ADVENT AND CHRISTMAS – TRADITIONS WITH A SMALL ‘t’
Oh, another Liturgical year has come to a close, and we now anticipate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ through a period of preparation; Advent. Advent is such a magical time in our home, rich in tradition, chock-full of joy and jubilation. It has become even more magical for us over the years. My husband and I have continued with the traditions of our youth and have, very gradually, added some new ones. Many of the new traditions we have added help us truly focus on the reason for the season and prepare our hearts, as a family. It is a period of prayer, scripture, work, sacrifice, giving, anticipation, and preparation. In all of it, there is joy, a joy that can only come with the promise of Christmas. Our hope is, with God’s grace, to help our children grow in the virtues of faith, hope, and love, which are core in our Christian faith; and, liturgically speaking, it begins with Advent. It is our hope, that with these traditions, Jesus will find a proper dwelling place within each of our hearts.
The home I was raised in displayed the Nativity scene. We always had an Advent calendar to help us help us count down the days remaining until Christ’s birth (at the time, for me, it was all about the chocolate hidden behind each door). The Christmas tree was lit; house decked-out; and music of the season joyfully filling the air (and had been since the first snow fall, I remember Bing Crosby most). My family tradition was rich in joy and I loved every bit of it. My husband’s childhood home looked similar to mine and thus, when we began a life together, we brought these traditions into our own home, where we would share these magical and joy-filled memories for our children to carry with them, into whatever vocation God calls them. Thus, in keeping with the tradition of our youth, shortly after Thanksgiving, the tree went up and the house was ready for dear old St. Nick to bless us with his generosity. The evergreen-scented candles were lit, garland and tree decorated and illuminated, stockings hung, nativity scene set, and the joyful and festive Christmas music of Crosby, Sinatra, Ives, and Dino played without ceasing.
It never occurred to me that there was any other way of preparing for and celebrating Christmas. I have since learned that many people prepare for the coming of Christ in different ways. Each of my friends has a slightly different tradition (tradition with a small ‘t’ as one of my friends so articulately put it) and they are all beautiful, rich, joy-filled, and loving traditions, which help them to celebrate and prepare, in a way that brings back the magic of their youth, as well as creating and embracing new family traditions; all with Christ as the center and reason for their hope.
Over the last three years, I have also learned, that some of my family traditions appear quite different, and even in line with the secular celebration, from the outside. I have been blessed with some friends whose families’ traditions look nothing like mine. Some wait to put up their tree until the 2nd or 3rd week in advent, some wait until Christmas to even turn on a light in celebration of the season. Their homes look completely different than mine during Advent.
Some of this learning, for me, was difficult, as a couple of friends lovingly reproved me for my tradition and called out my family’s preparation in front of others as different and not to expect that sort of thing in their home. At first, I really took this hard (a pride thing)… I began to wonder… is my tradition, wrong? I really began to feel insecure and questioned myself and the 41 years of tradition that had historically made my season so bright. In keeping with my unending search for truth, I added this to the list of “must learns”. I needed to learn what the Catholic Church teaches. If my family tradition is contrary to Church teaching, out of obedience and love, we would need to prayerfully move toward what the Church teaches. And so the research began.
What I have found, is that the Church herself is rich in tradition, but does not draw any definitive line on this subject. Everywhere I look, I can find something to support all of the traditions I have grown up with as well as the other beautiful traditions my friends enjoy in their homes. As a dear friend pointed out to me, when I asked my Mother’s group about these things, “things like Jesse trees or Advent wreaths or even Christmas trees are a matter of culture and (small “t”) traditions. None of those things are liturgical, therefore there is nothing wrong with the Holy Father lighting up the largest Christmas tree in the world on Dec. 7 last year in Italy.” In 2011, the tree in St. Peter’s Square was up and lit by December 16th. Our Holy Father, “Pope Benedict said these seasonal traditions are a ‘part our communities’ spiritual heritage … which we must seek to conserve, even in modern societies where consumerism and the search for material goods sometimes seem to prevail.’” (Catholic News Agency)
I asked my spiritual director about this as well, and his response resonated with that of the Holy Father. He also said, “continue to pray and follow God’s lead. He will guide you and encourage you to celebrate in a way that most glorifies Him.” He also said, “for the sake of the children, continue to embrace the magic of the season.”
I have prayed and read, discussed with my husband and friends, and after all of this have found consolation in embracing the new without losing the magic of the old. Though, our Advent has become far more Christ centered than in the early years of our marriage and family, from the outside, it does not look much different from many of yours. Our tree now goes up the 1st Sunday in Advent, lit and decorated, only with far more purple than before, the liturgical color for Advent. The garland is lit throughout the house. We have a few different Nativity scenes on display. The only difference, is the wise men are not even close to the manger yet; the children will move them closer to the manger as each week passes, until the celebration of Epiphany (when the wise men find the Baby Jesus).
We place an Advent wreath with candles in the center of the family dining table. The children make the candles from Emmanuel Books made with sheets of bees wax, rolled around a candle wic. We dim the lights at the dinner table and as a new candle is lit, each Sunday in Advent, the light becomes brighter in anticipation of the true Light to come into the world on Christmas. We follow this tradition as well as others, that I found in the book Advent, Christmas and Epiphany in the Domestic Church, by the Fournier Family (see below). We have also added the Jesse Tree, which enables us to track Jesus’ lineage throughout Advent, beginning with creation (Genesis 1:24 – 28) all the way through the Nativity (John 1:1-18). It is Jesus’ family tree. We read the scripture passage for each hand-colored ornament and the children stick their ornament on the hand-drawn Jesse tree we place on the wall (nothing fancy, but it works).
We all learn a new prayer each Advent, it typically is one that the children are to learn for their family-formation class at Church. On the feast of St Nicholas, we have a fancy breakfast with candles, china, and bright table cloth. The children enjoy the goodies that St. Nick left in their shoes from the night before (typically chocolate coins and clementines.)
We celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, typically with read alouds, the CCC movie on Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Sometimes we play pin the tail on Juan’s donkey and would like to (at some point) add a pinata.
We make one family sacrifice, that will continue to keep our hearts and minds focused on Jesus; this year we are abstaining from sweets with the exception of feast days, solemnities and other family celebrations (birthdays, Home School gatherings, etc.) This year, we are reading a book each day, including the Tomi DePaola books I found in a unit study. I found a neat blog that recommended wrapping each book in purple paper (the liturgical color for Advent) and one child may open a book each day, and that is the book I will read aloud to them. Some of them are marked based on feast days and solemnities that fall during Advent (i.e. Our Lady of Guadalupe, The Feast of The Immaculate Conception and the Feast of St. Nicholas) so we read them on the correct day.
I also read a chapter each day from Bartholomew’s Passage. We also have a re-usable Advent Calendar. Each day, there is a mini-book-ornament that we read aloud at breakfast and then one child hangs this on a mini tree in the kitchen. We also start the O’Antiphons on the 17th of December and they are the children’s copy work for school. We all sing O Come Emmanuel each morning at breakfast before the daily Jesse Tree and Advent Calendar readings.
Advent Plan Resources– As a family we learn a new prayer over Advent and Lent (Advent we plan to learn the Anima Christi in English, then in Latin for Lent.) – We love the Holy Heroes Advent Adventure – As a family reduce the level of sarcasm in our home (following the Gospels “let you no mean no and your yes mean yes… anything else is from the evil one.”)… – The Advent Unit Study on Serendipity.com – Advent Unit Study