Thanksgiving has come and gone, which means the whole world is now in a full blown “IT’S CHRISTMAS, IT’S CHRISTMAS, IT’S CHRISTMAS” frenzy. The weekend after Thanksgiving has become the set of days when most people shop, decorate, and begin wrapping all those gifts they bought on Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, We’re-consumed-with-consumerisum-Sunday, and Cyber Monday.
In that “hurry up and get ready for Christmas” frenzy, we can forget Advent—that special time of year when we get to ready our hearts and homes for the arrival of the infant Jesus. The Incarnation is the most significant event in human history, and without an intentional, purposeful, well-practiced Advent, it can be written off as nothing more than a single day where we eat good food, open brightly wrapped packages, and sing catchy songs.
While most people have an Advent wreath and know the classic “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” hymn, sometimes it can seem like we only ever do one thing during Advent —light some candles, sing a song, and stare longingly at the pile of presents building under the tree.
Here are five simple ways to make Advent an intentional time of preparation, prayer, and service with your family. Go ahead and set up that Christmas tree and pull down the Advent wreath, but maybe think about including one of these new traditions as well.
1. Decorate a Jesse Tree
Last year, I shared about this great, simple devotion that tells the story of salvation history, beginning in the Old Testament and walking through the specific moments of God’s plan, leading to the birth of Jesus. The biggest challenge with a Jesse Tree is the work that goes into making ornaments. There are tons of free resources online, but these lovely, hand crafted ornaments are fairly inexpensive and will last your family for years. Or, if you’d like to get the kids involved in making their own ornaments, there’s also a great downloadable resource of ornaments they can color.
2. Build a Nativity Scene
Growing up, my mom had this Advent Calendar hanging in our kitchen. Every morning, my sister and I would rush downstairs to put the day’s piece up in the manger scene and we’d just kind of admire how the picture was filling out. It was a great way to keep us focused on what was to come—not just presents, but the birth of baby Jesus. This is a simple way for kids to be very hands on with the season, putting a piece of the picture up day by day, so that the nativity scene is something both visible and active in the home.
3. Pray with the Giving Manger
Christmas has become a very consumerist time of year. We “get” stuff at Christmas, and sometimes can forget the spirit of giving that really should be associated with the season. The Giving Manger, the creation of two moms who realized how materialistic the season was becoming for their families, is a way to combat this trend with your kids. Each day, perhaps when your family eats dinner or before bedtime, the family gathers at the giving manger and talks about ways that everyone served others during the day and places a piece of straw into baby Jesus’ manger to symbolize the good deeds they’ve done. You could easily modify this to fit your family: virtues practiced, temptations resisted . . . whatever suits your kids and your family’s routine. It’s a great, simple way to take note of the spirit of giving during Advent, the season we’re meant to open our hearts to all the way the Lord is giving Himself to us in the Incarnation.
4. Adopt a Family in Need
It’s no secret that there are many families who struggle to make ends meet – especially around the holidays. Presents aren’t cheap, even a few small ones, and a good meal doesn’t just appear on the table without at least one big trip to the grocery store. Most parishes and dioceses have a list of families who may be struggling this year. Reach out and find a family that you could help, even in some small way. It doesn’t have to be a huge donation and tons of gifts. The widow only gave two coins, but she offered them generously. If you have kids, find a family with children close in age to yours and take your kids shopping, helping them pick out gifts and food for the family in need, and have them write a letter or card wishing the adopted family well and offering prayers during the Advent season.
5. Bake Cookies for your Parish Priest
A few years ago, I asked my spiritual director what he did for Christmas. He replied: “Advent is always so dang busy that by the time I get to Christmas day, I just go say the morning Mass, then go home, heat up a frozen pizza, open a bottle of wine, and watch The Grinch.” After I finished laughing at his answer (he assured me he spent time with his family December 26), I realized just how exhausting these 4 weeks of Advent must be – staff Christmas parties and visiting families and the homebound and parish reconciliation services and Confirmation retreats. The rest of the world is prepping for December 25th, but Father is spending each weekend overloaded with holiday tasks and his usual responsibilities. Get your family together and bake a few tasty treats for your parish priest. Package them up with a nice note and a card and give them to him after Mass one Sunday—it doesn’t have to be a big fancy to-do, just a simple gesture to let him know you’re thinking about him, praying for him, and hope he enjoys his quiet time watching The Grinch on Christmas day.