We’ve all seen it: the red and green Christmas displays practically falling out the front doors of every Target, Wal-Mart, Toys-R-Us, and department store in town. The Black Friday advertisements are already circulating with their abundant coupons and promise of deals. The commercials with popular Christmas carols are already playing on every channel, the promise of adorable matching family pajamas and perfectly decorated homes and trees jumping off the screen.
And you know what? I love it. I love every single bit of the Christmas holiday cheer. I love seeing the decorations in the stores, I enjoy going through the advertisements and selecting what gifts I’ll get for my friends and family, and I happily hum along with every Christmas carol I hear (they’re proving to be excellent lullabies to get my daughter to sleep). But, and I recognize the potential contradiction in what I’m about to say: there’s a time and place for this holiday cheer, and the day after Halloween isn’t it. Nearly a month before even eating the Thanksgiving turkey just seems a bit too early to deck the halls.
Lest this become an article about “slowing down Christmas,” I’ll just make one simple point: we would do well to actively prepare our hearts and homes for the most wonderful time of the year by actively and purposefully celebrating the oft forgotten and overlooked liturgical season of Advent. The season of Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical new year, ushering in a new cycle of readings and allowing us to thoughtfully anticipate the arrival of Jesus. The Incarnation is no small deal: it is the Word becoming Flesh and dwelling among us. We deserve – we need – four weeks to think, pray, study, and joyfully anticipate the birth of our Savior. In her wisdom, the Church gives us these four weeks to ready our hearts and minds, prepare our homes, and look forward to the greatest gift ever given to mankind: the presence of the Lord in the world.
Here are five simple ways you can intentionally focus on and celebrate the season of Advent, which will help you fully invest in and rejoice in the Christmas season soon to come.
1) Celebrate a Catholic New Year party
This year, the first Sunday of Advent is December 3. Host a gathering of friends and family the night before, toast with champagne and sparkling cider, and begin the new liturgical year in style. Bonus points if you pop fireworks!
2) Keep an Advent wreath and light the candles
Perhaps one of the most popular (and easiest) Advent traditions is the lighting of the Advent candles (3 purple, 1 pink) set around a wreath, week by week. Growing up, we would light the candles at the beginning of dinner, sing the refrain to O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and discuss very briefly the ways we let Jesus enter our hearts that day. Occasionally, we would read a short reflection from an Advent book explaining the importance and significance of the colors of the candles, thoughts on the daily readings, or some facts about the life of a saint. Dr. Edward Sri has an excellent book that reflects on certain Scriptures to prepare for Christmas. This regular evening tradition can be a consistent reminder, at the end of a long day, of what’s coming soon: Jesus.
3) Have a daily Advent calendar
In addition to keeping an Advent wreath as part of the tradition, incorporating a daily calendar with a small treat or regular ritual is a great way to build excitement about the greatest present ever given – the son of God coming into the world. Some calendars have a small piece of chocolate for each day. Some calendars add a piece of the nativity scene each day. Some calendars include a small box with a small trinket or present. There’s even an Advent calendar with booze now! Either way, this intentional daily “opening of a small present” is a building up to the big present to come – baby Jesus, the very literal presence of God in the world.
4) Decorate a Jesse Tree
Advent is all about anticipating the arrival of Jesus, and perhaps the best way of all to prepare for his arrival is to remember and reflect on the years where God prepared the hearts of the Israelite people. This is what the tradition of the Jesse Tree aims to do: help us reflect on Salvation History by telling the story of God’s people as they waited for the Messiah. Each day of Advent has an assigned ornament, which tells the stories of of the Old Testament that culminate in the birth of Christ. If you’re hankering to put up your Christmas tree, add these ornaments one by one each day, read the stories and passage, and draw even further into the beautiful history of God preparing the hearts of His people for the Incarnation.
5) Celebrate the Advent saints
The season of Advent is filled with beautiful feast days. St. Francis Xavier on December 3, St. Nicholas on December 6, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 9, Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12, St. Lucy on December 13, St. John of the Cross on December 14, and St. Peter Canisius on December 21. Take some time to intentionally celebrate these holy men and women and give honor to Our Lady during the season of Advent. These people had hearts turned to and focused on Jesus, which is precisely what Advent is meant to form in us. Looking at and celebrating their lives can help you more perfectly form your own life into one that rejoices in the Savior.
Christmas is a big deal. Jesus is born! God loves us so much that he couldn’t stand to be away from us, so he literally steps into time, takes on flesh, and dwells among us. This is worth celebrating. It’s why the stores are decorated top to bottom, it’s why we play catchy songs, and it’s why we need to spend four weeks intentionally focusing on how to make ready our hearts and homes for the arrival of our Lord.