I confess to being a Grinch when it comes to Advent—more precisely, to the way the retailers’ and party-throwers’ Christmas tends to usurp the holy season that is supposed to prepare for it. In our family, we remind the children that the Christmas season begins rather than ends on December 25, so we decorate our tree on Christmas Eve.
However, the purist in me runs the risk of becoming a nay-sayer with nothing positive to substitute. If Advent is not Christmas, what is it? What practices and traditions can help us truly “prepare the way of the Lord”?
Customs and Traditions. When we were first trying to answer these questions, I wish we’d had Julie Walters’ latest book, Advent: A Family Celebration. Instead, we stumbled onto and developed our own traditions, including the Jesse tree litany that Walters presents here. Each evening we read about a different Old Testament character who prefigured or awaited the Messiah. Then, we include that person and all the previous ones in a litany that grows longer and longer as Christmas approaches. Walters gives a good description of this custom, which we have found especially helpful for giving an overview of salvation history to children—especially to the foster children who have come into our home with no knowledge of the Bible stories we tend to take for granted.
Over the years, our family and others living with us have also used an Advent wreath, Advent calendar, and chapters from several storybooks that are set in the time of Jesus’ birth. We don’t do everything every year, but doing something has been important to our children. Just when I think they have probably outgrown a particular tradition like the Jesse tree, someone will ask, “When are we going to get out that old tree branch and hang things on it?”
Scripture Comes Alive. Walters offers several practical suggestions for celebrating Advent with children of different ages. But the heart of the book is her reflections on the Scripture readings for each day of Advent.
Advent: A Family Celebration presents many of these readings in a lively “family devotional” format. It features a short selection from each day’s Mass readings—one for older children and a different one for younger children, with meditations for families to read aloud.
Have you ever wondered how to make Scripture come alive for your children? Walters is a masterful story-teller. Her real-life vignettes feature Christians who have discovered and reflected Christ in their daily lives. Some are well-known saints like Elizabeth Seton. Most, however, are very ordinary people. Although names have been changed, they include some of Walters’ eleven grandchildren and other young friends across the country.
Many of Walters’ heroes and heroines are children who respond in a Christlike way to everyday situations like this one:
Laura was excited. Today was the day for swimming, tubing, and waterskiing at a nearby lake. Everyone in her family was going-—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—mdash;and they were all busy getting ready to leave. Then a hush descended over the confusion. One of the cousins was crying in her father’s arms. She had promised her soccer coach that she would play that day so that her team would not have to forfeit the game. But she really wanted to go to the lake with everyone else. Laura said, “Would you like me to go to the game with you? It only takes an hour. I’d like to do that, if you want me to.” The little cousin hugged Laura tightly. “Would you?” she asked. Laura’s kindness helped her cousin to support her team and to go to her game with a smile on her face.
What a practical illustration of the call to imitate God, who “lifts up those who are bowed down” and “loves the righteous” (Psalm 146:8)! Whether the children who hear this story identify with Laura or her cousin, each one should be able to think of similar situations from their own experience.
Through stories like these, readers young and old will see a new relevance to the Advent Scriptures and be encouraged to help bring about the kingdom for which the world has been longing. That kingdom becomes tangible by simple acts of generosity—things a child can do, like giving away a pair of shoes or letting the guest choose what game to play.
Make the Most of Advent. Advent: A Family Celebration is laid out in a way that makes it easy to navigate the twists of the liturgical season. Choices of prayers and meditations are limited but sufficient to accommodate parental preferences and different sorts of families. Wisely, Walters does not define the age range for “younger” and “older” children: parents can judge which of the day’s two passages and stories are more appropriate for their unique family, or they may want to share both.
This small book would be a wonderful starting point for a family ready to establish its own Advent traditions, or for one whose traditions are in need of refreshment. It should have come with two bits of gentle advice from the author: Make a commitment to set aside even a small amount of family prayer time every day during Advent. And don’t be afraid to depart from this guidebook as the Spirit leads you to discover Christ in the heart of your own family.
Who knows? With this book to sharpen my spiritual senses, perhaps this year, instead of being annoyed when I hear Muzak Christmas carols in October, I’ll be able to rejoice because everyone seems to be humming about our Savior! n
Jill Boughton lives in South Bend, Indiana.