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More than Christmas, more even than Easter, Advent is my very favorite liturgical season.  Part of my affection for Advent stems from my beautiful memories of Catholic school celebrations, but I also love it for how simple it is to incorporate the celebration of this special season into daily life.

When I was very young, opening the doors on our Advent calendar each December morning before school was my earliest introduction to the season of Advent.  This is a delightful way to harness children’s anticipation of Christmas to teach a lesson of joyful and patient waiting.   Over the years there have been times we had a calendar for every kid ready to go on December 1, and other times we weren’t on the ball managed to find the very last available calendar a week into Advent.  This year I’ve got two all ready to go:  one scriptural retelling of the Christmas story that I bought at Catholic Door and one chocolate from Trader Joe’s.

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Another treasured tradition in our home is the decorating of the Jesse Tree.  I loved doing this every Advent morning when I was in grade school, and have enjoyed incorporating it into our family celebration.  We got our first set of ornaments at our church’s annual Advent workshop (another long-time tradition), and they were all the more treasured because they were colored by little hands.  When we lost them to fire, I found free printables online–there are many to choose from.  Or you could buy this beautiful set my friend Sara has made.

Most years we manage to have an Advent wreath.  The biggest challenge is having the right color of candles. (Note to self: check Amazon tomorrow for candles)   The next challenge is that we don’t eat dinner together every night, so some nights the candles don’t get lit.  But I like seeing them there just the same.

Probably our most important Advent tradition is what we DON’T do.  While the secular world and mostly Protestant East Tennessee are happily partying long before the guest of honor has even arrived, in our home we continue to wait.  No, we don’t bah humbug all the Christmas events happening outside our home–we go to the downtown tree lighting the day after Thanksgiving as well as many other fun local events that we look forward to year after year.  But at home things are different.

Right after Thanksgiving I remove the gourds and other harvest items from the mantel and put out simple votive lights.  Along with our Advent wreath, these will be our only seasonal decorations until about a week before Christmas, and the tree will go up later than that.  I may not hold off on the Christmas music quite that long, but for at least half the month we will be listening to Advent playlists.

We don’t do all these things every year.  Sometimes we fail at Advent rather spectacularly!  (The one we are the very best at is not putting up the decorations early!)

What about you?  How do you celebrate Advent?  For more ideas, click the picture below to read other posts in the Catholic Women’s Blogging Network blog hop.

cwbn advent

 

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When our first child was a baby, 25 years ago, I had very specific ideas about Christmas that went along with my ideas about being a perfect mother.

From time to time when I was a child, my mother would suggest we should cut back on Christmas gift giving and concentrate instead on the true meaning of Christmas.  At which point we kids would raise a chorus of protests.  (Never happened, naturally.)

I thought to conquer materialism on the front end, by buying just a few well-chosen presents.  And that first year, it worked.  Between us and Santa, baby Emily received about $50 worth of well-chosen gifts.  My memories of that Christmas are idyllic:  Christmas dishes displayed in the china cabinet, Celtic Christmas music in the background, a baby in red velvet eating apple cinnamon bread, Midnight Mass, a day spent showing off Emily to adoring family members.

emily-christmas-baby

Of course it escalated from there.  And I didn’t count on extended family who didn’t want to get with the program.  Eventually several relatives who wanted the kids to get lots of presents but didn’t know what to buy them started sending me so much money I could hardly figure out how to spend it all, resulting in a veritable mountain of gifts under our tree each year.

That’s not to say that we ever left Christ out of Christmas. Presents were important, no doubt, but I don’t think our kids have ever forgotten the reason for the season.

The way we keep Advent has a lot to do with this, I think.  Two weeks before Christmas, the only signs of the season apparent are our Advent wreath and a few other candles here and there.  Our preparations build slowly–the other decorations will go up next weekend, probably, and the tree just a few days before Christmas.  We hold off on hosting any sort of gatherings until just a few days before Christmas or ideally even afterwards, waiting to start celebrating until the Guest of honor has arrived!

Religious decorations are given pride of place in our home.  Yes, we have Santas and trees, but my favorite Santa shows that he knows his proper place in the celebration.

christmas-santa

Christmas really begins for us on Christmas Eve, when we attend Mass as a family.  Not Midnight Mass, which doesn’t work for us at this point, but an evening Mass which we traditionally follow with a dinner out before coming home to one of my favorite Christmas rituals.

Every Christmas Eve, each child gets one present to open and it is always a Christmas book.  So the last thing the kids do before going to bed to talk and dream of Santa and presents is listen to me reading them Christmas stories, both the new ones and old favorites, most of which relate to the true meaning of Christmas.

