Advent: How We Try to Celebrate Things in Their Proper Season Without Feeling Like Total Jerks

Now that Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls are behind us, I'm going to make like the mall and jump right in to Christmas. Thanksgiving schmanksgiving, amitrie? (I'm kidding, we do celebrate Thanksgiving. In fact this year we'll be having 15-16 family members at our house for Thanksgiving, depending on whether new baby has arrived yet.) But I do think now is a good time to start thinking about Christmas, and I wanted to share the way our family's observation of Advent has changed over the years.

Even before the liturgical year was a part of our family's day to day life, I "got" Lent. I'm not saying I did it right, but I at least understood the concept. I knew that Lent was a time of penitence and preparation for Easter. And since the more secular, cultural, bunny parts of Easter are not as popular as the secular, cultural, reindeer parts of Christmas, it was easier for me to maintain whatever little focus I had on the penitential part of Lent then, and it's a no-brainer to focus on that stuff with my kids now.

But Advent? Finding the balance in Advent is harder. As I began to love my faith more and more, I wanted to show that love by going all out for Christmas. But as I began to understand my faith more and more, I got the feeling we were kinda putting the cart before the horse here.

I wrote last week about how we live the liturgical year in our family, and how reading books really influenced how we use the Church calendar to set the rhythm of our year. There are so many great classic books that detail how the weeks before Christmas used to be celebrated (The Children of Noisy Village comes to mind) as a time of mindful preparation.

Ideally, I think, that's still how we'd celebrate it today. I think of it like I was planning a big wedding. It would be on my mind months ahead of time. I'd get a few major projects done well in advance so I wouldn't have to worry about them as the big day approached. Then in the weeks before the wedding I would focus on having everything I needed available and organized and cleaned. I would bake the cake and prepare the food. I would scrub down and decorate the church and the reception hall in the days just before the wedding. I would be prepared to celebrate. We'd have the rehearsal dinner the night before. But what I wouldn't do is throw a reception or two a couple of weeks before the wedding and eat the cake and the wedding bell cookies and drink all the champagne before the happy couple is even married, before they're in town even. That would be crazy.

But that's kind of what I was doing with Christmas. The day after Thanksgiving we would get our tree and crank the carols and string the lights and watch the TV specials and eat the cookies. We would host Christmas parties and attend Christmas parties. And by the time Christmas actually arrived, I was pooped, and about ready to be done with it all. The tree was a totally dried-out fire hazard, and I was sick of Christmas carols and of the kids being crazed candy-cane-and-sugar-cookie-fueled maniacs.

But my free Church liturgical year calendar said I was supposed to be just starting Christmas. That we were supposed to be celebrating Christmas full out for the next eight days, or twelve days, or even twenty-something days, depending on who you ask. And then still kind of celebrating it for a few weeks after that.

So, eventually, even though everyone around us was celebrating Christmas in November, we decided to make an effort to back away from Christmas until Christmas has arrived and really observe Advent.

Here's what we do to keep Advent.

1. I do all my Christmas shopping before Advent begins.

This is the real reason I'm writing on Advent so early, because this has been really helpful for me. Between the husband and me, I'm the more impulsive and the more likely to overdo Christmas presents.

Of course, you get to a certain number of kids, and it's all you can do to make sure you remembered to get each of them something, but, still, I'm the one of us more likely to keep thinking of new things I'd want to get for the kids. So it's really good for me to get all the shopping out of the way early. Then I DO NOT let myself buy more stuff. If I have actually forgotten a particular kid, I ask the husband to take care of it.

It's good for me and it's really good for the kids. They talk about what they'd like to get and make their lists for Santa in November, but then it's over and we don't talk and talk about what THEY WANT. Instead their focus is on making homemade gifts for siblings and other family members and making crafts and decorations for the house.

And really, who WANTS to be involved in the crazy last minute shopping madness?

Of course, I shop for all the food and fixin's we need for Christmas dinner, and for the supplies we need for Christmas baking. But other than that, I try to limit even food shopping. I use Advent to clean out the freezer and pantry by using up all that stuff that, for whatever reason, I haven't felt like cooking. And we eat pretty simply, lots of soups. So I cut down a lot on our normal food shopping.

2. I have separate boxes for Christmas and Advent decorations.

I am a generally festive person. I don't think I could bear to come home to a nekkid house when the whole rest of the town is decorated. Even if I agreed with the principle of it. Fortunately, I don't think that's necessary.

We decorate for Advent. That means the nativity sets all come out (minus the baby Jesus and the Wisemen), especially the kids' Little People Nativity (ours is pretty much the whole of Jerusalem these days, including King Herod's Castle -- duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh, duuuummmmm), also the Christmas books (we love to read aloud as a family during Advent) our winter dishes, and decorations that are winter-y rather than specifically Christmas. And the Advent Calendars of course. My kids really love the LEGO ones.

