The Advent of Our Advent

The church I attended as a child did some things for Advent, though I don’t remember much. I think that candles were lit and the color purple was involved. Also, I recall white ornaments with Christian symbols hanging on a large Christmas tree in the foyer.All of those colors and details were associated with church. It never occurred to me that someone might observe Advent at home.My parents always hung stockings, set up a delicate nativity scene inherited from my grandmother, and wound plastic holly garland around the stair rail. We bought a live tree and decorated it with an assortment of balls and ornaments. We listened to Christmas records on the stereo while we wrote and rewrote Christmas lists.Advent activities like lighting candles, sharing a devotional, praying together and singing carols—those were left to the religious professionals.The gift exchange on Christmas morning was the big moment we all waited for.By the time the Belgian Wonder and I married and became parents, we realized we should be more intentional about establishing family traditions of our own; so we experimented with ideas from his childhood and mine. We had consistently attended Christmas Eve service, but we turned to our respective past for other ideas we might incorporate into the season.Drawing from his family’s history, I tried to bake cinnamon tea rings like his grandmother’s, and before exchanging gifts on Christmas morning we’d read the Christmas story. From my family’s tradition, we decorated a big tree and exchanged numerous gifts.That was all good—especially when I realized the tea rings could rise in the fridge overnight.But each year I wanted more.Not more treats, gifts or random traditions. I just wanted…more.More focus.More meaning.I wanted Christmas to focus more on Christ Himself.We began to home educate, and I stumbled into an online discussion group that was following the Charlotte Mason approach to teaching. The women were all Catholic, however, and I felt a little awkward joining their group, seeing as I was a Protestant who attended a non-liturgical church. They kindly welcomed me into the conversation, however, which was primarily about art, books, nature study and other creative educational activities.As we approached Christmas, the discussion in the group turned toward the topic of Advent. They celebrated Advent at home!They exchanged ideas and, fortunately for me, explained them in detail.They talked about their wreaths and candles and Jesse Trees.Some of them set up a small container for each child in which they could place a piece of straw each time they did some act of love or kindness; their actions were creating a soft bed for the Christ Child. On Christmas morning, a beautiful doll or a small gift would appear atop the straw.One mother covered a table with cloth and placed her Nativity set in such a way that Mary and Joseph had to “travel” to Bethlehem along a stone path, moving from stone to stone each day, up and over hills (created by bowls or books hidden under the cloth) in order to arrive at the stable on Christmas morning, when Jesus would appear.I was captivated by all the creativity and care that these mothers put in to their Advent activities.And I realized: This is how we could focus more on Christ Himself.We, too, would celebrate Advent at home.I bought some tan material to cover a side table, making a snap decision in the fabric department that the terrain near Bethlehem might have been sort of rugged and barren. Later I thought I was probably mistaken; that it must have been greener than I imagined for sheep to graze in the fields.Anyway, I set out the tan fabric and found 25 small stones. At Wal-Mart, I bought a fairly durable Nativity scene made of resin and set it all up on the table.I explained to the kids that they would move Mary and Joseph forward one stone each day, but that the shepherds and sheep could wander wherever they wished. And we all agreed that the magi could hang out on a shelf nearby, awaiting January 6, “Three Kings Day” or “Epiphany,” which I also learned about from the Catholic ladies (though the Belgian Wonder remembered it from his childhood in Europe).The kids loved it. They took turns moving Mary and Joseph and couldn’t wait for their day. In fact, we often had to count the stones and move them back because someone truly couldn’t wait and had secretly shifted them up another stone.Michael’s craft store sold an Advent wreath and tapers. I bought inexpensive ribbon and plastic berries to brighten up the wreath. Each Sunday evening during Advent, we’d gather around with the kids on our laps and read some Scripture and light the candles. I made up simple devotionals, keeping them short. We prayed together. Though we aren’t very musical, we tried to sing a carol or two.That first year, the children tried very hard to be kind to one another in order to put a piece of “straw” (in place of straw, I used small pieces of yellow yarn) into small mangers we made out of cardboard. The focus was just lovely—gift-greed was minimized as we thought of our Savior and how to bless Him by blessing others.Then we ran into a glitch. My brand-new, beautiful, meaningful, rich and focused Advent season would be interrupted by travel plans. We were heading to California to celebrate Christmas with several members of the Belgian Wonder’s family who were either visiting or living there.Rather than leave it all behind and miss the culmination of these new traditions, I packed up the Nativity set, the stones, the cardboard mangers, and the yarn-straw, stuck it all in my suitcase, and brought it along. My sister-in-law must have had an Advent wreath or candles, because I don’t recall taking those.After arriving in California and settling in at my sister-in-law’s house, we opened up our suitcases and pulled out our treasures. I was excited to show everything to my in-laws.As I set them up, I saw that the pieces didn’t travel well.Joseph and one of the shepherds each held a staff in one hand. During the flight, each of their staffs was broken and the men were left with short walking sticks.The stable snapped in two.I tried to hide my disappointment, but I’m sure it showed. My father-in-law felt terrible for us, offering to superglue everything back.No, no, I wouldn’t hear of it. We would just leave everything the way it was. The stable was designed to look old and rugged anyway, so it could just lean against something.And Joseph and the shepherd would be fine; they seemed like the type that could make-do.So we lived out our first season of Advent with—as—imperfect, broken people.The countdown continued right there in the big spare room where we were sleeping. Christmas morning, the girls awoke to the surprise of small dolls that appeared in the cardboard mangers, resting on the fluffy beds of yarn.Then they moved Mary and Joseph to the unstable stable where a baby Jesus had appeared in the manger.Together with grandparents, aunts and uncles, we read the Christmas story and ate cinnamon tea rings that my mother-in-law made.Yes, we exchanged presents; in fact, I recall that was the year the girls got matching red flannel nightgowns. But I remember it most of all as the start of our Advent tradition.This past Sunday afternoon, ten years after our California Christmas, our kids helped set up the same scene with the tan cloth and the stable that we did eventually glue back together.Some sheep sit on a “hill.”Mary and Joseph await news of the census that will take them to Bethlehem.One of the shepherds kneels down, leaning on his short stick, watching his sheep by night.He is waiting. They are all waiting.Broken.And we wait, too.We, the imperfect, broken people who simply long for more…we wait.We wait with expectation, though, and meaning.Our wait is focused.Our wait is centered on Christ.

