I didn’t know about Advent growing up. We had an Advent calendar—a blue cardboard illustration of Bethlehem with punch-out doors that revealed mini Bible verses—that my sister and I dutifully unpacked every year and remembered to open in fits and spurts. I heard the term in church from time to time during December and ultimately came away with the idea that “Advent” was just a grown-up word for “Christmas season.”
But Advent is not the same as the Christmas season; at least, not by default. A person can do Christmas-y activities every day without observing Advent. But participating in Advent inevitably leads to a celebration of Christmas.
The word “advent” simply means the beginning of something important or the arrival of someone important. In the case of Christmas, it means both. In the four weeks leading up to Christmas, we think about, look forward to, and finally celebrate the advent of God’s incarnation—his showing up on Earth as a human. That’s a very big deal, and it is very hard to understand. Christ’s coming was anticipated for a long, long time, and it foreshadows another, final advent of Christ that hasn’t happened yet. It’s a lot to think about. No wonder Advent is so long.
Part of what I love so much about Advent is that it doesn’t carry the same expectations that Christmas sometimes does. There is no pressure to be cheerful, no need to get everything (or anything) just right. Advent is about waiting. It is about struggling with weighty thoughts and sitting with the reality that things aren’t as they were meant to be. It’s about accepting all over again that we need saving.
Yearning for Advent
It wasn’t until I was a new mother—new not only to motherhood but to the world of rare genetic disease and medical fragility and disability—that I found myself yearning for an Advent practice.
My son’s life started with a long stay in the NICU. Then a feeding tube. Then seizures. Then a diagnosis that told us nothing certain other than that things would be difficult. By that Christmas, I had been living in pure survival mode for months, barely functioning during some of that time. More than any other time in my life, I felt myself deeply wrestling with the thought, This is not how it’s supposed to be. And in response, I felt my soul cry, Come, Lord Jesus. Advent resonated with me that year in a way it couldn’t have before, and I wanted to participate in it meaningfully.
Advent is about waiting. It is about struggling with weighty thoughts and sitting with the reality that things aren’t as they were meant to be. It’s about accepting all over again that we need saving.
The sensible thing would have been to choose a simple practice, perhaps a daily reading to start with. But I craved something hands-on. My life was so messy and up in the air that it felt important to me to make something concrete and beautiful. So, together with a couple of friends, I hatched plans and made craft store runs and worked and worked and worked. What I ended up with was a hand-crafted Advent calendar consisting of a garland of hand-sewn felt envelopes, each embroidered with the number of the day. I selected my own progression of Scripture, wrote each out by hand on fancy paper, cut it with fancy edges, slipped it inside the envelope, and fastened the hand-sewn button to seal it up like a present.
My family did use that calendar for years, but it was the making of it that impacted me most deeply. It was unnecessary and over the top and felt desperately important. Every step of the process echoed the wonder of Christ’s birth back to me in the midst of some of my darkest hours. Christ’s coming is an affirmation that our physical world matters to God. Therefore, what happens in it matters. And, therefore, my suffering matters. Simultaneously, his coming is a reminder that our physical world isn’t everything. It isn’t the end. In a way I didn’t fully grasp at the time, making the calendar was stepping into those truths. With my hands and my time, I was crying out, I need You so much more than I ever knew. I need to be reminded of the promise of beauty and wholeness to come.
Even though the crafting of that Advent calendar was so meaningful for me, it was not a sustainable tradition. I never took on a task of that scale for Advent again. But it did teach me the importance of doing something tangible during the season when I’m turning my mind to God’s physicality, to his humanity.
A stick-with-it approach to Advent
As my son got older and was joined by cousins, my sister and I wanted them to establish their own hands-on Advent practice. The trouble was that we couldn’t find resources we could stick with through the whole month. Some had too many words for little ears and some required too many steps or supplies for tired moms. So, we started experimenting with designing our own activities. Over time, our project evolved into Unexpected Gift, a storybook and activity book set that was published this year.
Our goal for Unexpected Gift was to provide an all-in-one resource that would make the observance of Advent meaningful and accessible for a wide range of ages, abilities, interest levels, and life situations. It needed to be simple, hands-on, and gospel-centered. For several years, the development of the books was part of our own Advent practice, and we still use the completed materials every year.
In our home, we don’t have a regimented program for practicing Advent, but more of a small handful of (more-or-less) daily rhythms that quiet us down and focus our attention. These days, our Advent practice involves three main things:
- Slow down. After Thanksgiving, we start to wind down for the year. We shed commitments as the month of December goes on, stopping therapy sessions, ending school early, backing away from regular social commitments. We slow down and make space wherever possible. The point of Advent is to prepare him room in your heart and mind and life, and that can be tricky if you’re cramming too many extra things, no matter how fun or good, into already full days.
- Do one day from Unexpected Gift. I help my son make the day’s craft (we almost always do the most basic version), we read one page and one verse (from the ornament). Sometimes we’ll talk or pray about it a little bit. It’s just right for us.
- Shut down early. In the evenings, we stop a few minutes early. We turn off our screens, turn down the lights, and sing one Christmas carol together. Everyone takes turns choosing and sometimes we try to learn more verses than we knew the year before. Most nights, this little ritual turns into extra minutes of closeness and quiet. Ten easy minutes well spent.
If ever there was a year to establish an Advent practice, this is it. We are all carrying more fear, more sadness, and maybe more anger into this holiday season than we have in a long time. I encourage you to choose something simple, tangible, and gospel-centered: a touchstone for the coming December days. Let it remind you that your life on those days matters and that Jesus came to us to give you the promise of beauty and wholeness.