Advent is a tradition that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, and the anticipation of his “second coming”. Advent’s Latin translation literally does mean ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’. The Advent celebration begins on the 4th Sunday before Christmas, and each Sunday after that until Christmas Eve. In Christian tradition it is the beginning of the Christmas season, which begins with Advent and the story of Christ’s birth, peaks at Christmas with the arrival of Jesus and ends with the Epiphany celebrations on the 6th January. I didn’t find this out until I was an adult. I always thought it was about counting down the days until Christmas – and this is truly thrilling anticipation for a child! There are lots of ways to count the days, and while counting the days to something is a way to celebrate the anticipation of its arrival – but this is not what Advent is about for me any more.
For me (because any interpretation of a festival should be personal) Advent is the inner journey: a peaceful, patient anticipation of and preparation for the coming joy. It can be challenging to maintain this sense of reverence in December if you happen to step foot in a shopping centre, where commercial Christmas is in your face and your ears and under your skin (and in your wallet!) and all around. The quiet, reflective Advent tradition is perhaps also at odds with an Advent calendar that rewards your patience with a little present every day until the day you receive your ‘real’ presents. I love the whole Christmas season, even though I am no longer a worshipping Christian. For me it is a time of reverence and reflection rather than worship, and there are many ways to celebrate Advent in your family:
Our family connects to the essence of Advent through the sharing of stories. Any story holds within it the lessons and gifts of life, and the story of the birth of Jesus still holds wonder and delight. Out of all the stories and images surrounding Christmas I have found the Nativity the one I identify with most seasonally. You never see Mary and Joseph trudging along with their donkey through the snow. In Australia Christmas is HOT, and I always found it comforting to see images of dry landscapes and shepherds and animals on a hot balmy night.
I love to look at the gems clustered within stories – as a non-Christian, how do we connect to the story of the birth of Christ if we do not believe that he was literally the Saviour? It is so woven in to our cultural Christmas traditions that it can’t simply be overlooked. I think it is better to try to understand something rather than pretend it isn’t there. The story holds within it messages of wonder (the gift of life and love), generosity (how kind of the inn-keeper to offer his stable when everywhere else was full), of gratitude (a warm place to sleep, a safe place to birth), of relief, overwhelming joy, hope and of course the underlying message of GOODNESS. I think that is worthwhile celebrating, don’t you?
To me, Jesus Christ as an archetype for humankind representing the best personal qualities that humanity has to offer, and indeed I believe this is also at the core of the Christian belief. Christ is the example of the best that WE each have inside of US – the story of his birth is as miraculous as the story of our own birth, as miraculous as the birth of ANY child. Which parent has not marvelled at the absolute wonder that a very small person can grow inside another? That from your body came the life of another complete and individual and perfect human being? From you and of you – but not you? This miracle will always take my breath away. Every child is born with untold potential tucked inside them. Whether or not you believe the nativity story in a literal sense, the character of Jesus is still an archetype of LOVE and WONDER and that is definitely awe-inspiring in my books – and definitely something worth sharing with my children.
Another tradition associated with Advent, that I have briefly touched on already is the Advent Calendar. This tends to follow the calendar month of December, rather than the season of Christmas. I think the focus with many of these calendars is not so much on the virtues of Christmas but rather the anticipation of Christmas day. There are all kinds of Advent calendars and if you do a search on Pinterest you will find some truly amazing ideas … I once made a hand-felted wall-hanging of a Christmas Tree with 24 pockets. In each pocket was a small felt ball and each day of Christmas we flipped out a new ball and the tree was slowly decorated until Christmas day when we placed the star on top. It’s a bit shabby – it was my first ever attempt at resist felting (nothing like leaping in at the deep end with 24 SMALL individual resists!) I don’t use it as a calendar any more because it is not a bit delicate but we still get it out every year.
Last year I decided to celebrate Advent with origami. Origami everyday with children aged 7 and under? What was I thinking? It was a bit ambitious! I had printed out 24 ‘easy’ Christmas origami designs to fold and they were hung on the tree as we made them. “We”, meaning “I”. At that time we had six young children living in the house, each wanting to do their own origami … I think we got to day 12 before the futility of the exercise outweighed the fun of it!
Other Advent calendar ideas include preparing 24 suggestions of things your family can DO to share goodness and show generosity before Christmas. I like this. It might be some ideas you write on paddle pop sticks that you draw from a jar, or cards that you open each day … or tasks written inside tiny boxes that are unwrapped … or conversation topics for dinner time … The Imagination Tree gave a great suggestion for creating an Advent calendar that is personal to your family’s beliefs and passions. Here is the link: http://www.theimaginationtree.com/2011/11/advent-activity-tree.html
There is another dimension to Advent – playing out over the four Sundays before Christmas. From a Christian perspective each of the four Sundays are devoted to prayer and the readying of the soul for arrival of the Saviour. Some traditions include lighting four candles on an Advent wreath – the circular wreath representing the eternal nature of God (life, love, spirit) – and one candle is lit each Sunday. I believe that we are all born whole and pure and good, so I choose to celebrate Advent from this perspective: each of the candles to me honours a virtue that I already possess (rather than one I am aspiring to in order to prepare my soul) or an offering of gratitude for all that makes my life wonderful, for we have so much to be grateful for.
THE FOUR KINGDOMS
This year my candles will still represent those virtues and gratitudes but also will represent the Four Kingdoms of Nature. Our Advent celebrations will still be quiet and reflective but I will celebrating them with a few of my friends in a small community gathering: with stories, food, craft, family – and simplicity. I will write about the Four Kingdoms next – before next Sunday because I’d love to give you a chance to read about it and think of some ideas to incorporate it into your own Advent celebrations before Advent starts. In the meantime my good friend Amber Greene has written about them at her site Mama Moontime and if you can’t wait to read about it here at Lavendilly over the next few days then you can have a look at her links too:
The Four Kingdoms of Advent: http://www.mamamoontime.com/2009/11/advent-time-celebration-of-four.html
Felted Advent wreath – http://www.mamamoontime.com/2010/11/happy-advent-2010.html
Whatever you decide to celebrate, I think the key thing is that it has MEANING for YOUR family. Christmas is definitely a time to honour the sacredness of life and the specialness of family and however you choose to celebrate that will be right for you.