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.
The Advent of Our Advent
November 30, 2010 by 36 Comments