Christmas Day is all presents and dinner and family and more presents, but one way we avoid having it turn into a materialistic free-for-all is that in our family presents are opened one at a time, youngest to oldest, until everyone finishes.  The kids are excited to see the happiness of the other members of the family upon opening gifts.  We do this in the morning and then we do it all again after dinner with the extended family–almost twenty people taking turns.  It takes HOURS.  It teaches patience.  And in the exchange of gifts and the love they represent we commemorate God’s gift of Christ to us, always recalling that God Himself is Love.

This post is part of the Siena Sisters’ CWBN Blog Hop.  You can read other posts by clicking here.

Siena Sisters

 

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christmas-window

No joke, y’all, I started seeing houses with their Christmas lights up just after Halloween.  Is it any wonder that there will be Christmas trees lying on the curb by Christmas night, tossed out by people who have celebrated themselves out before the guest of honor even arrived?

But the reality is, that’s the world we live in, and being all sanctimonious about it (IT’s NOT EVEN ADVENT YET!!) isn’t going to help.  We could shut ourselves away from the world and refuse to participate, but that’s not much fun, is it?  The Christmas concerts and television specials, the tree lightings, the pageants and parades–they will all be over after Christmas Day.

So how to reconcile what the world teaches with what the Church teaches?  How do we keep Advent when the world says it’s already Christmas?  (And how do we celebrate Christmas when the world says it’s over?  Perhaps I will post on that at the proper time!)

Our family participates in many treasured Christmas traditions in the community, even though they start in November.  We can’t control how the rest of the world celebrates.  But we can control HOW and WHAT our family celebrates this time of year.  Here’s what we do:

  • We remove the harvest/fall decorations, and leave the mantel bare except for candles.
  • We wait much longer than everyone else to decorate for Christmas, putting up most of our decorations ten days or so before and the tree only a few days before.
  • We play special Advent music.
  • We attend our parish’s annual Advent Workshop.
  • With varying degrees of success from year to year we have an Advent wreath, a Jesse Tree, and Advent Calendars.

advent wreath

If you are just getting started with the idea of keeping Advent, start small.  Pick one activity and make sure you do it every day.  Kicking yourself for not doing a better job of celebrating Advent is probably not productive.  Last year was a rough one for me in this area, so I am resolving now to be more intentional about Advent this year, even as we continue to take part in the early Christmas revelry around us.

I love Advent, and have written a lot of posts on the topic.  In addition to those I linked above, check out the links below for more:

Advent Memories

Tragedy and Traditions

Christmastime Is Here–Not!

This post is part of the the Siena Sisters Monthly Blog Hop.  This month’s theme is Keeping Advent, Advent.  You can read the rest of the entries here.

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Time to get real here, folks.  All last week I posted about Advent: Advent memories, Advent crafts, Advent Workshops, complete with Pinterest-ready graphics.  Yay me!

But the truth is, I’m failing at Advent this year, and it’s not the first time.

I wanted to buy all the Christmas gifts in November, so I could concentrate on Advent in December, but the stars (read money) did not align.  So I’ve got that hanging over my head.

While I managed to buy a chocolate calendar (not my preferred kind of calendar for Advent, but definitely Lorelei’s) we open it in spurts because we forget.

St. Nicholas came a day late.

We haven’t been able to locate the box containing the Jesse Tree ornaments and the Advent Wreath, which is probably just as well, since that would give me more things to feel guilty about not doing.

This was about three years ago when I had it so together I even had the right colors of candles!

Family commitments have meant we have already missed some of the Christmas events around town that we enjoy participating in at this time of year, and I foresee that this trend will continue.

The orange lights in the family room came down and white ones went up (thank you, Lorelei) but less-than-fresh mini-pumpkins and oddly-shaped gourds still festoon the mantel.

Do I need to mention the house is a mess, or could you have surmised that already?

I’m listening to my Spotify Advent playlists, so there’s that.

But otherwise, this is one of those years where “we observe Advent” is just a good excuse for why we are the only house on the block that isn’t already decorated for Christmas.

When this happens (yes, this is not the first time), I tell myself that there’s always next year.  But once you’ve reached that point in your life when you realize there are almost certainly fewer Advents ahead of you than there are behind you, doing it right takes on more urgency and “there’s always next year,” rings a little hollow.

 

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star boy and the virgin

Lorelei and William as Star Boy and the Virgin Mary at the Advent Workshop

Since it first launched in 2001, my family has attended the Signs of the Season Advent Workshop at our parish every year–even when Lorelei was only ten days old!  This annual event, founded and conducted by Dorothy Romines, has always been an integral part of our Christmas preparations.

This year, Dorothy and the parish CCD program joined forces and held the workshop on Sunday morning during class time.  Lorelei was one of the few non-CCD kids to attend, and she enjoyed it as always.

A few years ago I wrote an article for The East Tennessee Catholic about the workshop.  I’m sharing it in a revised form here.

