Blame it on Black Friday, Cyber Monday and other contrived retail “holy days,” but by the time Advent begins, many families may already be weary of Christmas.
It’s no secret the scope of “the holiday season” as a cultural and economic phenomenon in has swelled far beyond the confines of the religious observance of Christ’s birth. Stores stock Christmas inventory well before the first leaf falls. Many families cross items off their gift list by Labor Day and address Christmas cards by Thanksgiving.
But the constant obligations and the never-ending to-do lists are at odds with Advent — a time of simplicity, expectation and hope.
“I think as parents we have to work hard to, in a sense, reclaim Advent,” said Susan McNeil, director of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Office for Marriage and Family Life. “It’s a really beautiful season where we are called to refocus our lives.”
“We need to keep that sense of the beauty of waiting within,” agreed Nancie Chmielewski, pastoral associate at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Milwaukee. “That’s something that’s too easy to lose.”
There are a host of devotions, activities, prayers and observances that can help Catholic families keep the focus of the season where it needs to be: on the small child in the manger and the promise of salvation he brings. But where to start? Catechists, directors of religious education and youth ministers from throughout the archdiocese share their thoughts.
Go to Mass!
It’s the most obvious place to start, but there really is no better way to illuminate your family’s Advent with the light of Christ than by fulfilling your weekly obligation to attend Mass.
Talk to your children about what’s going on in the Advent liturgy. If they have questions and you don’t have the answers, find them together. There are a wealth of books and articles online about the liturgical traditions of Advent.
“It’s a great time to point out — did you notice what Father’s wearing has changed colors? Let’s talk about what that means. Go visit the wreath with the Advent candles. Let them go up and touch it. Let them touch the creche. It’s a great time to explain that, here in church, we’re preparing for Jesus to come,” said McNeil.
If families have been away from Mass, Advent is a time to return. If moms and dads are hesitant to bring rowdy children to church, McNeil encourages them to remember that Christmas is about the promise and hope of a young child.
“We want your children at Mass, even when they’re on their worst behavior,” she said. “If you’re not coming, come now! We don’t care where you’ve been – just come.”
Make sure all traditions are built on a foundation of faith
If parents have been neglecting their prayer lives, now is the time to renew that commitment to their own spiritual well-being, said Sara Larson, director of family ministry for Old St. Mary, Our Lady of Divine Providence, SS. Peter and Paul and Three Holy Women parishes, Milwaukee.
“The first thing is to make sure that you are filled with the peace and joy of following Jesus, and then the other stuff can flow from that,” she said. “Take time for personal prayer. That’s going to make anything we do with our children really authentic. If it’s not coming from a place of your own personal faith, sometimes it can just be another list of to-dos.”
‘Baptize’ your to-do list through a morning offering
This is true throughout the year, but Advent is a particularly beautiful time to let your burdens bring you closer to God, said writer and speaker Grace Mazza Urbanski. In effect, we can “baptize” our to-do lists in the same way that Jesus “baptized” our humanity, coming to us in human form.
“The to-do list isn’t an obstacle to prayer. The to-do list can become a prayer,” she said. “The only way that that makes sense is because of the Incarnation. The Greek and Roman gods were very impersonal. They didn’t care about humanity. But Christmas reminds us that God chooses to become a baby, to take on human flesh. Suddenly, being hungry and cold and a baby who needs care – those are all things that God experienced. So when we’re feeling those things, it can bring us closer to God.”
An easy way to do this is to pray a morning offering.
“Jesus showed with his life that his whole life was an offering for others, and when we wake up and say, ‘God, whatever happens today, happy or sad, boring or exciting – I’m going to offer it to you, and you can turn it into grace for the world.’”
Bring new meaning to the usual suspects
The Advent wreath, the Jesse Tree, the Advent calendar – these are tried-and-true ways to set aside a few moments in each day to turn your family’s thoughts to the divine.
“Make it a moment of prayer and of bringing your family to focus,” said Larson. “You want to make that Advent wreath not just another decoration but something that is creating a time of family prayer on a regular basis.”
“Many people have their trees up and decorated early. How about turning the lights off in the house and just putting the tree lights on and sitting around at the end of the day with your family? Play an Advent song or talk about the day, or do a brief evening prayer with your kids,” suggested Chmielewski.
Urbanski said her family has a custom of turning off all the lights before dinner, lighting the Advent wreath and sitting in silence for a few moments before singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”
“It’s really special because it’s so different. It really slows us down,” she said. “It’s striking.”
Go to confession
Advent is marked with a slightly penitential character, which makes it a great time for the sacrament of reconciliation – especially if it’s been awhile since you’ve been to confession.
“God sent Jesus into this world so that we would never be alone and we would never be afraid and we would always have life with God,” said McNeil. “Because that is such an amazing gift, sometimes we have to stand back and look at our lives and see how we’re not living up to that in the ways that we should.”
Keep Santa in his place
Remind your children that St. Nicholas is an important saint of the church, not an Amazon delivery man.
