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A New Twist on the Advent Calendar: Celebrating as a Family

Advent candle

Most of my life I’ve lived in places where the passage of time was marked by the changing of the seasons. As the weather grew warmer and wetter, I would look forward to the flowers and lengthening days of spring. As it grew hotter and dryer, the vacations and leisure of summer. The cooling air helped me anticipate changing leaves and football games. And, finally, as those orange, yellow, and red leaves turned brown and started to fall, and our coats and scarves came out of hibernation, I knew that Advent was on its way, signaling the close of another year.

In San Diego, where my family and I live now, the weather is beautiful but it is the same much of the year. I miss the delight, the anticipation, and the reflection prompted by each seasonal change.

Here the signs are much more subtle. You have to pay close attention to the persistence of the fog or the time of the sunset. Or you can give up and just let yourself be guided by the inventory of the local stores.

But even here in the land without seasons there seems to be a general agreement that these seasons are, in fact, important. In fact, I’ve noticed that southern Californians almost manufacture seasons, with parkas and knit caps coming out as soon as the temperature drops below 60. And even though it is often warm enough in December to wear a sundress, no one ever does. (At least not any locals.) Without the weather to make it obvious for us, we make our own seasons, because marking the years this way is important. It matters.

Such signaling allows us to feel the wistfulness of the ending of one thing and the excitement of the beginning of another. It helps to remind us of time passing and to take stock of where we are and what God has done and is doing in our lives.

To me, Advent represents the perfect such opportunity to take stock, to reflect, whether you know it’s here because of changes in the weather, because wrapping paper is on display at Target or from your church calendar. Yet even as Advent calls us to reflect, at the same time we are looking forward with a heightened sense of anticipation to Christmas just around the corner. This anticipation, this delicious feeling of excitement about what is to come, is one of the reasons I (and my children) love Advent so much.

As one of the characters in Marcus Borg’s novel, Putting Away Childish Things, comments, celebrating Advent is a lot like being pregnant. And being pregnant is something I know a thing–well, two things–about. You see, as wonderful and beautiful as that experience can be, it’s not so much a season you celebrate in its own right but one you celebrate as a harbinger of great and life-changing things to come. It is a time of preparation and extreme anticipation, a time of waiting, in nervous and excited hope, for that which will come to pass. There’s so much joy to be had from looking forward to something special. Anticipation is a key part of celebration, and Advent offers us the opportunity to deliberately and joyfully engage in this practice, as we anticipate nothing less than the coming of Jesus.

As our kids have gotten out of the toddler stage, we’ve started to look for our own traditions to mark and to celebrate Advent. My husband’s family would make an Advent wreath together at church and then light the candles every Sunday night while they read a brief Bible passage and reflection together. When I think back to Advent, I remember preparing for a big Christmas Eve family party every year and one year in particular in which I spent the entire fall making my own Nativity scene in Sunday school class.

Our memories have in common the physical creation of something to mark the season, and when it came time to make our own Advent tradition, I wanted to carry that forward in our own family. But I also wanted something special that combined the dual senses of reflection and anticipation that make Advent so special.

And, since we are celebrating with small children, we wanted to channel that anticipation into something other than, well, presents. The answer for us came when we thought about what Christmas represented for us. Our nuclear family of four is a kind of satellite location for both sides of our extended families, which are centered in Northern California and the St. Louis area, respectively. Christmas is one of the few times each year we travel to one place or the other to come together as a large extended family.

We realized that for our family, the celebration centered around just being together this way, in formulations that inevitably occur only at Christmastime. Being jammed together in a house with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents had become, not the precursor to the celebration, but the celebration itself, the event we anticipated.

This understanding came as something of a surprise to me because I generally don’t like crowds. I am more of an introvert, who usually prefers a gathering of a few to a gathering of many. But celebration isn’t something you do by yourself. It’s about your community, however you define it. The coming of Jesus is something that calls for togetherness.

That first Christmas was no different. It wasn’t just Mary and Joseph and their new progeny in that stable. There were shepherds and Magi, and surely the innkeeper and his wife stopped in to see the new baby here and there. If that Nativity scene I made all those years ago is anything to go by, it must have been one crowded stable.

Yet each visitor must have also added to the feeling of joy, of celebration, the feeling that something had happened there that was important enough for all of these people to stop what they were doing and take notice together.

To maintain this focus on togetherness, in addition to our usual Advent devotional, last year we put a new twist on our Advent calendar. In addition to opening up the windows and reading the Scripture passages each day, we also chose one member of our extended family–both those we would see at Christmas and those we wouldn’t, even those family members my children will never know in this life. We talked about how grateful we were to know each person and what we liked best about him or her, and I took notes so I could report back to Grandpa Neal how Ben’s favorite thing about him was how he’s a leader and he takes him special places. And to Grandma Donna how he loved her energy and how she was fun and sang him silly songs. And to every grandparent how Luke’s favorite thought of each of them was how they hugged and kissed him and put him to bed. It was a beautiful way to celebrate God’s gifts of our family members.

We plan to continue this tradition this year.

As we light the candles these early winter nights to represent Jesus coming as the light in the darkness, we can think too of the light brought to our lives by each person.

In this way I hope to keep that delicious sense of anticipation that is such a special part of Advent focused on God and all God has given us in our family.

And as I reflect on the past year throughout Advent, which is often a fairly solitary endeavor, I know I will find myself looking forward more and more to that crazy and crowded time of family togetherness at the height of the season. The kids will inevitably fight, the kitchen will get too crowded, and we will never come to full consensus on what or where to eat, but it will be joyous. It will be a wonderful celebration of the life Christ came so that we might have.


This article first appeared in Renovare’s Advent devotional

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