Advent: How We Try to Celebrate Things in Their Proper Season Without Feeling Like Total Jerks

by | Nov 4, 2013 | Advent, Catholic Living, Liturgical Year, November | 27 comments

Now that Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls are behind us, I’m going to make like the mall and jump right in to Christmas. Thanksgiving schmanksgiving, amitrie? (I’m kidding, we do celebrate Thanksgiving. In fact this year we’ll be having 15-16 family members at our house for Thanksgiving, depending on whether new baby has arrived yet.) But I do think now is a good time to start thinking about Christmas, and I wanted to share the way our family’s observation of Advent has changed over the years.
Even before the liturgical year was a part of our family’s day to day life, I “got” Lent. I’m not saying I did it right, but I at least understood the concept. I knew that Lent was a time of penitence and preparation for Easter. And since the more secular, cultural, bunny parts of Easter are not as popular as the secular, cultural, reindeer parts of Christmas, it was easier for me to maintain whatever little focus I had on the penitential part of Lent then, and it’s a no-brainer to focus on that stuff with my kids now.

But Advent? Finding the balance in Advent is harder. As I began to love my faith more and more, I wanted to show that love by going all out for Christmas. But as I began to understand my faith more and more, I got the feeling we were kinda putting the cart before the horse here.
I wrote last week about how we live the liturgical year in our family, and how reading books really influenced how we use the Church calendar to set the rhythm of our year. There are so many great classic books that detail how the weeks before Christmas used to be celebrated (The Children of Noisy Village
comes to mind) as a time of mindful preparation.
Ideally, I think, that’s still how we’d celebrate it today. I think of it like I was planning a big wedding. It would be on my mind months ahead of time. I’d get a few major projects done well in advance so I wouldn’t have to worry about them as the big day approached. Then in the weeks before the wedding I would focus on having everything I needed available and organized and cleaned. I would bake the cake and prepare the food. I would scrub down and decorate the church and the reception hall in the days just before the wedding. I would be prepared to celebrate. We’d have the rehearsal dinner the night before. But what I wouldn’t do is throw a reception or two a couple of weeks before the wedding and eat the cake and the wedding bell cookies and drink all the champagne before the happy couple is even married, before they’re in town even. That would be crazy.
But that’s kind of what I was doing with Christmas. The day after Thanksgiving we would get our tree and crank the carols and string the lights and watch the TV specials and eat the cookies. We would host Christmas parties and attend Christmas parties. And by the time Christmas actually arrived, I was pooped, and about ready to be done with it all. The tree was a totally dried-out fire hazard, and I was sick of Christmas carols and of the kids being crazed candy-cane-and-sugar-cookie-fueled maniacs.
But my free Church liturgical year calendar said I was supposed to be just starting Christmas. That we were supposed to be celebrating Christmas full out for the next eight days, or twelve days, or even twenty-something days, depending on who you ask.   And then still kind of celebrating it for a few weeks after that. 
So, eventually, even though everyone around us was celebrating Christmas in November, we decided to make an effort to back away from Christmas until Christmas has arrived and really observe Advent. 

Here’s what we do to keep Advent.

1. I do all my Christmas shopping before Advent begins.
This is the real reason I’m writing on Advent so early, because this has been really helpful for me. Between the husband and me, I’m the more impulsive and the more likely to overdo Christmas presents.
Of course, you get to a certain number of kids, and it’s all you can do to make sure you remembered to get each of them something, but, still, I’m the one of us more likely to keep thinking of new things I’d want to get for the kids. So it’s really good for me to get all the shopping out of the way early. Then I DO NOT let myself buy more stuff. If I have actually forgotten a particular kid, I ask the husband to take care of it.
It’s good for me and it’s really good for the kids. They talk about what they’d like to get and make their lists for Santa in November, but then it’s over and we don’t talk and talk about what THEY WANT. Instead their focus is on making homemade gifts for siblings and other family members and making crafts and decorations for the house.

And really, who WANTS to be involved in the crazy last minute shopping madness?

