Thursday, November 5, 2009

An Advent Primer

'Tis the season to start planning! In most of the secular world, that "planning" is targeted at Christmas, and the malls are decked and the gift lists compiled earlier and earlier each year it seems. But, in our household, as in many other Christian homes, we don't start planning for Christmas in October. Oh, sure, I admit I even start nabbing up appropriate presents on sale in July, but I don't really start planning for Christmas this early in the season. I do that during Advent, and I start preparing for Advent...hmm...right about now.

It was very apropos, then, that I received this question from a reader a few days ago:

I'm a Protestant whose family never celebrated Advent. I find myself wanting to observe Advent this year in some way, even if I don't go all-in with it, but I don't know where to start. Is there any resource that you would recommend--book, website, anything--that would help me get started and provide me with some options even if my husband chooses not to observe Advent with me?

Advent literally means "coming," and it is a four-week season that precedes Christmas. It is meant to be a season of penitence, reflection, and fasting, but as we all know, this is hardly the tenor or focus of the four weeks that precede Christmas for most people. Usually, the season of Advent can be categorized for contemporary Americans by business, exhorbitance, indulgence, and stress. Many Christians try to step back from the temptation to follow the crowd in this regard, but all too often what they end up with is a period of time that doesn't feel preparatory; it merely feels ordinary. We know that we don't want the weeks before Christmas to feel "ordinary," and so we feel torn between cutting back and giving into the secular siren call. In either case, how we usually feel by the time Christmastide rolls around is exhausted and dissatisfied.

Advent provides a wonderful balance. It is not ordinary time; it is a season set apart in anticipation of the great feast and celebration of Chistmas to come. The very penitent nature of the season prepares us to surrender completely to the celebration of Emmanuel, God with us. The more we surrender to Advent, the more our hearts will be ready to receive the gift of the Christ Child, just as Lent prepares our hearts for the gift of our Resurrected Lord.

That might all sound well and good, but it still doesn't explain how one goes about actually celebrating this holy season. I'm sure I'll write more throughout the season, but here is a primer to help you get started in exploring the many wonderful traditions and customs that make this sacred season so wonderful.

  1. Remember that Advent is a seaosn of PREPARATION for Christmas. Advent is not Christmas. This distinction may look different in different homes; it's the principle that counts. So start thinking about how your Advent can differ from you Christmastide.

    For those who think Christmas just comes of its own accord and requires no preparation, I offer the analogy of a birth in the family. Of course, the baby is going to come at the end of gestation whether you prepare for it or not, but you do prepare. You go to lamaze classes, you set up a nursery, you pray, you reflect, you journal, you anticipate. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Christ. Moreover, we are looking forward with hope to His Second Coming. He's going to come, anyway, of course. But, it will be better for us if we're ready for the celebration!

  2. Advent is about PLANNING. Gifts, festivities, devotions, worship, decor, and above all food are integral parts of the Christmas feast. Rather than starting to plan for them at Halloween, give them their proper place and use the peaceful season of Advent to plan and to slowly acquire what you need. Of course, if you make gifts by hand or you see a sale, you'll likely start planning for that particular arena around summertime. Still, I find that if I do most of the other Christmas planning during Advent, I'm more likely tostay focused on the spirit of the season, rather than getting holiday overload by December 1st.

  3. Advent is PRAYERFUL. In our home, this involves an Advent wreath with accompanying devotionals each night, increased times of prayer and reflection individually and as a family, an emphasis on a prayerful attitude especially in our relationships with others, more frequent attendance of daily Mass if at all possible, and on Christmas Eve a blessing of the Christmas Tree. Methods of prayer are, by and large, a product of culture. How you experience God in prayer may look very different from how my family does. That doesn't matter; the important thing is to put some additional time and effort into communing with God in preparation for Christmas.

  4. Advent is PURPLE. The traditional color of Advent is purple, the color of penitence. In fact, the other purple season in the Church is Lent. Rather than decking the halls in red and green, why not considering donning some purple decor. It will help you and yours keep in mind that this season is not Christmas; it is the preperatory, prayerful, planning season that precedes Christmas. It helps to have a visual reminder of this distinction.

  5. Advent is PENITENTIAL. When Jesus was born, three wise men brought Him gifts: gold for his Kingship, frankincense for His priesthood, and myrrh for his death. Christmas, Christ's Coming, necessarily points to the Cross, the reason He came. Just as Christmas is a foretaste of Easter, so Advent is a foretaste of Lent.

    In preparation of the celebration of Christmas and in anticipation of the day when Christ will return, we take time to reflect on our spirituals journeys, to take count of our shortcomings, to ask God's forgiveness, to seek absolution, to make reparation for our sinfulness and the fallness of our world. We give alms, we fast, we pray, we confess our sins, and we ask God to take us deeper into the life of faith, to make us more like Him.

To help you further in your exploration of Advent, here are some resources that I have found helpful in my own experience. Remember that in order for any tradition to be worthwhile, it must resonate with you and your household. We can't cherry-pick our doctrine, but we can and should cherry-pick our devotions. I hope these resources will help you in that endeavour.

Internet Resources:

My favorite literary resources for Advent:

Please, share your favorite resources here! Obviously, a great many of my resources are written for Catholic Christians, though I believe that many if not all of them are applicable to Christians of varying denominations. If you have resources that written specifically from a Protestant standpoint, I'm sure some of my readers would be very grateful. And, for my Catholic readers, I would really love a good book for celebrating the Immaculate Conception with my children. As of now, I don't know of any; so, if you have one, please pass it on.

Best wishes for a blessed Advent season, from my home to yours!


  1. My favorite Advent 'resource' would be the little Advent booklets provided by my (Methodist) church. When I was little I remember that everyday after we went through the scripture reading and story (and of course, lighting the candle and singing), there was a section of the booklet to cut out and at the end you can turn your cut outs into a paper chain for the tree! We did that every year. It was a lot of fun. I would recommend just asking your church what they have for Advent. Our church also does an Advent wreath making event at the start of the season every year. Maybe if your (the commenter's) church doesn't, another local one does?

  2. Thank you for this! This is a topic that I've been thinking about a lot the last few weeks as the weather changes and I start to get that Advent/Christmas feeling. The other years I've put up Christmas decorations in December like everyone else I know (my social circle is completely secular, I'm the only practicing Christian, let alone Catholic, I know), but this year I have a feeling I'm going to be making a one woman stand for Advent + the 12 days of Christmas. ;-)

    I've put a lot of thought into how I should decorate for Advent without it being Christmas decorations, and I had decided that I can start with typical winter decorations (lots of greenery), but saving special things like holly for Christmas itself. And lots of lights, to "light the way for the Christ child". It hadn't even occurred to me to use purple on anything except our Advent wreath - thanks for that! Then I can bust out the red and gold and white at Christmas.

    I'd love to hear others' decorating ideas.

  3. Thank you for this post, Bethany. The resources you linked to were very helpful as well. I have some things to think about regarding what Advent will look like in our home.

  4. Great overview! I really love Christmas, and this year, my 2 year old gets the "baby Jesus" concept (and loves her some Jesus, too!). I linked to this on my weekly roundup, post is here. Thanks!!


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