Happy first day of Advent 2017! I’ve posted about various Advent traditions over the years. Here is an updated recap of our favorites. We don’t do each of these every year but pick out the ones that will suit our family and our current season of life. Maybe you’ll see something you haven’t tried yet. Or do you have a favorite tradition you want to share? Please tell me about it in the comments. 🙂
The Advent Wreath
The Advent wreath is probably the most familiar and easiest of the Advent traditions and it remains a favorite of the kids. There is something special about turning down the lights and watching the flames flicker in the darkness.
There are many ready made advent wreaths from Catholic online stores but it is also easy to make one of your own. I went to our local Trader Joe’s and picked up one of their fresh wreaths. You could also use clipped branches from your Christmas tree arranged in a circle or make your own wreath with materials from a craft store.
Next you need 4 candles – three purple and one pink. Starting with the first Sunday of Advent, you light the first candle. The second week light two candles and so forth. The third Sunday is known as Gaudete Sunday (Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice.”) We light the pink candle to symbolizing our growing joy that Christmas is almost here. (The priest will also wear rose colored vestments at Mass that week.) The last week is another purple candle.
We used to use the long taper candles but they were always toppling over. Finally I found four hefty sized candles at Hobby Lobby and we place them in our wreath. (The only downside is that they are lavender scented so the kids think it smells like a fancy bathroom around them.) 😉 If you can’t find colored candles you could use white candles and tie purple/pink ribbons on them. (Away from the flame.) And if you have little ones who can’t keep their hands off the flame, you can use the battery operated candles!
Are you on a tight budget? Go to Pinterest and search “paper advent wreaths.” You’ll find all kinds of ideas including ones with construction paper and toilet paper rolls. It’s not really about the wreath itself, it is more about taking a few moments to quiet yourself and think about he coming Savior.
In the evening when we say our family night prayers, we light the candle. It is not always easy since the evenings are hectic with homework, bathing, getting the boys to bed early, prep for the next morning but after years of hit and miss, the fmaily knows that at 7:30 we meet in the fmaily room for a decade of the rosary and a few evening prayers. It’s only 5-10 minutes (and certain children still grumble about it) but Brian and I both think it is an important foundation for our family so we keep at it. So if you are feeling discouraged with your attempts for family prayer, keep it small and simple. It’s okay to slowly build as you go and as the kids get older.
Props also help. The boys are much more eager to pray when lights are off and candles are lit. During Advent, Brian reads the reflection from Sarah Reinhard’s book Welcome Baby Jesus: Advent and Christmas Reflections for Families. (It only cost $1.99 at Amazon and $0.99 on Kindle). It has wonderful daily reflections that are simple enough for the kids to understand. Most days we use the reflection book. Other days when we have evening activities scheduled, Brian says a short spontaneous prayer. The main thing is that we are praying something together.
(Click here for a simple prayer from Loyola Press to say each week when lighting the candle.)
The Advent Calendar
After we say our Advent wreath prayer, the “person of the day” gets to open the next box in our Advent calendar. We started this tradition years ago as a way to combat the seasonal “gimmies” (give me this, give me that). To help bring the focus back on Christ and sharing his love with others, we started the tradition of making our Advent Calendar into an Act of Love Calendar. We explained that we can show our love for Jesus by sharing that love with others and what we do for others, we do for Our Lord.
A couple years back I found this little country house Advent calendar at Target and I loved it! Normally you would put in a treat or little toy for each day but instead I put little slips of paper with different acts of love our family could do each day.
To keep things simple, I searched online for a children’s printable Advent calendar. I found this one from Loyola Press
. I simply cut up the calendar and put the little paper squares into the corresponding day. Each day we had one act of kindness that everyone in the family would do. If one of the day’s activities was not really suitable for our family or if there were other acts or activities I wanted our family to work on, I just wrote my own words on a slip of paper and added it in a box. On Sundays our act of love is spending time together so we do something fun as a family, such as, pick out our Christmas tree or bake cookies to bring to a neighbor or watch a Christmas movie together (without fighting who gets to choose the movie.)
Each day the kids take turns opening the day’s box and we find out which act of love we will be doing that day.
At dinner time, we each take a turn sharing something about our day. During Advent this will sometimes include sharing about our act of love. For example, Andrew shared how on the day he was supposed to help someone in need, he helped a classmate that fell down at recess and walked him to the school office to get a band aid.
Another time we had to be a peacemaker so I shared that instead of losing my temper and yelling at the kids, I first went into my room and screamed into my pillow, then came out of my bedroom and corrected the boys calmly. (They got a kick out of that one.) This sharing helps us to see how we can apply our faith into the daily fabric of our lives.
