For the Tom and Ruth Bruckbauer family in Pewaukee, Wis., Advent begins with each family member choosing a figure from the Nativity set and "becoming" that character for the season. From the first day of Advent to Christmas Eve, they move their figures a little closer each day to the Nativity scene until they reach the stable.
"I think that moving the Nativity pieces really brought home the idea of Advent being a time of waiting," Ruth said. "It was great to see the Wise Men make it down the steps."
Additionally, the Bruckbauers and their five children, now age 18-31, pray the Angelus before supper each night. "Praying the Angelus during Advent is so perfect. Each part of that prayer just underlines the power and beauty of the Incarnation," Ruth said.
It can be a real challenge for families to make Advent meaningful, especially when the secular world works so hard to draw us into parties and pandering and away from the prayerfulness, penance and almsgiving prescribed by the Church.
"When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease,’" states the Catechism of the Catholic Church (524).
That means we have to resist the temptation to indulge in Christmas celebration and instead do all we can to center ourselves on Christ in preparation for his coming.
In order to do that, we have to find ways to make Advent’s message alive in our families through customs and traditions that stimulate our minds and awaken our hearts to true Advent longing.
"For us, Advent is a time of quiet and yet joyful preparation for the birth of the King of Kings," said Helen Russo of Salinas, Calif. She and her husband, Angelo, have three children, age 18-25. "It’s a time spent with family and in anticipation, a season wrapped with a sense of mystery."
The Russos add to that sense of mystery with a custom they designed themselves: "the star of the day." Helen and the children cut gold stars out of fadeless paper and wrote Advent-related words — Bible verses, quotes and sayings — on them. The stars are placed into a crystal bowl that they keep in the middle of their Advent wreath. Each evening, one of the children takes a turn pulling out a star and reading its contents to the family. Then the Russos discuss the ideas, images and inspirations that they gain from the words.
In addition, the Russo family purchases or cuts down their Christmas tree early, and they decorate it slowly over the Advent weeks. "A bare tree gives a feeling of preparation unlike anything else," Helen said. "And, as I learned not long ago, it’s not unlike the Jesse Tree."
The Jesse Tree is the favorite Advent tradition of the Wolfe family of Jackson, Wis. Brian and his wife, Angie, have seven children, age 19 months-15.
Four years ago, about 20 families in the Wolfes’ home-school support group got together, picked out a Scripture reading or event they liked and made 20 or so ornaments of the same ornament with their chosen passage on it. Then they had a swap, with each family going home with a complete set of one ornament for each day of Advent.
"Our family enjoys reading about Jesus’ lineage through the readings in the Old Testament and then moving into the New Testament to his birth," Angie explained. "Then each child takes turns hanging the ornament (for the day) on a branch we have taken from our back yard. It really shows the children how Jesus was the promised Messiah. Learning about the Jesse Tree and reading lots and lots of Advent and Christmas books to the whole family reinforces the reason we’re awaiting and celebrating Our Lord’s birth."
Amid the spiritual Advent preparations, there are practical ones, too. Sometimes, it’s in carrying out the practical aspects of the season that we discover an underlying spiritual meaning. That’s what happened to Heidi Schlumpf, wife of Edmund Butler and the mother of two children, age 4 and 5.
Schlumpf’s mother is known for her Christmas cookie prowess, and Heidi and her sister used to bake with their mother when they were little girls. As adults, they have carried on the baking tradition individually. But, one year, they founded "Schlumpf Women Cookie Baking." Now, all three of the Schlumpf women get together from their Wisconsin and Illinois homes on the first weekend in December to bake what ends up being more than 2,000 cookies.
As Schlumpf said, "I’ve always been grateful for this tradition that recognizes that it’s more about the process and fun of Christmas preparation, rather than making it a hassle or something that you ‘have’ to do."
What makes Advent most meaningful is doing what moves our hearts and fits into our lifestyle and state of life. Marshall Kinsey is a former federal employee who is single and lives in Central City, Ky. He learned many Advent traditions while growing up on a farm in Montana and during the 13 years he lived in Germany, and he carries on some of them now. The tradition that he finds most fruitful is attending daily Mass as often as possible and praying extra Rosaries, both of which lead him deeper into the message and meaning of Advent and help him to prepare for Christmas.
"Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of my savior, Jesus Christ," Kinsey said about his Advent customs.
Regardless of which Advent customs and traditions we choose to observe, there is one goal for all: Make Advent meaningful. For that, it may help to consider Pope Benedict XVI’s words during his general audience on Dec. 20, 2006: "The question is: Is the humanity of our time still waiting for a Savior? One has the feeling that many consider God as foreign to their own interests. Apparently, they do not need him. They live as though he did not exist and, worse still, as though he were an ‘obstacle’ to remove in order to fulfill themselves. Even among believers — we are sure of it — some let themselves be attracted by enticing dreams and distracted by misleading doctrines that suggest deceptive shortcuts to happiness. Yet, despite its contradictions, worries and tragedies, and perhaps precisely because of them, humanity today seeks a path of renewal, of salvation. It seeks a Savior and awaits, sometimes unconsciously, the coming of the Savior, who renews the world and our life — the coming of Christ, the one true Redeemer of man and of the whole of man."
Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.