We also do Straw for Baby Jesus. My dad built us a little wooden manger that we put on our altar table (but a small wooden crate or a shoe box wrapped in brown paper would work just as well). Also on the altar table, we keep a jar of pieces of yarn (real straw would be great too). During Advent, if I see one of the kids doing a good job on a task, or being kind to a sibling, or doing as I've asked them right away, I let them put a piece of straw in Baby Jesus' manger so it will be nice and soft when he arrives on Christmas. We also let the kids award pieces of straw to each other at evening prayers. Then, last thing before bed on Christmas Eve, we bring the Baby Jesus out (at first he was one of Betty's baby dolls, but we have a fancier one now) and place him in the straw and sing Away in a Manger.

3. We hold off on Christmas stuff until Christmastime, as much as possible.

We wait until Christmas Eve to pull out the other box, with all the Santa stuff, and the stockings, and ornaments and Christmas movies.

We wait on the Christmas stuff because it creates in all of us a feeling of excitement and expectation and longing. Not just for presents, but for the great event. It's great that Christmas is a season, but it's also one historical event that happened at one time in history on one particular day. Celebrating this way has helped us remember that. And keep from getting burnt out.

So when Christmas Eve does arrive, we get our tree and decorate it. We hang our stockings. We put out the Baby Jesuses in all the nativity sets. On Christmas Day we go to Mass and open presents and have our feast and birthday cake and Family Nativity Play. And we're just getting started!

Each day between Christmas and Epiphany, we have a different Christmas treat (many of which we made ahead of time and froze) and watch a Christmas movie. We take that whole time off of school to eat treats and watch movies and play with new toys. We listen to Christmas Carols, and we're not tired of them.

We try to throw a Twelfth Night party with a white elephant gift exchange, because it's still Christmas!

4. We keep Advent (mostly) quiet.

This would all be really hard to sustain if we were watching TV and listening to the radio, since the rest of the world is pretty much doing the opposite thing as we are. So we don't. We'll watch an occasional football game we care about, but other than that, I just don't turn the TV on.

If you have only little kids, I DO NOT suggest that you do this. You will hate it. I was only able to manage this once I had older kids who could help entertain little ones. But even if you have only littles, you could try to avoid the Christmas versions of their favorite shows until Christmas has actually arrived.

The point of this for us isn't penitential, it's just to help us focus. And we're usually so busy that we don't miss it.

5. We enjoy what Advent has to offer.

Even though for us, Advent is a season of preparation and not yet celebration, I still think it might be my favorite time of year. Maybe not quite, but I love the getting ready as much if not more than the actual celebrating. I don't think my kids would say the same, but I do know that they would tell you they really enjoy Advent.

The big kids have a hand in all the decorating and baking, which they really enjoy. And everyone in the family loves our Christmas Novena. We slide it one day so we can do our Christmas tree decorating on Christmas Eve, and not interfere with the family celebrations of other families who join us. I'm sure I'll post more specifically on it later, but we use this one that I found at Catholic Culture. It's really beautiful.

We make an Advent wreath and light the candles and say the prayers each evening with dinner.

We don't do the Jesse Tree, but I know other families really enjoy that.

We celebrate the feasts that fall during Advent. We put our shoes out for St. Nicholas on December 6, on the 9th we have a white party for the Immaculate Conception with all white food and decorations, on the 12th we celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe by wearing braids and eating Mexican Food, and we put our Christmas lights up around the 13th to celebrate St. Lucy (which means light) and we drive around town singing Advent songs and admiring the lights on other houses.

6. We use Advent as a time of preparation of ourselves and our surroundings.

That's it, really. It's just been a shift in focus for the kids and the grownups. We focus on the preparation, on the waiting. We talk about it with the kids. They know that we are celebrating differently than other families during Advent, but they also know that once Christmas comes, they get twelve days of of it instead of just one.

Here's what we don't do:

1. Refuse party invitations.

Because we're not Scrooges. Even traditional Catholic organizations to which we belong have their Christmas parties during Advent. Of course, THEY call them Advent parties instead of Christmas parties, but they LOOK an awful lot like Christmas parties to me.

Which is fine. I don't expect everyone to celebrate the same way we do. We are grateful for invitations we receive and we go where we are invited.

2. Go to parties but make our kids eat only vegetables.

We go where we are invited AND we allow ourselves and our kids to enjoy it. We don't eat Christmas cookies at our house for ourselves, but when we have guests over or are at someone else's house, we eat what's put before us (Luke 10:8). We don't give the kids presents early, but if a neighbor comes by with a little something for the kids, they get to open it and enjoy it.

3. Think people who do Advent differently than we do are wrong.

We have arrived at this way of celebrating in a slow and steady way, neither the husband nor I grew up doing it like this. We think it works great for our family. But if what you're doing is bearing fruit for your family, then you should keep it up. And by all means, tell the rest of us about it!

I wish you all a happy and holy Advent, but a fun Thanksgiving before that!

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February: The Holy Family
March: St. Joseph
April: The Blessed Sacrament
May: Mary
June: The Sacred Heart of Jesus
July: The Precious Blood
August Immaculate Heart of Mary
September: The Seven Sorrows of Mary
October: The Holy Rosary
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December: The Immaculate Conception

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