“There is something about saying, ‘We always do this,’ which helps keep the years together. Time is such an elusive thing that if we keep on meaning to do something interesting, but never do it, year would follow year with no special thoughtfulness being expressed in making gifts, surprises, charming table settings, and familiar, favorite food. Tradition is a good gift intended to guard the best gifts.”
Edith Schaeffer (Christmas Spirit, 1999)
As a little girl, I remember thumbing through the ornaments on the felted advent calendar at my grandmother’s house. Year after year, she would hang it up four weeks before Christmas. The sequined ornament shapes were intricate and reminded me of jeweled candies. Oh, the tension of waiting; it took forever to reach Christmas! Day after day, I snapped on the ornaments and counted down. Would Jesus’s birthday ever come? It seemed like forever.
And here I am as a mom, watching my own children fight over whose turn it is to hang the sparkly felted ornaments. They feel the tension of waiting and longing every time they count down to Christmas day. This is the tension that we, as Christians, must embrace as we wait for what God has already promised through Jesus but not yet fulfilled here on Earth. That is the beauty of practicing advent in tangible ways around the house. It teaches us to lean into the longing; it guides us into reflection and repentance. And this is where we meet Jesus.
Advent is a centuries old liturgical practice that looks backwards and forwards simultaneously. It looks back to Jesus’ miraculous Incarnation and leans forward into the reality of the Lord’s prayer: heaven is coming down to Earth. Christ will return and put this broken world to rights. Advent pushes pause on the frenzy of the season where good things tend to crowd out the Best Thing. All the parties, all the gifts, all the dinners are good gifts. But the greatest gift is the Gospel of Christ. Practicing Advent allows us as families to sit down, exhale, and contemplate what Christ has done in the past and what He will do in the future when He returns in glory.
So what are some practical ways we can celebrate the season of Advent in our families? If advent is new to your family’s traditions, I encourage you to start small. Make a paper chain or buy a wall calendar like the one I grew up with. Just count the days until Christmas and read the accounts of Jesus’s birth from the Gospels. It really doesn’t matter where you start. These simple rituals allow the tension to build as you take one step closer to the birth of Jesus.
One of the greatest resources we have found over the years is a book by Ann Voskamp entitled Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, A Family Celebration of Christmas (Tyndale House, 2015). Each day’s reading is easily digestible and brightly illustrated. Each day’s reading begins with a passage of Scripture. She beautifully unpacks the verses, and then suggests a few questions for you to talk over with your family. Some days, we get through the questions. Other days, we just get through her exposition of the passage. There is so much freedom; just start somewhere! The point is that as a family you are walking up to the birth of Jesus with Scripture as your guide.
Some folks like to make ornaments that correspond with each day’s reading (for example, a little clay apple might correspond to the reading of the Fall in Genesis 3). The ornament is hung each day on a small “Jesse Tree” after that day’s reading. At our house, we have a simple little wire tree that was under twenty dollars. We made our ornaments years ago at an ornament swap, but you can always just order them online from someplace like Etsy. We keep our Jesse Tree near the dining table on a sideboard so the kids can hang the ornament while we are doing the readings after dinner. Maybe at your house breakfast or lunch time works better for the Jesse tree readings. It is so adaptable; we have done it different ways over the years.
Remember, the Jesse Tree is just another visual aid to help your family see the building story of the Incarnation. There is no pressure here; doing a Jesse Tree doesn’t add to our holiness. Rather, it is a tool to aid our families in grasping what has happened at the birth of Christ and what is going to happen when Christ returns.
Every day in Advent looks a little different at our house. Some days are slower and we have the time and attention spans to read the passage, answer the questions, and hang that day’s ornament on the Jesse Tree. Other days, we are shoving dinner down, praying quickly, and darting off to wrestling or scouts. Practicing advent does not look the same from day to day or year to year, and that is fine. The key is to be flexible and do what you can to weave this practice into your family’s traditions.
I believe, like Edith Schaeffer says, that these traditions serve to guard the best gifts that we have been given in this life. That’s what I love about practicing advent. It pushes back against the frenzy of the season and allows us time as families to contemplate the best gift of all: God sent a baby to rescue His broken world (Lloyd-Jones, 2007).
What a gift!
Please leave your comments below! We pray you and your families will have a blessed advent season celebrating the coming of our precious Savior.