By special request, I'll be blogging for the next several weeks about Advent, Christmas, and Chanukah traditions - both those that we practice here at The Midnight Cafe and those that I think are brilliant but haven't tried yet. This is going to be a little like Advent 101 because I want to offer the possibility of these tradition to people who are totally new to the idea. I strongly believe that traditions help us focus, they help us make meaning, they help us mark time, and they help us draw closer to each other and to our Creator. Traditions are meant to be modified to fit each family. They are meant to be tools in the shaping of our lives. So, I'm offering here some possibilities and a whole lot of information. Take what you need and leave the rest.
So, first things first...Advent is a season of anticipation, a season of hope, a season marked by reflection...and filled with meaning. If you get too wrapped up in doing things to make the season happen, you'll totally miss the meaning. You'll be frazzled and weary before Christmas even arrives. If you're new to Advent traditions, start slow. You don't have to do everything. You can do one thing or dabble in many. But you absolutely do not have to do it all. This is about remembering the gift of the Messiah. It isn't (and never has been) about doing everything right.
Next, I just want to say that Advent isn't only for families that come from liturgical church traditions. Anyone can celebrate Advent. It might not look like Advent at your local Catholic, Lutheran or Methodist church, but if you are participating in a way that draws your focus toward the gift of Jesus as Messiah, you are celebrating Advent. The candles and calendars and stories and ornaments are tools, not the focus.
So...that said, advent begins ONE WEEK from today! Advent always begins 4 Sundays before Christmas.You can remember this because there are 4 candles in an Advent wreath, one for each Sunday until Christmas. Many people have a fifth, larger candle in the middle of the Advent wreath to light on Christmas.
The season of Advent is not always the same length as an Advent calendar, which always begins on December 1st and counts down the days until Christmas. So, this year, if you're using an Advent calendar, you'll start on Saturday, December 1st. You'll light your first Advent candle, however, on Sunday, December 2nd.
Now, here's the fun part! We designed our own very non-traditional Advent wreath some years ago. I'm not a fan of green wreaths, and I'm perpetually worried about the fire hazard. So, we found a circular mosaic-ed tray/plate, and we place 4 votive candles in a circle on the plate around the center "Messiah" candle....like this:
homesteadrevival.blogspot.com. (Or go look on Pinterest!)
Traditionally, Advent candles are purple and pink (3 purple, 1 pink). Our family has used other colors over the years. We do typically use 3 of one color and 1 of another, but that isn't necessary either. Remember, these are traditions for your family, to help you focus this season, to bring honor to your King. This is what the candles are intended to represent:
1st Sunday: Purple: Hope
2nd Sunday: Purple: Peace
3rd Sunday: Pink: Joy
4th Sunday: Purple: Love
Your family might choose a different color for each idea. Or you might choose to have all white candles. Some families choose white candles because they are unscented and less likely to cause allergic reactions. Do what works for you.
The first year that we celebrated Advent, we made a matchbox Advent calendar. This was such a fun craft, and I'd definitely recommend it! See instructions at marthastewart.com. Here's a photo of the one we made:
Of course, a variety of Advent calendars are available for purchase. Michaels has a paint-able wooden Christmas tree Advent calendar this year with 24 drawers. Paper, one-time-use calendars can be found at almost any department store, typically with chocolate behind each numbered door. Marthastewart.com has a number of other handmade ideas.
The advantage of a homemade calendar is that you don't have to fill it with candy. We've filled our matchboxes with pennies, beads, charms, erasers, jelly bracelets, hair binders, and all manner of other tiny things. Remember, these things are not meant to cost you a lot. They are meant to build anticipation...and possibly reward little people for sitting through a quick candle-lighting, prayer and story.
Here's what a typical night of Advent looks like for us...
- Light the candle(s) and discuss the meaning of each candle that has been lit. This is typically very brief. I'll get into what some of these discussions look like in later posts.
- Read scripture/story/book. For us, the reading will correspond with our Jesse Tree ornament for the night. The Jesse Tree is probably the most significant part of our Advent tradition, and it's going to get its own post here in my blog. The short version is that the Jesse Tree tradition involves telling the major stories of the Bible from creation to the birth of Jesus over the days of Advent. It is a condensed retelling of the redemption story. For each story, we hang a symbolic ornament on our Jesse Tree.
Others will choose a different set of readings to guide them through Advent. Catholic.org lists the traditional Advent readings for each night.
- Say a prayer.
- Hang the Jesse Tree ornament.
- Open the door of the Advent calendar.
- Blow out the candles.
This series of traditions developed over a period of YEARS. We did not start doing everything all at once. I can't stress enough how important it is to relax and do what works for your family. You want this to be peaceful. You want it to bring your family life and joy. You do not want a bunch of stress and unfulfilled expectations. Let things happen how they happen. Breathe in the moment.