If you are looking for a nativity box, Target has some other cute ones. Amazon also has a pretty Wooden Nativity Advent Calendar with 24 Magnetic Figures. Or if you prefer a wall calendar there is the Traditional Nativity Advent Calendar Personalized Version or the cute Little People Nativity Advent Calendar. But you certainly don’t need to spend money on these fancy boxes!
For the full post and ideas for an Advent paper chain, visit the full post here.
A Letter to Baby Jesus (Instead of Santa)
After hearing this suggestion from a fellow Catholic mom, we started this tradition two years ago and it has become a family favorite. Instead of having the boys write the traditional letters to Santa, I put together a simple form letter that I could print off and give everyone to fill out. (We all write our letters to Jesus!) Here is what it looks like. (The link for the PDF is below. There is also a second version with no reference to Santa.)
First we spend time today thinking about what each of us would do as a gift to Baby Jesus.
John-Paul’s gift was to set the table without complaining. (I’m looking forward to that one.) 😉
They chose a person they would especially pray for during Advent.
Andrew chose his Uncle Mick when he was stationed in Afghanistan.
Lastly, they wrote what gifts they would like Santa to bring them on Christmas morning when we have Jesus’ birthday party (more on that below.)
Matthew had his heart set on Star Wars toys.
When they were done, they folded up their letters and put them in their shoes for St. Nicholas to deliver to Baby Jesus. See more details on St. Nicholas Day below.
If you’d like to print of a copy of the Letter to Baby Jesus for your little ones, I posted the PDF here. Also, I made a second version for those who don’t want the Santa aspect. It can be found here. 🙂
For the full post, click here – A Favorite Advent Tradition: A Christmas Letter to Baby Jesus (Instead of Santa)
St. Nicholas Feast Day
On December 6th we celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas, a bishop of the fourth century. The tradition of his gift giving came from a story about Nicholas, as a young man, giving money to an impoverished family so their three daughters would not be sold into slavery.
It seems that more Catholic American families are adopting this feast day that is popular in European countries. Normally children will put out their shoes or hang stockings the night before. As mentioned above, our family also adds into the shoes the letter to Baby Jesus so St. Nicholas can bring it to Him.
While the kids are sleeping I’ll add a few small treats into the shoes – chocolate coins, candy, a small treat (like a mini Lego set or football cards) and a religious item such as a holy card, rosary or Tiny Saints charm. Later that day we usually watch the DVD Nicholas: The Boy who Became Santa with their feast day dessert.
The Jesse Tree
I have to be honest with you, every year I wanted to try a Jesse tree but I always felt intimidated. In reality, it’s not really that complicated.
If you aren’t familiar with the Jesse Tree, Loyola Press explains it the way:
Jesse was the father of King David. The Jesse tree is named from Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The ornaments of the Jesse tree tell the story of God in the Old Testament, connecting the Advent season with the faithfulness of God across four thousand years of history.
The Jesse tree helps us to connect the custom of decorating Christmas trees to the events leading to Jesus’ birth. We adorn a Jesse tree with illustrated ornaments that represent people, prophesies, and the events leading up to the birth of Jesus.
Each day there is a Scripture/Bible Story and an ornament with a simple symbol of the story. (ie. an apple for Adam and Eve, an ark for the story of Noah, etc.) You read the Scripture (or paraphrase to your kids) and hang the symbol on your tree. By the end of Advent you have an overview of salvation history ending with the birth of Christ.
The reason I finally decided to give it a try was because Jenna at Blessed Is She decided to make Jesse Tree cards and devotions available for purchase. She asked me to do a few of the reflections on the cards and I agreed. That meant that I needed to really read and reflect on the Jesse Tree symbols. Some were familiar to me but there were a few where I thought, “Who the heck is that? I don’t remember reading that Bible story!” In the end, I learned more about our salvation history and how to apply the lessons learned to my life.
Next I had to figure out how to display the cards. I didn’t really have room to hang them up so I placed them on a mini easel at our family room’s sacred space. (Visit this post to see other sacred spaces in our home.)
Although, I liked to use the BIS cards for my personal use, I wanted the kids to have their own little symbols. I found these from Nancy at Do Small Things with Love.com) You can purchase a download of the same symbols for $5 here.
I thought it was great for the kids. Now I just needed something to hang them on. I thought this bare lit tree I bought at Target last year would work perfectly.
I think it rounds off our little family room space perfectly. (For the post about our Advent/ Acts of Love calendar visit here. For the post about filling Jesus’ crib, visit here.)
