Meditations with Joseph’, which included videos produced by Ascension. Our friends at Parousia Media are hosting their ‘Advent Pilgrimage: A Journey from Eden to Bethlehem’ which is free to sign up for. There are some great speakers and the resources come straight to your inbox. Chris Stefanick is also hosting a free digital Advent retreat called 'Unshakeable Joy!'. Or even just select some of the early chapters of the Gospels to reflect on each day. Whichever way you go, it’s great to use this time for some spiritual reflection and growth.
4. Jesse Tree
The Jesse Tree is a tradition which tells the story of salvation history from Creation through to the Incarnation. It incorporates Bible readings and symbolic ornaments for each day in Advent. We haven’t done this in our family yet but it sounds like a really cool tradition which could be incorporated into family prayer time. Here’s a free resource if you want to try this one out this year.
5. Straw for Baby Jesus
A lovely Advent tradition which we are going to try this year is the straw for Baby Jesus. The idea is to teach children about what Jesus told us in last week’s Gospel “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” (Matt 25:40) Any good deeds and sacrifices made by the kids for others during Advent means they can add a piece of straw to the manger. By Christmas morning they will hopefully have created a soft bed for Baby Jesus to be placed in. All you need is a little manger for baby Jesus (a shoe box will probably do), and a jar of ‘straw’ or pieces of wool. Hopefully we see some lovely good deeds this Advent!
6. Celebrate Liturgical Feasts
There are some great feast days which fall in the Advent season which you may want to consider celebrating. December 6th is the feast of St Nicholas. The tradition is for children to put out a pair of their shoes the night before and the next morning they are filled with sweets and little gifts. Last year we had our boys put their letters to St Nick in their shoes for him to collect.
It was a great opportunity for us to explain the story of St Nicholas and that he was a real person, a bishop who helped the poor and had a
special love for children. He usually visits all children on the 24th, but for those of us who celebrate his feast day we get a bonus visit! If you’re a parent trying to decide how to handle the whole ‘Santa thing’ with your kids, here’s a great article by Kendra Tierney which explains how we approach it with our kids.
Other ideas include having a meal of all white food followed by a Marian procession singing a Marian hymn for the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. Perhaps having a Mexican fiesta for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th and making St Lucy buns and crowns for the feast of St Lucy on December 13th.
Whatever traditions you and your family decide to do, we pray that you have a blessed Advent season and enjoy the anticipation and excitement as we await the coming of our Lord at Christmas. See you in the new (liturgical) year!