Last month Dorothy Romines conducted her annual Advent workshop at Immaculate Conception Church in Knoxville, sharing years of research about Advent customs around the world. But her interest in the subject began many decades ago.

As a young woman she attended Webster College in St. Louis, where her aunt was the mother superior and her sister was in the convent. She recalls the sisters celebrating St. Lucy’s feast on Dec. 13 by bringing hot chocolate and sweet rolls to the students’ rooms early in the morning, singing as they came, “like angels floating down the halls.”

Mrs. Romines shared the St. Lucy custom with her children, one boy and four girls. They had Advent calendars too, and she recalls making Nativity sets and O Antiphon decorations with them. Today her children carry on some of those customs with her 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. And after 28 years of teaching elementary school, Mrs. Romines now teaches the children—and adults—of Immaculate Conception Parish about Advent.

Mrs. Romines had been a member of IC off and on over the years, returning for good when she retired about 20 years ago. Five years later she had the idea of beginning an Advent workshop, “Signs of the Season,” for the children of the parish. The project started small, with $100 from the adult-faith-formation team. It quickly became one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the year, with 50 or more people attending, including adults who enjoy learning about Advent and making crafts.

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Over the years Mrs. Romines has presented Advent customs ranging from the Mexican piñata and posada to the Polish oplatki (Christmas wafer). Participating children have made Nativity sets from a variety of materials, corn-husk angels and turnip candle holders from the Celtic tradition, a variety of Christmas tree ornaments, and always Advent wreaths.

Mrs. Romines provides handouts for home celebrations, including blessings and readings for use with the Advent wreath and Jesse tree ornaments to make at home. The event has also included dinner, singing, and some impromptu dramatic productions.

Lorelei participates in a play at last year's workshop

Lorelei participating in a play in the 2011 Worshop

Already planning for next year’s “Signs of the Season,” Mrs. Romines says she is pleased by the popularity of the workshop, which she puts on with the help of the Immaculate Conception women’s group and other helpers, including her great-niece Nora Connelly who has provided music, and her late brother George Willard, who documented the event with photographs.

“It’s something I love to do,” she said, citing the O Antiphons and the St. Lucy custom as favorites. “I love the sense of cooperation with the parish community, and I hope families will benefit by learning some Advent customs.”

Here’s a link to an article on the Workshop that appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel in 2010 if you’d like to read more about it. 

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The following was written in Advent 2011 and posted at my friend Lacy’s blog.  That first post-fire Christmas still seems very close and this time of year still is a little painful for me.

Traditions.  We all have them.  Children demand them—“We did that last year—we have to do it again!” I was fortunate to grow up in a home where holiday traditions were carved in stone.  For 25 years I knew exactly where I would be and when and with whom on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Life intervened—divorce, marriages, kids, estrangements, death.  Even as my husband, five children, and I began to develop our own traditions, we always had to be a little more flexible—never knowing for sure who would host the Christmas dinner, or where we would gather with extended family to open presents.

When my oldest was only a baby I started a treasured Christmas Eve tradition of giving each child a Christmas book to unwrap and have read to them before bedtime.  Our collection of Christmas classics grew and grew, leading to additional Christmas story evenings, reading to the kids’ classes at school, even a Christmas bedtime story party for my youngest two and their classmates for several years.

Other favorite traditions centered around the decorations we collected over twenty-two years of marriage:  the nutcrackers which covered the piano, part of a collection originally started for my husband by my grandmother and continued in later years by my mother; my less-planned collections of Santas, including my favorite of Santa kneeling by the manger;  the crèche that belonged to my grandmother and then to my mother, still in its original box from a long defunct department store.

christmas santa

The kneeling Santa my sister gave me for Christmas 2011 to replace the one that was lost in the fire

Tragedy struck on Labor Day. Our house burned nearly to the ground.

The books are ashes. The piano is reduced to its metal innards. Here and there among the ruins you can spot a piece of some treasure, beyond repair. Fire doesn’t just destroy, it consumes.

fireman

Fireman nutcracker in the ruins

Several years ago our Christmas tree fell over right after we decorated it, crushing several irreplaceable ornaments, many of them heirlooms from my husband’s German grandfather. The children and I stood around the fallen tree and cried. Every year since as we hung the remaining and replacement ornaments we have remembered and missed the ones that were broken.

This loss is so much more immense that we haven’t even shed tears over it. To lose everything you own is indescribable. What will it be like this year, putting out new decorations in an unfamiliar house?  How will it feel not to hang any ornaments commemorating “our first Christmas together”—we had FIVE! or any “Baby’s First Christmas” balls or handmade (childmade) decorations that their makers looked sheepish about but continued to hang all the same?