Last year I used the Blessed Is She Advent journal and it was such a blessing to me. I am not exactly one to relish quieting myself down and I struggle to tame my mile-a-minute thoughts but the Advent journal really helped me to stop and focus on what matters the most during Advent – preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ.
This year’s Advent Journal was written by the lovely author and blogger Laura Fanucci and it was designed by the talented Erica Tighe of Be A Heart Design. I was thumbing through the journal and on the very first day it said:
Remember: what God desires is to be with you. To be in deepest relationship with you. To love you. Let yourself be in this moment with God. This is the heart of Advent: preparing your heart to receive Christ again. Remember that you can always return to the power and simplicity of this place – this eternal present moment of being with God in prayer.”
The word that jumped out at me was “Simplicity” because that was my word of 2017. It is as if God is bringing me full circle and reminding me of what He wanted me to focus on at the beginning of 2017. The simplicity of just being with Him. To realize that God desires to be with me and that taking the time to be with Him will change my life. I am so looking forward to using my Advent journal to help me spend that quiet re-connecting time with God.
I have enjoyed using the Holy Heroes activities for Advent in the past and now, along with their daily activity emails, they have their worksheets in a book form.It has made it much easier to have all the worksheets already printed out and in one place!
For Bella and Andrew, there are a lot of various activities and puzzles they can do. For Matthew and John-Paul, they like to do the coloring pages. (They also like the Childhood of Jesus Coloring Book.) The Advent book also solved a problem I had with the next Advent tradition…
Filling Jesus’ Crib with Straw
This is another one of the kids’ favorite activities. Every time one of the kids completes an act of love or does some other sacrifice, they can put a piece of straw in Jesus’ crib. Or if I see someone doing their chores without complaint or sharing a toy with a sibling, I will tell them they they were acting very loving and they can put in a straw for Jesus. (It is the same concept as the sacrifice beans we did for Lent and that was a hit with the boys.)
However, I kept putting off starting the activity until I could buy a baby Jesus like the one we had growing up. Well, I had yet to buy one and thought I would just skip it again but when I bought the Advent Adventures book, I was excited to see they had a paper version.
With some tape, scissors and yarn to cut up as straw…
We now had our Baby Jesus manger. (The book also comes with a paper Baby Jesus to cut out and place in the manger on Christmas morning.)
Photo credit: EWTN
UPDATE: Last week I finally found and bought our own Jesus in a manger. I purchased it at EWTN and the kids are super excited to have a real Baby Jesus this year. (Our paper version was getting pretty beat up after 3 years!) 😉
A Nativity Set for the Littles
Anyone with children knows that they are very hands on. They also know how their blood pressure rises every time their little one grabs the ceramic Mary or St. Joseph from the nativity set and starts running down the hallway with it. One of the best investments I ever made was purchasing the Fisher Price Little People Nativity Set. They can be a bit pricey but it was worth it! A nativity scene that the kids can touch and move around makes life sooo much easier. Amazon has the Fisher Price deluxe models and the simple “To Go” Set.
A Birthday Party for Jesus
It is a family tradition that on each child’s birthday the dining room table is decorated with a birthday sign and stuffed animals to “greet” them when they wake up. Being Jesus’ birthday, it is only natural that it is celebrated in a similar fashion. Since Christ is the guest of honor (not Santa) our St. Nick plush presents Jesus’ birthday cake.
When I went to the bakery to pick out the cake,
they asked me what I wanted written on it. When I told them to put “Happy Birthday, Jesus” they flipped. (In a good way.) They thought it was great idea and the customer next to me decided she wanted to buy one for her family too. 🙂
On Christmas morning we all gather around the table that holds the empty manger. We place a large white candle in the center of the advent wreathe and light it. Mom or Dad (or an honored sibling) places the child Jesus in his manger and we sing Happy Birthday. Then the festivities begin.
The Spirit of Giving
John-Paul, Matthew and Andrew packing stockings for soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.
Nothing invokes greediness quite as quickly as a materialistic holiday season. To help conquer this, it is helpful to keep kids (and adults) focused on the spirit of giving, especially those less fortunate. If you have older kids this can be done through working at a soup kitchen, food pantry, or visiting the elderly. This year Bella will be singing Christmas carols at a local Catholic convalescent home with her youth group.