“Santa’s great, but we always talk about why Santa brings us gifts,” said Meaghan Turner, director of youth ministry at St. Eugene, Fox Point, and St. Monica, Whitefish Bay. “It’s because he’s celebrating Jesus’ birthday.”
“You can’t control what happens in school, but you can control what happens in your house,” said McNeil. “It’s up to the parents to put Santa in the right context. The feast of St. Nicholas is a wonderful time to talk about how St. Nicholas was a bishop of the church, and this was his outreach to people who are poor. Draw on some of those traditions of the chocolate coins – it’s not just a present-fest.”
Don’t forget the other feasts!
“There are lots of great feast days in Advent that have great cultural celebrations surrounding them,” said McNeil.
In addition to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8 (a holy day of obligation) and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, there’s also the feast of St. Lucy on Dec. 13. Commemorating this martyr’s life could present an opportunity to pray with your children for modern-day Christians who are persecuted for their faith. There is also a Croatian folk tradition of planting wheat seeds on St. Lucy’s feast day that will grow into grass by Christmas Day, when it can be used to pad the creche.
For more ideas on ways to celebrate feast days, visit catholicculture.org.
Pray for your Christmas card list
Turner recommended placing Christmas cards in a basket in the middle of the dinner table. At dinnertime, let each family member draw a card, and pray for the sender.
Turn secular traditions toward Christ
Cathy Krol, director of religious formation at St. Charles Borromeo, Milwaukee, said she encourages students to embrace their Catholic identity no matter in what Christmas tradition they’re participating.
“With a lot of these traditions, we try to point out, where is it centered? Where is Christ in all of that?” she said.
“When kids come home and talk about their Christmas school party, give that context. Ask them: ‘Do you remember why we do this? It’s really not about Santa, it’s about Jesus coming into the world,’” said McNeil.
Chmielewski recommends “doing the good old Catholic thing and take something that’s in place and connect it (to the church).”
If you’re uncomfortable with certain traditions that take the focus too far from Christ, there are often more spiritually centered alternatives. Some Catholic families prefer “The Little Christmas Angel” to “Elf on the Shelf.” Not unlike the mischievous visitor from the North Pole who moves around the house at night, the Little Christmas Angel wants to spread Christmas cheer – as well as the Good News of the Gospel.
Let your good deeds ‘cushion’ the baby Jesus
“I always put out yellow yarn, and for every good deed my daughter does – or for a good deed that she points out my husband and I do – we get to cut a piece of it and put it in the manger for Baby Jesus,” said Turner. “We really want to make this beautiful, cushy manger for Christ with our good deeds.”
Read the ‘O Antiphons’ around your Christmas tree
Larson calls these prayers, which accompany the Magnificat canticle of Evening Prayer from Dec. 17 to 23, “Advent for procrastinators.”
“If you’ve gotten distracted and maybe not done what you wanted to do up to that point, you can really refocus and use those as prayer,” she said. “They’re just beautiful prayers for children to hear.”
The O Antiphons can be sung or recited, and can be found in their entirety at www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/the-o-antiphons-of-advent.cfm.
Look toward Epiphany
A lot of families do the traditional Christmas teardown the morning of Dec. 26. If you can, resist the urge and remember the joy Christ’s birth is celebrated in the church through the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, Monday, Jan. 9.
“We’re Catholic — we party for 12 whole days!” said Larson. “Epiphany is a great time to build in some family traditions that are more Christ-focused, especially if you don’t feel like you have total control over your Christmas celebrations because they involve a big extended family.”
Tell the story of the Magi and talk about how they sought Jesus, or “chalk your door,” marking the main door of your house in a traditional blessing.
“If you leave it up, it’s a reminder every time you walk by it of the fact that you want God to be present in your home,” said Larson.
Use Christmas gifts as a teaching moment
“A wise mom once told me that their children each get three gifts for Christmas — just like the Wise Men brought Jesus,” said Turner.
Not only does it prevent a focus on materialism, it reinforces an important detail of the Nativity story.
And don’t forget your godchildren.
“My husband’s godmother still sends him an Advent wreath every year,” Turner said.
It can be a great way to maintain an important spiritual relationship as the liturgical year dawns.
Take advantage of parish resources
Consult your parish bulletin and/or website to see what programs will be offered for the season.
“If they don’t have something in-house that they’re posting, you can go online and find places,” said Chmielewski, who recommends the “Sacred Advent” daily email from Loyola Press.
Make your Nativity set interactive
For a Catholic home, the Nativity set is the ultimate symbol of the season. Make it accessible to your children.
“If you have a fancy glass one that nobody can touch, make sure that you have a plastic one that your kids can play with, if you have young children,” said Larson. “If you decorate your whole house with Christmas stuff, make sure that kids know that the Nativity is the most important piece.”
Turner recommends having the Mary and Joseph figurines “travel” around the house to mimic the journey to Bethlehem.
“We usually start upstairs, and each morning or night we move them somewhere different, together as a family,” she said. “Christmas Eve they find their way to the manger.”