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  • Comments

    1. This is a beautiful concept I love the anticipation, the knowing that Jesus is coming. You are a wonderful encourager.

    2. Ann — I LOVE this. Thank you for encouraging me to introduce the real Advent into our home this year. I am trying a few new things myself — a nativity down at the kids’ level (not high and untouchable on a shelf); devotionals read and discussed during dinner; the lighting of the advent wreath. And we are headed to FL for Christmas this year — perhaps I should pack it all up (in bubble wrap!) and bring it with us.

      • annkroeker says:

        Your plans sound beautiful, accessible (literally), and really lovely. And if you take it along–which I don’t regret doing when we went to California–I do recommend lots of packing materials! :)

    3. Ann! My girls and I had so much fun trying out some of these ideas today.

      Funny story: On the way to get straw from the bales outside, I literally got my legs STUCK in the snow and had to roll across the snowdrift to reach the bales. Snow was blowing all over, and my glasses fogged over. I could NOT see. My two daughters came to my rescue and tried to pulled me out. It was a mess — but quite funny. :-)

      But by golly, we got our straw! :-)

    4. Love.

    5. Funny, I never heard of a Jesse Tree until today. Feel like I missed something!

      Now, if we want to talk about the J.C. Penny’s catalog. I was initiated into that for sure. :)

    6. annkroeker says:

      I’d never heard of a Jesse Tree before those Catholic homeschooling moms told me about it ten or so years ago.

      The catalog was a “wish book,” right?

    7. I enjoyed your story from beginning to end, and sorry but I laughed and smiled some too. Glad you finally glued together the stable. Anticipation on the birth of our Savior, and now we wait for his final return to bring us all to be with Him.

    8. I wish I could have been there when my sweet friend was out there in the snow looking for her straw! Also wondering what is there for us Gramma and Papas to do during Advent. Any new ideas? I am stuck with no little ones at home or close by daily. Just enjoying the “Being Still” time instead of Christmas carols when driving in my car the few miles to town.

      • Hi, Sandy! My friend Charity is a single woman, no kids, and loves Advent. She invited some friends over on Sunday to join her for the lighting of the first candle. We sang songs together, ate a simple meal of soup and bread, and prayed together.

        She shares her Advent experience with whoever is around or by herself. She reads (or even writes) Advent devotionals.

