Surrounded by a culture promoting Santas and holiday sales, how can Christian parents bring the spirit of Advent into our homes?
How can we convince our children that we’re not in the Christmas season yet, that Advent is actually a penitential season in which we prepare our hearts for the coming of the infant Savior?
First, we can encourage our children to practice works of charity. Older children can read to younger siblings or play games with them or help them with their homework. Younger children can practice sharing their toys or helping their siblings put their toys away. If there are elderly people living in your neighborhood, you can visit them with your children; bring them some cookies, rake their leaves, shovel their driveways or bring a spiritual bouquet or some drawings by the children. If you have knitters in the family, you can suggest that they knit baby booties for GiftsfortheUnborn.com or winter hats for local clothing drives for the poor.
In addition, many families have the children place a piece of yarn or straw into the manger for every good deed they do during Advent. This really reinforces for them the words of Christ: "Whatever you do for the least of my brethren, you do unto me."
That’s really the heart of the Advent season, sacrificing ourselves for others. But we are not just spiritual beings; we have both bodies and souls, and while our souls are being strengthened by these charitable works, our bodies need to be reminded what season it is, too. After all, everywhere we go, we’re going to see signs of Christmas — lights, music and Santa Clauses everywhere.
In our homes, at least, we can make it clear that we’re not celebrating anything yet; we are joyfully anticipating the birth of the Savior.
It’s tempting, but we should try not to play or sing Christmas music before Christmas. There are quite a few Advent songs that we could learn with a little effort. The most famous one is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, which has a different verse for every week of Advent. And if you get tired of singing that for four weeks (which I do, because, for many years, it was the only Advent song I knew), there are others. A few other Advent songs you might look for are O Come, Divine Messiah, On Jordan’s Bank, Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming and Creator of the Stars of Night.
Music is a wonderful way to inculcate the Church’s liturgical season into our minds. Prayers can be dry and boring sometimes for an active child, but singing a hymn engages a youngster’s interest. A hymn appeals not just to our intellects, but also to our hearts; the tune is appealing, and the words are poetic and mysterious.
But music isn’t everything. There are so many other ways to make Advent more meaningful to your family. There’s the traditional Advent wreath, where you light a candle for each week of Advent, reciting the "O Antiphons" (see USCCB.org). The Jesse Tree is another excellent way to cultivate the spirit of Advent (see "Resources" at NCRegister.com). You can buy or make a symbol for each of the most well-known Old Testament figures, and every night of Advent, hang up one of the symbols on a tree: an apple for Adam, an ark for Noah and so forth. We usually read the story about the Old Testament figure from a child’s Bible, and then we discuss briefly how he prefigured Christ. Furthermore, when we see how often the Israelites fell into sin, we are reminded how hard it is to be good without the grace of the sacraments; we can thank God for all the graces he has poured down on us through the sacraments, graces that we in no way deserve any more than the Israelites of old.
Advent calendars with Scripture quotes behind each window are fun for children who are old enough to read. Another inspiring tradition might be praying the beautiful Christmas novena available at LittleFlowersFamilyPress.com, which is based on the writings of St. Alphonsus Liguori and is meant to be recited during the last nine days of Advent.
My last recommendation regarding Advent is to keep it simple: Don’t try to do too much shopping or too much baking. Instead, spend extra time with your children. They don’t need tons of presents or cookies; they need love and the true meaning of Advent and Christmas. Read aloud to them or make some Christmas ornaments together. Encourage them to make at least some of the presents they give to others. Do some baking together. Make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament once a week. These activities are not only fun things for you to do with your children, but they also chip away at the materialistic mentality in our culture.
A well-spent Advent can result in a truly special Christmas Day. In our house, we put up the tree a day or two before Christmas, but we don’t decorate it until after the children go to bed on Christmas Eve. Then, when they come down Christmas morning, the living room is completely dark, except for the lights on the tree, and their eyes are centered on the tree and the manger underneath it. The presents are in a corner, and they don’t even look for them until they’ve thoroughly examined the tree, looked over all the ornaments that they haven’t seen for almost a year and kissed the statue of the Christ Child in the manger.
Most importantly, your children will get out of Christmas what you get out of Christmas. If your preoccupation with Christmas is bustling around, buying and wrapping presents and baking unending batches of cookies, then they’ll think that the meaning of Christmas is hurry and bustle, presents and food. But if you are able to spend minimal time on presents and baking and maximum time on preparing yourself spiritually for Christmas, then that will trickle down to your children as well. If your focus is Christ, their focus will be Christ. What a wonderful thing to be able to receive holy Communion on Christmas Day and have Our Lord born in our hearts — just as he was born in the stable so many years ago. Is Mass the highlight of your Christmas Day? It should be, for that is when we encounter in an extremely intimate way the Person whose birthday we are spending so much energy to celebrate.
Advent can be such a special time for mothers. We can meditate on Our Lord inside Our Lady’s womb, so tiny, so helpless, so humble. We can be grateful that, by coming as a little Baby himself, he has sanctified pregnancy and motherhood, with all its joys and challenges, forever. We can say with Our Lady, "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior … because he that is mighty hath done great things to me, and holy is his name." Notice the wording focuses on "to me." Truly, when he placed this precious life inside of us, he changed us — our whole perspective, our priorities, our needs, our concerns, our lives. Whether we are expecting a baby now or whether our children are already born and celebrating this Advent season, we can reflect on our own motherhood, on Mary’s motherhood — and on that fragile, weak, tiny Baby who became incarnate inside of her to bring hope to a weary world.
Agnes M. Penny is a home-schooling mother of eight children and the author of
Your Labor of Love for expectant mothers and Your Vocation of Love.