Of course, I shop for all the food and fixin’s we need for Christmas dinner, and for the supplies we need for Christmas baking. But other than that, I try to limit even food shopping. I use Advent to clean out the freezer and pantry by using up all that stuff that, for whatever reason, I haven’t felt like cooking. And we eat pretty simply, lots of soups. So I cut down a lot on our normal food shopping.
2. I have separate boxes for Christmas and Advent decorations. 
I am a generally festive person. I don’t think I could bear to come home to a nekkid house when the whole rest of the town is decorated. Even if I agreed with the principle of it. Fortunately, I don’t think that’s necessary.
We decorate for Advent. That means the nativity sets all come out (minus the baby Jesus and the Wisemen), especially the kids’ Little People Nativity
(ours is pretty much the whole of Jerusalem these days, including King Herod’s Castle
— duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh, duuuummmmm), also the Christmas books (we love to read aloud as a family during Advent) our winter dishes, and decorations that are winter-y rather than specifically Christmas. And the Advent Calendars of course. My kids really love the LEGO ones.
We also do Straw for Baby Jesus. My dad built us a little wooden manger that we put on our altar table (but a small wooden crate or a shoe box wrapped in brown paper would work just as well). Also on the altar table, we keep a jar of pieces of yarn (real straw would be great too). During Advent, if I see one of the kids doing a good job on a task, or being kind to a sibling, or doing as I’ve asked them right away, I let them put a piece of straw in Baby Jesus’ manger so it will be nice and soft when he arrives on Christmas. We also let the kids award pieces of straw to each other at evening prayers. Then, last thing before bed on Christmas Eve, we bring the Baby Jesus out (at first he was one of Betty’s baby dolls, but we have a fancier one now) and place him in the straw and sing Away in a Manger.

3. We hold off on Christmas stuff until Christmastime, as much as possible.
We wait until Christmas Eve to pull out the other box, with all the Santa stuff, and the stockings, and ornaments and Christmas movies.
We wait on the Christmas stuff because it creates in all of us a feeling of excitement and expectation and longing. Not just for presents, but for the great event. It’s great that Christmas is a season, but it’s also one historical event that happened at one time in history on one particular day. Celebrating this way has helped us remember that. And keep from getting burnt out.
So when Christmas Eve does arrive, we get our tree and decorate it. We hang our stockings. We put out the Baby Jesuses in all the nativity sets. On Christmas Day we go to Mass and open presents and have our feast and birthday cake and Family Nativity Play. And we’re just getting started!
Each day between Christmas and Epiphany, we have a different Christmas treat (many of which we made ahead of time and froze) and watch a Christmas movie. We take that whole time off of school to eat treats and watch movies and play with new toys. We listen to Christmas Carols, and we’re not tired of them.
We try to throw a Twelfth Night party with a white elephant gift exchange, because it’s still Christmas!
4. We keep Advent (mostly) quiet.
This would all be really hard to sustain if we were watching TV and listening to the radio, since the rest of the world is pretty much doing the opposite thing as we are. So we don’t. We’ll watch an occasional football game we care about, but other than that, I just don’t turn the TV on.
If you have only little kids, I DO NOT suggest that you do this. You will hate it. I was only able to manage this once I had older kids who could help entertain little ones. But even if you have only littles, you could try to avoid the Christmas versions of their favorite shows until Christmas has actually arrived.
The point of this for us isn’t penitential, it’s just to help us focus. And we’re usually so busy that we don’t miss it.
5. We enjoy what Advent has to offer. 
Even though for us, Advent is a season of preparation and not yet celebration, I still think it might be my favorite time of year. Maybe not quite, but I love the getting ready as much if not more than the actual celebrating. I don’t think my kids would say the same, but I do know that they would tell you they really enjoy Advent.
The big kids have a hand in all the decorating and baking, which they really enjoy. And everyone in the family loves our Christmas Novena. We slide it one day so we can do our Christmas tree decorating on Christmas Eve, and not interfere with the family celebrations of other families who join us. I’m sure I’ll post more specifically on it later, but we use this one that I found at Catholic Culture. It’s really beautiful.
We make an Advent wreath and light the candles and say the prayers each evening with dinner.
We don’t do the Jesse Tree, but I know other families really enjoy that.
We celebrate the feasts that fall during Advent. We put our shoes out for St. Nicholas on December 6, on the 9th we have a white party for the Immaculate Conception with all white food and decorations, on the 12th we celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe by wearing braids and eating Mexican Food, and we put our Christmas lights up around the 13th to celebrate St. Lucy (which means light) and we drive around town singing Advent songs and admiring the lights on other houses.

