Just a few short years after my first child was born, I began to rediscover my faith, and in particular, the joys of living the liturgical year. I went on a mission to learn everything there was to learn about the feasts and seasons of the Church calendar. I read every book and article that contained the words “Advent” or “Lent”; I studied up on Paschaltide and Pentecost, Corpus Christi and Candlemas; I got to know the saints of summer, winter, spring, and fall, and all of the Marian feasts besides. I discovered a liturgical calendar so rich in tradition that even Ordinary Time was quite extraordinary.
With so many feasts and ferial days in the church year, coming up with meaningful ways to commemorate them could have been a huge task. But I was fortunate enough to have Catholic friends who were already following the liturgical year with their own families. I took many of their suggestions for observing special days and seasons, added to them some of the practices I’d read about, and ended up with a wealth of ideas for living the liturgical year.
Over time, as our family has grown, we’ve adapted and modified many of the practices that we borrowed so many years ago. But our Advent celebrations have varied little, because my kids have such fond memories of Advents past that they won’t allow any changes to be made!
Every family has its own special traditions, and there is no single “proper” way to observe any given feast or season. Having said that, I’d like to mention some of the Advent traditions that my own family enjoys year after year.
Lights: We don’t put up any Christmas lights, either indoors or outdoors, until Christmas Eve. However, our cats do have a tiny artificial Christmas tree of their own, under which they find catnip and cans of tuna on Christmas morning. The cats’ tree is illuminated with a single string of lights on December 13, the feast of St. Lucy, in honor of the “Saint of Light.” It stays lit until Christmas, tickling the cats’ fancy and pacifying my husband, who, if he had his way, would keep the house festooned with lights all year long.
Music: During Advent, we don’t play or sing Christmas carols. Enforcing this rule is easy, since it channels the kids’ love for the “Gotcha!” game. Pity the poor child who plinks out the opening chords of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” on the piano while Advent is still in swing. All siblings within earshot will descend upon the hapless musician, causing him to hastily switch to a more seasonal selection.
Advent wreath: We light our Advent wreath every night when we sit down to dinner. The first week of Advent, we sing one verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” before lighting one candle on the wreath. The second week, we sing two verses of the hymn before lighting two candles, and the third and fourth weeks, we follow suit by singing the same number of verses as there are lit candles on the wreath. Although we have the verses memorized, we still put out the photocopies of them that I made almost twenty years ago, when my youngest children were new readers. The papers are worn, stained, and discolored, and there aren’t nearly enough to go around, but they are an indispensable part –albeit a homely one – of our Advent table setting.
Gift-giving: As students at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Elementary, my classmates and I would draw names at the beginning of December for a “Kris Kringle,” someone for whom we would pray during Advent. I have continued the tradition with my family, making a few changes along the way. On the first Sunday of Advent, we write the name of every family member on a slip of paper, and then jumble up all the slips. Each of us then draws a slip to find out the identity of his “Kris Kringle,” the person who will be the recipient of his prayers, good deeds, and small gifts throughout Advent. Part of our Advent display is a pretty basket filled with slips of red and green paper, each pre-printed with either “I said a prayer for you today,” or “Here is a surprise from your Kris Kringle.” A slip bearing the latter message is often left behind when someone completes a chore in place of his Kris Kringle. Sometimes it’s taped to a treat and placed on a Kris Kringle’s desk or pillow.
Jesse Tree: A wiry tabletop tree serves as our Jesse tree, a 3-D depiction of Jesus’ ancestry. (Read all about the Jesse tree at http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/activities/view.cfm?id=545) On most days during Advent, we read the designated Scripture passage for that day and hang the appropriate symbol from one of the tree’s metal branches. (The Jesse Tree booklet we use is no longer in print, but there are several good ones currently available from Catholic publishers.) We made a few Jesse tree symbols from construction paper, but many are objects we gathered from around the house: An old brooch designed like a jeweled crown represents Solomon, a rainbow we made out of fusible beads stands for Noah, a homely camel appropriated from a set of safari figurines symbolizes Abraham, a ladder from a toy fire engine signifies Jacob, an earring shaped like an apple denotes Adam, a tiny golden mandolin is re-imagined as a lyre representing David.
Calendars: Each member of the family has his own Advent calendar with a religious theme. Our favorites are a do-it-yourself calendar available from Emmanuel Books, and a particularly beautiful calendar which my daughter gave me as a present one year (originally from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but sadly, no longer available).
St. Nicholas’ Day/ St. Lucy’s Day: December 6th is a festive day at our house. The fun begins the night before, when the kids line up their shoes in a place where St. Nicholas and his horse Schimmel are sure to notice them. At dawn on St. Nicholas’ Day, the kids wake to find that, sometime during the night, the generous saint filled their shoes with chocolate coins, treats, and small gifts. Everyone spends a little while time looking at his surprises. Then we set our St. Nicholas statue on the dining room table, light a candle, and pray to St. Nicholas before enjoying a breakfast of hot chocolate and tortilla snowflakes. In the evening, the family constructs a gingerbread house from materials that St. Nicholas thoughtfully left as a “family gift.”
Every year on December 13, the feast of St. Lucy, we are honored by a visit from the saint herself (who invariably bears a strong resemblance to one of our four daughters). St. Lucy always wears a white frock (symbolizing purity) and a red sash (symbolizing martyrdom). On her head is a crown of candles. St. Lucy gathers the family around to listen to her story, and then usually fields a few questions in an informal Q & A session. Afterwards, St. Lucy serves store-bought gingersnaps (a less expensive alternative to Swedish pepparkakor, the traditional treat for St. Lucy’s Day) and equally inauthentic pirouline wafers (which bear no connection whatsoever to the feast, but which are incredibly delicious).
Decorations: The Jesse tree, Advent wreath, and Advent calendars make for a lovely low-key decorative display. But, since the family spends so much time in the dining room (I am Italian, after all!) we also decorate its windows. The four windows are hung with green wreaths, three tied with purple bows, one tied with a rose-colored bow. The first Sunday of Advent, a purple-ribboned wreath is illuminated by an electric candle, and on each successive Sunday, an additional wreath is lit by another electric candle. By the fourth Sunday of Advent, the four lit candles provide enough light to dine by. They create such a beautiful, serene atmosphere that, rather than take the wreaths down once Christmas arrives, we just replace the purple and rose-colored bows with festive metallic gold ribbon.
A most blessed Advent to all Catholic moms and their families!
Copyright 2012 Celeste Behe