Most parishes have programs where you pick a name or number and buy a gift for a specific child. Brian’s work also sponsors a local needy family so we have a number of choices. I make sure to pick a young boy that the boys will sponsor, a tween/teen girl for Bella and Brian and I will pick someone on the list that is often overlooked – an older boy or a single mom. The kids, including little ones, can do extra jobs and chores around the house to earn some extra money (or use their tithing money if they get an allowance) in order to buy small gifts for these needy children. Or they can help you buy canned good for the local food bank.
This is a great lesson in selflessness for the kids – a certain 5 year old of mine was shedding dramatic tears when he realized the skateboard we bought was going to little Jose and not him. Moreover, it is a lesson of real patience for me to let the kids get involved. I love buying gifts for people and making it special but it is another thing when you are walking down the grocery aisle with three opinionated little boys arguing over which items to purchase for the food baskets for the homeless. (Seriously?) It’s easy for me to say forget it and just do it myself but I need this lesson in sacrificial giving as much, if not more, as they do.
Plan Ahead for Charitable Gifts
I’ll admit that the extra gift giving can add up to a lot of extra money! Luckily, I have been looking for bargains throughout the year. Once a month during one of my many Target visits, I’ll check out the dollar section for various care package items. You can pick up small toiletries, snacks and hand warmers to give to military troops or the homeless or you can find coloring books, games, craft projects, socks etc to fit into a child’s care package. During off-season sales or Pre-Thanksgiving sales or Black Friday sales I find generic gifts like baby dolls or skateboards for the Angel Tree children. To help the kids understand sacrificing for others, we’ll give away some of their older toys to St. Vincent de Paul and as a family we’ll give up one of our “Pizza Nights” and eat sandwiches or leftovers instead. The money we saved goes towards buying gifts and food for others.
With a little creativity, planning and sacrifice, you can make your charitable gift giving more affordable for your family. (NOTE – If you are anything like me, you may also want to download the free printable from the post Keeping Track of Your Hidden Gifts from Orgjunkie.com. I wish I had that last year because I have two Christmas presents that I know I bought but I can’t figure out where I hid them! LOL)
A Few Things to Keep in Mind
(Note: I wrote this portion below a couple years ago, but I’m re-posting it here. The same still applies, although I will say that I’ve gotten better at the comparison. I do what I can do and leave the rest behind without a second thought. Older but wiser. Plus, family life has a different dynamic now that my littles are older and more independent. So if you are feeling overwhelmed with babies, toddlers and pre schoolers, it does get a little easier as your youngest get older. 🙂
* * * * *
Sometimes when I read posts like this on other mom blogs I think, “Aw! Look at all that stuff they are doing! How come we don’t do things like that? Look at those eight kids in matching home-sewn outfits, kneeling reverently as they pray the rosary. And look at the gluten and dairy free Christmas recipe they followed using only fresh produce from their organic home garden. Sigh. I’m lucky I barely (fill-in-the-blank) let alone what they are doing…”
Yeah, none of that kind of talk is allowed here.
Truth be told, this looks great on paper but in real life it is messy and chaotic. We light the candles for our Advent prayer and two of the boys will be in laughing hysterically over one of their ill timed farts or they will be near blows because one brother blew out the candle when it was not his turn. Many years the activities didn’t start on the first day of Advent nut a week late.
Although we are all trying to be more loving, more generous and more patient this Advent, it is not an easy road. When Brian came home yesterday I was nearly in tears because days of stormy weather and having the boys cooped up in the house had them climbing up the walls. Matthew and John-Paul are two playful buddies but sometimes they reach a point where they are arguing over everything. No, really. Everything. The ridiculousness of it coupled with the noise and fighting becomes like nails on a chalkboard. I finally blew up at them and I yelled at them like I hadn’t yelled in a long time. It was not pretty. It made me feel hypocritical for writing this “happy” post.
The point is that even though we try to use these tools, it is not always roses and sunshine. We all fall short. That is when we turn to God (and confession) to give us the grace to pick ourselves back up. Then in between the realness there are moments when the kids “get it.” We see a loving gesture or a chore being done without being asked, a spontaneous act of love or a contrite apology (from child and mother). When we see in ourselves that the second time around we held our temper or that we turned off the radio to pray the rosary or that we finished all the laundry instead of checking Instagram, then we know progress is being made slowly but surely.
The other good thing about Advent is that is is four weeks long. It is never too late to start a new tradition or refocus our attitude in general. And if your season of life right now consists of just making it through the day in one piece, then store these ideas for the future and offer to God the little acts that pop up throughout your day. No need for elaborate activities. God knows your heart.
With those thoughts, I wish you a blessed Advent!
And do share with me your favorite Advent traditions in the comments. I love to hear what other families are doing – simple or elaborate. 🙂
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