6. We use Advent as a time of preparation of ourselves and our surroundings.
That’s it, really. It’s just been a shift in focus for the kids and the grownups. We focus on the preparation, on the waiting. We talk about it with the kids. They know that we are celebrating differently than other families during Advent, but they also know that once Christmas comes, they get twelve days of of it instead of just one.
Here’s what we don’t do:
1. Refuse party invitations.
Because we’re not Scrooges. Even traditional Catholic organizations to which we belong have their Christmas parties during Advent. Of course, THEY call them Advent parties instead of Christmas parties, but they LOOK an awful lot like Christmas parties to me.

Which is fine. I don’t expect everyone to celebrate the same way we do. We are grateful for invitations we receive and we go where we are invited.
2. Go to parties but make our kids eat only vegetables.
We go where we are invited AND we allow ourselves and our kids to enjoy it. We don’t eat Christmas cookies at our house for ourselves, but when we have guests over or are at someone else’s house, we eat what’s put before us (Luke 10:8). We don’t give the kids presents early, but if a neighbor comes by with a little something for the kids, they get to open it and enjoy it.
3. Think people who do Advent differently than we do are wrong.
We have arrived at this way of celebrating in a slow and steady way, neither the husband nor I grew up doing it like this. We think it works great for our family. But if what you’re doing is bearing fruit for your family, then you should keep it up. And by all means, tell the rest of us about it!
I wish you all a happy and holy Advent, but a fun Thanksgiving before that!

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  1. Emily

    Thanks for posting this! I really want to lock in more Advent traditions to set the mood of waiting that the Church sets so well. Last year, we took our little, fake Christmas tree and instead of decorating it with ornaments, we added a little paper Jesse Tree ornament instead each day. On Christmas Eve, we changed it into a Christmas tree. We also do Advent Time every night and really do a big Sunday tradition. I also appreciate the not 'holier than your Advent' attitude you display, I cringe a little when I see posts like that on my Facebook wall, it feels a little Pharisee, though I hope it is in the spirit of charity.

  2. Tamar

    I love the idea of putting up the lights to coincide with St. Lucia Day! I too stay out of the stores as much as possible during this time, but especially during the month of November. Walking into a store before Thanksgiving and seeing it completely decked out for Christmas puts me in a sour mood.

  3. Jessica

    The idea of getting Christmas shopping done before Advent is genius. We began celebrating Advent last year with a small wreath and Sunday dinners. Do you send Christmas cards? If so, when?

    • Kendra

      We do send Christmas cards. I try to have them out a week before Christmas. But I wouldn't see any problem if they went out during Christmas.

  4. Mary

    We do things very similarly and I'm happy I'm not the only one! We do decorate on Gaudete Sunday otherwise I know I'd be way too stressed out at getting it all done Christmas Eve. I think I'd be the same way with a wedding 🙂 I wrote about it more in detail here in case anyone's interested:
    The Family Advent Plans

    • Kendra

      I like the Gaudete Sunday decorating. Hmmm, we might use that!

    • Emily

      We do something similar… I still leave the Chrisrmassy house decorations in the box until Christmas Eve, but we decorate the tree on Gaudete Sunday. We put the lights on the tree earlier, though– I love the idea of putting them up for St Lucy's day, I never thought of that!

    • Unknown

      My friend has a great tradition of each Sunday during Advent add the appropriate color lights to the tree, going bottom to top (to the star). So purple lights on first Sunday, etc

  5. Amelia @ One Catholic Mama

    This is basically what we do too except on a slightly smaller scale. We don't necessarily watch a Christmas movie every day of Christmas)…but we do have treats every day and don't do school. We don't put the tree up until Christmas Eve, we don't listen to Christmas music or watch Christmas movies before Christmas. IF I actually send out Christmas Cards, I don't send them out until Christmas. Last year I did a Christmas blog post with videos (instead of cards) and sent it out on Christmas Eve.

    But, we will go to parties if people invite us.

    I never get my shopping done before Advent though. We usually do all our shopping online anyway, so crowds aren't an issue.

  6. Cristina

    Once again, lovely, practical and non-judge-y advice 🙂

    Do you give each of your kids an advent calendar of their own or do they share? My boys would faint from excitement if I busted out that lego advent calendar but it seems a little pricey to get one for each of them–on the other hand it also seems like I'd be asking for an Advent miracle to think they'd be happy to just share one 🙂

    • Kendra

      I have two with birthdays that fall right before Advent and they have gotten the Lego calendars as gifts. Then my oldest son packs up all the little pieces up in baggies and puts them back behind the doors. So at first it was just the ones who had received them as birthday gifts, but now we have the old ones for the other kids to use.
      I'd like to think two kids could share one though. They could take turns with the building on alternate days.