        Here’s her website:

      • Well, hello Sandy! Come on by the house this week and I’ll show you how we’ve put Ann’s ideas into action here. You and Papa T. could do this, too! :-)

        Oh, and Ann? Meet Sandy. Sandy, meet Ann. (Sandy is one of the ladies from my little country church — and a dear friend! She lives just up the road here.)

    9. Your story is so very like my own Ann, except I didn’t learn about Advent until my children were all grown and gone. For the past couple of years I’ve done the Jesse Tree devotional on my own and thoroughly enjoyed it – the slowing and remembering and the sense of His coming.
      I think you’ve done a wonderful job of making this Advent Season very special for your family. I love it that some of the pieces are broken. Oh – how I can identify with that.

    10. i love this. we are trying to celebrate advent for the first time this year, and i so relate to the feelings you had. these ideas are wonderful and inspiring. we are really sucking at our attempt at advent, so your reminder that we wait as imperfect, broken people is a breath of peace and surrender to me. thank you!

    11. This is so beautiful. Thank you. We began our Advent / Jesse Tree this morning at breakfast. It is a first for us. It’s so nice to meet you. Merry Christmas!

    12. Oh, I love how you held onto those broken pieces and now relate it to your own brokenness. It just makes so much sense. Last night, I downloaded Ann Voskamp’s Jesse Tree printable to make a tree as well. Thanks for sharing your traditions that draw you closer to the Lord Jesus at this very important time of year… which lasts in our hearts throughtout the year :)

    13. I came over here from Elizabeth Foss. This is so tremendously beautiful….my eyes are watering. A happy, holy Advent season to you and yours…

    14. Aw, Ann! You made me get all teary and emotional and stuff!! :) This was so beautiful…thanks for sharing your Advent journey with us. I really love the straw idea SO SO much…have been trying to come up with tangible ways that my children can give when they can’t drive, have no money, and it can’t be “do something nice for your sibling” every day!!! :) Ideas?

    15. Oh yes, Ann. This is beautiful. “I wanted more.” I can hear myself in that statement. Seeking to find Him. Deeply. This is so good.
      Our little nativity has some broken pieces too. The angel only has one arm, the same with Joseph…the broken people. Perhaps I won’t glue back on those hands after all.
      Thank you for sharing this.

    16. What wonderful ideas, Ann! I am going to do the mangers with straw- such a sweet concept!!! I love the nativity idea, too but have already covered all our horizontal surfaces with decorations- lol! Next year…

    17. love this Ann.
      I learned about Advent when I married and became Catholic. My children go (went) to Catholic school so I learned along with them actually.
      And I could tell you some broken bits stories. :)
      I have to say I am truly understanding it now more and more these last few years. Especially with the internet and blogging. Especially reading the hearts of women such as yourself. (and Ann of course)

      and thank you for your comment re my homesick post. it meant a lot.

    18. Lynn Hopper says:

      Why don’t you tell them about the Nativity set I bought for you at the Brussels flea market which only had two Wise Men??

    19. This story made me cry. I’m sitting here at my computer with my children all grown up and so beyond (in their minds) a nativity scene or red flannel nightgowns and I am crying at this beautiful story. I am so glad you didn’t glue those pieces back together!

    20. I love your story…beautiful.

    21. I am over here reading via Tonia (study in brown) and I have to say thank you. I am having a similar experience where I have planned and planned a special advent for this year and now we are unexpectedly traveling a long ways away. I, too, decided just to take it all with me. And I have some expectation of brokenness – but more in my expectations.

      This story touched me, thank you!

    22. Oops, I just realized it was Elizabeth Foss I came via, but Tonia led me to her. : ) The trails of internet reading…

    23. I have never thought of myself as a manger-scene piece, but I really like it.

    24. Oh beautiful. Yes. This. This is Christmas. Thank you.

    25. Amy in MN says:

      Thank. You.
      I am not sure, but I am choking back tears…
      suddenly, this year, things are starting to come together and make some sort of sense.
      You have helped
      God is so good- it is always and will always be amazing to me, how He always meets us right where we are- offers us just what we need at each particular moment in time…


    1. […] there’s the Journey to Bethlehem tradition that I told you about when describing how Advent first came to our home ten years […]

    2. […] may recall from my earlier Advent post that most of my ideas came from online Catholic homeschooling friends. Well, it occurred to me today […]

    3. […] “The Advent of Our Advent” by Ann Kroeker […]

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