I love Black Friday! As you read this blog entry, I am happily browsing the stores, looking for those special gifts that will help express my love and affection for the recipients.
Maybe you think I am a complete freak to be out fighting the crowds on this day. Or maybe you think I am totally immersed in the commercialism that surrounds Christmas. Well, I can’t vouch for the freak part, but it is precisely because I abhor the commercialism surrounding Christmas, that I get all my shopping done before Advent begins. So, when Black Friday arrives before Advent starts…I love Black Friday!
On the liturgical calendar, Advent and Christmastide are two separate seasons. Advent, like Lent, is a penitential season, which helps us to examine our consciences before the feast of Christmas.
During Advent, our family does not put up a Christmas tree, except for a small (think Charlie Brown size) Jesse tree. The Jesse tree is a tradition that helps us recall the scriptures and symbolism that remind us of the very first Advent, which began at the Fall of Adam and Eve and ended at Christ’s birth. The Jesse tree is also Jesus’ family tree. The name comes from the scripture:
“But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Is 11:1)
Each day, beginning on December 1st, we read a scripture that relates to the family tree of Jesus and then we create an ornament with a symbol that relates to the scripture reading. To make a Jesse tree with your family, click here, which offers a free download of the ornament patterns.
One advantage of not putting up a traditional Christmas tree during Advent is that the children can really focus on the waiting and longing that is the purpose of the season. Another advantage is that, when we do shop for a tree, usually on December 23rd, they are all at least half price! In the past, we have gotten some beautiful, fresh and wonderfully-scented Frasier Fir trees for a song! We decorate our tree on Christmas Eve and listen, for the first time, to Christmas music as we add lights and ornaments.
The Church discourages the singing or playing of Christmas music in this penitential season, which is why we do not hear any Christmas carols at Mass on the four Sundays of Advent. We do, however, get to sing some beautiful Advent songs, including; O Come O Come Emmanuel, Maranatha Come, On Jordan’s Bank, Lead Us to Your Light, O Come Divine Messiah, and, my favorite, My Soul in Stillness Waits.
We try to keep the house dark, as we are waiting for the Light of the World to be born and save us. We do put a lot of scented candles around the inside of our home, and we use an Advent wreath; but the outside of our home remains darkened, until Christmas Eve, when we turn on the Christmas lights. Our neighbors, I’m sure, think us odd. We turn on our lights just two days before they pull down all of their Christmas decorations. But, the season actually begins on Christmas Eve, and so that is when we decorate. It is sad, for us, to see all of the Christmas trees on the trash heaps on December 26th, knowing the season has just begun. Christmas runs through the Feast of the Epiphany in early January, which is when we take down our own tree and outdoor lighting.
We have two Advent wreaths that we use in our home. One is a beautiful candelabra that we keep on our dining room table and light during meals. The other, we keep in our living room, on the coffee table and light it during evening prayer. Usually, I construct this one out of pine boughs, pine cones and pillar candles. The colors of the first, second and fourth Advent candles are purple, the traditional penitential color of the Church. The third candle is rose-colored and lit on Gaudete Sunday, which is the third Sunday of Advent, when we pause for a moment and remind ourselves of the joyful hope we have in the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. On Christmas, these candles will either be replaced by all white candles, or a 5th candle, colored white, will be added to signify the coming of our Lord, the unblemished Lamb of God.
An activity we have done in the past, to help the children understand the penitential aspect of Advent, is to create a ‘manger,’ using a small cookie box. The children decorate it to look like it is made of wood. Then we cut strips of yellow paper, which is the ‘straw’ for the manger. When they do a good deed or make some kind of sacrifice, they add one strip of paper to the box. Hopefully, by the time Christmas arrives, the box will be overflowing with ‘straw’ and will be a comfortable place for the baby Jesus to lay his head.
During Advent, we take out the several nativity sets we own and put them up around the house. We place Mary and Joseph in the scenes and imagine their waiting and longing for the Christ Child to come into the world. The Three Wise Men are placed all around the house, and the children move them closer every few days, until we add them on January 6th. The infant Jesus is put away until Christmas morning, when we wake up and sing, either Joy to the World or Happy Birthday or whatever the children choose to sing to welcome the infant King.
Reading devotionals helps to emphasize the waiting aspect of Advent. Some of my favorites are by Arnold Ytreeide. Jotham’s Journey, Bartholomew’s Passage and Tabitha’s Travels are stories to be read in small vignettes day by day until their culmination at Christmas. Destination Bethlehem is another book along these lines, written by the Catholic mother-daughter team, Sharon Altman and Christine Winkelman. The children love that each day ends in a small cliff hanger and eagerly look forward to the next days’ reading. All of these books and more can be found at Sacred Heart Books and Gifts or your local Catholic book store.
During Advent, we spend our time looking inward, at the state of our souls and into our hearts to find the love we need to reach out and help those in need. Completing the shopping before this season, helps us to focus inward, on what matters, instead of outward, on the commercialism and materialism that has practically obliterated Advent and tainted Christmas.
I challenge you to be radical this Advent. Take back this season and make choices with a fierceness that will change your soul! Instead of hustle and bustle…choose stillness. Instead of Christmas music…choose silence. Instead of shopping…choose prayer. Instead of flashing lights…choose the soft glow of a candle. Instead of Heat Miser and Snow Miser…choose scripture and devotions. Be able to say…
For You O Lord, my soul in stillness waits
Truly my hope is in You
…and mean it.
Text from My Soul in Stillness Waits copyright 1982, GIA publications.