In a year when every circumstance seems to conspire against feeling festive, traditions have a star role to play. You may not have the typical budget for buying presents; may not have the energy to cut out cookies, take a family photo, or address 100 cards; and may not even be permitted to celebrate with friends and family, but there is one wise custom with the power not only to direct our emotions regardless of our circumstances, but also to fill us with hope. That ritual is the intentional observance of Advent.
I have good memories of “doing Advent” as a young girl. I remember my parents bringing down a centerpiece wreath from the attic and lighting the candles incrementally each Sunday as they read from the Bible. They impressed on me the joy of marking the weeks leading up to Christ’s birth, building expectation. I knew they were intent on teaching us that when it came to Christmas, what mattered most was the birth of mankind’s Savior.
From Jesus to Santa
For generations, Advent was a central part of the liturgical calendar. Christians marked the days, preparing to glory in the birth of Christ. This was the most important part of Christmas.
Not one to miss an opportunity to sell something, retailers have gotten in on the Advent action. My favorite grocery store tried a few years ago when it introduced a pricey, high-end chocolate Advent countdown calendar. While it’s true that imported Swiss, Dutch, and Belgian chocolates would be a vast improvement over the cheap waxy stuff behind the mini-doors in most dollar-store Advent calendars, they missed the point entirely. Getting serious about Advent has nothing to do with confections, or counting down days till Santa comes, but with conviction: teaching children to eagerly anticipate, and celebrate, the baby who came.
In the West, Advent is increasingly being viewed from a commercial standpoint. (You might think I’m being a little harsh toward the Advent calendar makers, but lately I’ve even seen calendars for dogs and cats!) We’re letting the world steal away a prime opportunity for teaching children the truth about Jesus’ birth.
December has often been marked by the flurry of getting more baking done, rushing to the mall before the sales end, and the looming Dec. 25 deadline—that’s what Christmas can feel like: a shopping deadline. What if I don’t have an equal number of presents? What if they sell out of that must-have toy? What if I run out of money before I finish buying for everyone on my list?
For all our “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” sentiments, we tend to do what we most value. Some years I think I must have most valued being busy. Doing the most. Social media only adds to that pressure to perform, and perform in picture-worthy ways. But suddenly that expectation has vanished. No one will expect proof of large, stylish gatherings this year. Quite the opposite.
No matter what happens between now and the start of the new year, showing our children unwavering hope in the God who took on flesh is the best gift we can give them.
The question remains, what will we do with this upheaval?
How we feel about canceled parties and limited travel will reveal a lot about what we value most. Some sorrow over not being able to carry out all of our traditions is natural. But rather than mourning your way through a disappointing December, why not use the opportunity it offers to take measure of what’s most important to you? If you find that worldly ideas about celebrating Christmas have crept in, replace them with hope-filled truth.
Let this be the year we change course. Rather than complaining about all we can’t do this December, embrace this Christmas as a great opportunity to focus on what we can.
Trees, books, songs
Wanting to give our own kids more than visions of too much sugar and materialism, we sought to celebrate Advent intentionally early on. The first few years, we read Old Testament prophecies and New Testament fulfillments. Then we added some homemade ornaments to accompany the readings and adorn a small tabletop tree. We’ve used family devotionals that include Scripture with a short reflection (Scott James’s The Expected One) as well as a story (Arnold Ytreeide’s Jotham’s Journey), and one that suggested related carols (Christopher Ash’s Repeat the Sounding Joy).
There is a host of faithful resources to choose from with even more being added this season. Books from John Piper, Paul David Tripp, Barbara Reaoch, Marty Machowski, David Mathis, and Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth come to mind. For younger ones with busy hands, an activity like Truth78’s Good News of Great Joy, or a do-it-yourself Jesse Tree, or felt-and-ribbon countdown can help build the anticipation children feel as they look forward to Jesus’ birthday.
The most important aspect of a Christian Advent is that it anticipates Jesus. “For four weeks, it’s as if we’re re-enacting, remembering the thousands of years God’s people were anticipating and longing for the coming of God’s salvation, for Jesus,” says Noel Piper. “That’s what advent means—coming.”
When deciding how to structure your study, look for books and activities that fit your children’s ages. It’s best to keep your readings and activities concise and regular, bearing in mind the attention span of your youngest children. A little every day for 31 days is better than an hour on Dec. 1 that leaves everyone weary of trying again on Dec. 2. Unlike many Christmas traditions that are annual one-time events (think Christmas Eve service, watching your favorite movie, lighting the tree), Advent’s repetition, daily (or weekly) meditation throughout the month, is part of what makes it powerful. The rhythm and routine have a formative effect on children.
In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis described ritual as “a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance” (Oxford University Press, 1952, p. 21).
If ever there were a Christmas at risk of being hijacked by our feelings, it’s Christmas 2020. Returning to the rhythms of Advent traditions––and if you’ve never had them, starting them––is more important than ever. The earth may tremble, the mountains may fall into the heart of the sea, but we will not fear if God is our refuge (Ps. 46:1-2). No matter what happens between now and the start of the new year, showing our children unwavering hope in the God who took on flesh is the best gift we can give them.