  7. Molly

    It's all about finding the right balance – last year I tried not to listen to Christmas music myself until Christmas, but then I found that between people listen to it at work, finding it on the radio and in shops I was still sick of it by Christmas and hadn't gotten to enjoy it. So Christmas music is back on my radar this year, because it just wasn't right for us. Last year we tried to be more intentional about decorations, etc. and that's sticking around – like we put up our tree, lights only on Gaudete Sunday, and then waited to put up our ornaments and that felt right. =)

    I picked up an Advent storybook last year at a sale and can't wait to use it this year – a short story for every night.

  8. hannah&timm

    I grew up with my family celebrating Advent as a preparation for Christmas and now that I am married and we are starting a family we are continuing the tradition. A book my dad would read aloud every year during Advent was The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas by Madeleine L'Engle. Along with my parent's desire to not be drowned by Christmas STUFF long before Christmas Day, my older brother's birthday is December 13th and my mom wanted to make sure his birthday was given a proper celebration so we would not even begin to decorate until after then. It is nice to hear about another family celebrating Advent in a similar way.

  9. S

    Our family is very young and we are still in the process of determining how we should incorporate the living liturgy into our modern calender. Reading your blogs about Hallowtide and Yuletide have been good food for thought 🙂 I really like the balance your family has found between living "in" the world but remaining spiritually set apart from it. Thank you!

  10. Mendels

    You are so inspiring! And it's so true about putting the horse before the cart. I, too, am over Christmas by the time it arrives, but you've given some great examples on how to change that! Our boys (3 and 1.5 years) are finally old enough to enjoy/understand Advent and Christmas. Great post!

  11. Shauna

    I really loved this post Kendra. I too am trying to celebrate Advent with my family. Before I converted to Catholicism I was one of those people who took down their Christmas tree the day after Christmas! 🙂

  12. Holly

    Thanks for sharing all these great posts lately- with your celebrations of Halloween, the Liturgical Calendar, and now Advent. As a convert, I am absolutely CLUELESS and extremely overwhelmed. You've given me a jump-off point. Also, how do you know the difference between an Advent song and a Christmas song?

    • Kendra

      I THINK this is the CD we have. But it's just a different category of songs. Rather than the rejoicing 'our savior has come" type songs, it's songs like O Come O Come Emmanuel, and Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth. On our iPod playlist I also have stuff like I'll be Home for Christmas and It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.

  13. Unknown

    A great article with good ideas. Just one question from my site, why are you celebrating Santa? We do St. Nicolas on the 6th but I dont know why Catholics should celebrate the Santa? ( I am originally from Europe, and it is the same there, some people do Santa and some familys just give presents to bring some Joy the all family members, but without telling their kids the Santa thing).

    • Kendra

      I guess we do Santa because it's a part of American culture. I think it's sweet and fun and easy to tie into our celebration of Jesus' birth. There are plenty of parts of our culture than we and our kids really can't embrace, so it's nice to be able to just go with the flow on this one.

  14. Brynne

    We decorate on Gaudete Sunday, too! I love it, and the tree easily lasts until Epiphany then. I try to balance out living in a largely secular culture by telling our kids we get both, aren't we lucky? Everyone else was done with Christmas last week, but you're still looking forward to presents on Three Kings day! I can't even get mad at the stores full of Christmas because even in their own weird commercial way, they're anticipating the celebration of the birth of Jesus! So much joy!

  15. Nanacamille

    Who's coming to (Thanksgiving) dinner? We thought you were going camping again this year.

  16. Nanacamille

    Who's coming to (Thanksgiving) dinner? We thought you were going camping again this year.

  17. Vidacoco

    Thanks Kendra! This is still one of my favorite posts! Just reread it and took note of a few things!

    • Kendra

      Yes, there isn't anything in canon law that forbids weddings during Advent. However, many churches discourage them (or don't allow them) and many Catholics avoid them because there is a requirement that church decoration reflect the character of waiting of the Advent season, which means no floral decorations in the church. So, if you're looking for a fancy, flowery wedding, it's best to choose a time other than Advent or Lent. One exception is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, when the altar can have flowers. Perhaps could choose a vigil Mass that Saturday?

  18. A M Love

    Just received your Liturgical calendar and love it! I noticed the legend referring to a compendium. Where is that? Have googled and can't seem to find it.

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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