We believe in celebrating Advent before we move on to Christmas, so we haven’t had to deal with decorating yet. We cling to the traditions we can, so we started the season by attending the Advent Workshop sponsored by our church, where we made an Advent wreath that we will light each evening as we listen to a special reading for the day.  We’ve begun to attend the holiday celebrations—the downtown tree lighting, the Fantasy of Trees—that we have gone to every year since we’ve had children.  The Christmas Parade, the Living Christmas Tree, the Nativity Pageant, and the Walk through Bethlehem will provide continuity with other Christmases.

At home we will put up new decorations. We’ve already collected quite a few –some from a Christmas thrift store, some from Target, many from family and friends.  The question of whether to try to replace missing items or do something altogether new is something we still don’t have an answer for—and that applies to other lost belongings, not just Christmas decorations. So far, it seems we know what we need to replace when the time comes. The nutcrackers, for example—they seem to be important to everyone and we’ve already bought a few, including two big ones to guard the front door.

We don’t really need decorations to remind us of the true spirit of Christmas this year anyway—we are surrounded by the proof that there really are people who “honor Christmas in [their] hearts and try to keep it all the year.” If Christmas is about love and giving, we’ve been experiencing it since the day our house burned, when the offers of assistance started pouring in, shortly followed by donations, clothing, toys, gift cards, and enough furniture to completely fill our new home.

We are planning a holiday open house the weekend before Christmas, so that all our family, friends, and even strangers who shared what they had with us can come celebrate with us and see how their generosity helped us make it through the past few months. Who knows?  Maybe it will become a tradition.

christmas house

Our new house at Christmastime

I’m sharing this post at the #WorthRevisit linkup–please visit the hosts’ blogs here and here to see other great posts!

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When most people are getting excited about Christmas, I am usually getting excited about Advent.  And outside of church, you don’t hear much about this special season, as people are so eager to rush straight into Christmas. When I was growing up my family always had an Advent Calendar (it’s a much more widespread custom these days and I hate seeing them called “Countdown to Christmas Calendars”).  I think much later we might have had an Advent Wreath too.  But most of the Advent celebrating I remember happened at my Catholic school, specifically the Jesse Tree ceremony that took place each morning after Mass.  It’s one of my most treasured memories.

Years ago I was part of a church committee that as I recall had to do with celebrating in the “domestic church” (i.e. the family).  The first project (it might have been the only project—it was a short-lived committee) that we did was to set up a display of Advent activities for the home.  The lady whose idea this was has gone on to host successful Advent workshops right before the season for around 13 years, which are well-attended and very popular—truly a highlight of the season for our family.  At the very first workshop I acquired some cut-out Jesse Tree ornaments and I sat down with my three (then!) kids to color them.  We treasured these ornaments for years (all the more as the kids grew because they were so obviously colored by little hands) and used them to have our own Jesse Tree ceremony at home.

Today I’d like to share with you the meaning of the Jesse Tree and how you can incorporate it into your Advent celebration. Who was Jesse?  He was the father of King David, and he’s usually considered to be at the top of Jesus’ genealogical tree.  So that’s where the tree part comes from.  The ornaments themselves tell the story of God’s Providence from Creation up to the coming of Jesus.  What you will need:

  • Jesse Tree clip art/scissors.There are many web sites that provide free Jesse Tree ornaments—some only needing to be cut out, others requiring you to color them.  Do a Google or a Pinterest search to find ones you like.
  • Markers/crayons or whatever else you want to decorate your ornaments with.I’m not crafty, so we used markers.
  • Hole punch and ribbon to make your ornaments ready for hanging.We used the curly Christmas wrapping ribbon.
  • A Bible to look up the verses that go with each ornament.If you don’t happen to own one, you can look this up online too!  Some ornaments may already have a verse written on the back.  You could do that, or you could plan to read the whole story each day, depending on the attention span of your kids!
  • A tree.At my grade school, we used a cedar tree that later became the school Christmas tree.  In our house, we used our Schefflera plant.  I’ve seen sites suggesting a paper tree pasted on a wall.  But I think the easiest and best for ornament hanging would be a nice dead branch with several twigs, which you could put in a bucket of sand or dirt or rocks.  Just do whatever is easiest—I like my projects low in stress!

We did our Jesse Tree ceremony every evening before dinner.  But you could also do it first thing each morning, or at bedtime.  Do whatever works for your family. Our kids took turns, and the child of the day held up the ornament, read the verse, and then hung it on the tree. Sometimes we had a little discussion to explain the context of the verse.  If your kids aren’t readers yet, you can read the verse.  Or you can just explain its importance:  e.g. Creation—God made the world; Adam and Eve – God made us and loves us; Fall of Man – people disobeyed God; et cetera. This is an easy project that serves two purposes:  reminding kids of the “reason for the season” while also helping them count down the days! Enjoy!

This post originally appeared on my friend Lacy’s blog.  Lacy is no longer blogging but you should check out the beautiful necklaces she is making!

 

 

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