We Wait in Joyful Hope - Our Advent Traditions

Advent is almost here!! 
I compiled this list as an email response to a friend asking for ideas on how to observe the season of Advent.  These are some of the ways our family has lived this season and I can say they have borne so much fruit for our family.  They have provided powerful memories and will, I pray, continue to do so as these traditions and what they signify become ingrained in our family's memory.  Hopefully, these ideas may be a help to someone else out there as well but please do not be overwhelmed by this list!  For most of these traditions, we simply added one or two each year to what we were already doing.  It was an organic process that began when we were first married and has grown and changed each year.  

If this is your first year trying to incorporate Advent traditions into your family, I recommend only choosing one or two and doing them as best you can, rather than trying to do everything at once and then getting overwhelmed and feeling like you've failed.  NONE of these things is a requirement to have a holy and properly observed Advent.  They are simply ways that we and many others have experienced the season more fully.  Always remember that the best way to live the liturgical life of the Church is WITH the Church in her Sacraments and liturgical life.  Read the daily readings, pray the Divine Office, get to Mass on Sundays and holy days and as much as you are able.  The rest is bonus.

Please feel free to comment or email with any questions.  I may take for granted that some things that I am used to may be completely new to others so I may not describe things as sufficiently as I should!

'New Year's Eve'
The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical year in the Church.  As I once heard the liturgical year called, it is 'time redeemed'.  Real time.  So we have our own new year's eve party the Saturday night before that first Sunday of Advent.  For our little family, this means a fun appetizer dinner held on the floor in the living room, some music, and just time to relax and play.  And no, there is no staying up until midnight :) 

The Jesse Tree 
Every night we put an ornament on and read the corresponding Scripture.  The Jesse tree uses symbolic ornaments to represent the iconic figures, patriarchs, and prophets leading up to the Incarnation.  I love that it teaches salvation history in such a hands on way that the kids remember.  We've always used a small tabletop 'stick tree' that I picked up at a garage sale one year.  I like the idea of bare branches to signify the world before the Incarnation, though some people use their Christmas tree for a Jesse tree.  There are a bunch of different versions of the Jesse Tree if you search online and no 'right' way to do it.  I've toyed with different versions.  I've seen some that last 40 days and some that last 25.  The ornaments can be as simple as paper cutouts printed off the internet or as elaborate as one desires.  We used salt dough to form ours, but they are in sore need of some repair and replacement after several years of use!

The Advent Wreath
Probably one of the most well-known of Advent traditions, we use an Advent wreath at dinner each night and eat in the candlelight.  It's so powerful to see the room get brighter and brighter each week leading up to Christmas!  If you do leave them burning all through dinner, I recommend getting thicker candles.  The skinny little tapers that are sold as Advent candles run out by the third week or so!  Before dinner we pray a prayer (these can be found online or in the Magnificat) and sing a verse from O Come, O Come Emmanuel and light the appropriate number of candles for the week.  On Christmas Eve, the larger Christ candle is placed in the middle and all are lit!

The Advent Chain
The last few years, the boys have enjoyed making an Advent chain to count down the days until Christmas.  My sister gave me the idea of writing a prayer intention on each link in the chain so that as they are ripped off each day, a special prayer is prayed for that intention.  You could also have a work of mercy or Scripture reading to read on each link.

Straw in the Manger
We put the Nativity set out on the first day of Advent and when anyone in the family performs an act of love or sacrifice for baby Jesus, they can put a piece of straw in the manger (or in the stable) so that the Baby has a soft bed on Christmas morning.  I've heard of people doing the same thing using cotton balls as 'wool' to line the manger or yellow yarn to represent the straw.  Another good straw-like substitute is raffia cut down to size.

St. Nicholas Day (December 6)
We grew up with this tradition and it was such a fun way to observe this holy saint's day!  We put out the boys' shoes and they are surprised in the morning with treats inside.  I've simplified things for myself by just doing a Christmas or saint-themed book next to the shoe and a bag of chocolate coins inside (a la one of the stories of St. Nick).

The Immaculate Conception (December 8)
Because the Immaculate Conception is a Solemnity in the Church, we celebrate this day!  I don't have any specific traditions that we do except to make special treats or a dessert and maybe do some extra prayers or crafts in honor of Our Lady.  And, of course, we attend Mass as obligated :)

St. Lucy Day (December 13)
I've made St. Lucy bread the past few years and we eat it for breakfast by candlelight.  I don't have any girls to do the whole waking up the house with the wreath on the head thing, but I did bring the bread in myself for the boys one year and surprised them in their beds.  They loved it.  We also have (electric) candles in the windows that we turn on this day for the rest of the evenings of Advent and Christmas (other people turn their Christmas lights on this day but we don't usually have those kind).  Lucy means 'light' and her life was a witness to Christ, the true Light of the world. 

Extra acts of service, almsgiving, etc. 
This kind of changes every year depending on the opportunities available but it is an important part of the meaning of Advent.  Just like in Lent, we are to make an extra effort to perform works of mercy and help birth Christ into the world in our own daily lives.  This is something I find I need to be creative with because having several young children can limit the opportunities for the 'normal' ways of serving.  To be honest, it is also something I need to be working on more within our family.  We have tried to simplify gift-giving at Christmas and one of the ways we have done so is by donating gifts through Food for the Poor rather than buying grandparents and parents things they don't really need.  I highly, highly recommend it!  Another simple way is to partake in the food drives or giving trees that most parishes sponsor.   Gotta say I love when there are service opportunities that are already organized that we as a family can plug into! 

The Spirit of Advent
I think the biggest (and hardest) 'thing' we do for Advent is treat it as sort of a mini-Lent as the early Church and Eastern rites tend to do.  It's definitely a time for joyful hope and expectation but it is also a time for personal preparation and sacrifice to prepare ourselves not only for Christmas but for the Second Coming.  This is so often forgotten amid the preparations for Christmas (ourselves included!).  We wait in joyful hope.  Just as when a mother is anticipating birth, she prepares and gets things ready, we can still prepare for Christmas, but we must remember that just like that mother there is much that is difficult as we await that little one and we must also prepare our hearts and souls for the person (Person) who is coming. 

In our home, we try to have a very simple weekly menu and keep the house undecorated until the last few weeks.  When it works, we get our tree and decorate it on Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent.  Rather than spring and fall cleaning, we do Advent and Lent cleaning...it seems more appropriate during these times since I hate to do it and it's a good sacrifice!  And we do our best not to celebrate Christmas until it's actually Christmas.  It's really hard to do when you're surrounded by the culture that wants to party and celebrate everything beforehand and then come December 26, Christmas is over, even among many people of faith.  But it has been so worth it.  We try not to be too rigid and pharasaical about it because we know many people don't understand, but in our home, it has been very fruitful to do things this way.  It has made the actual celebration so much more meaningful for us!  Christmas begins when we go to the Christmas Eve vigil Mass and when home, we have a family turkey dinner with just our little family and (of course!) the long-awaited Christmas cookies afterwards.  We finally put on our favorite Christmas music and celebrate!  I love it.  And the treats and special food and music that come at Christmas we appreciate so much more.  It's a lot like Lent...when you have an awesome Lent, the celebration at Easter is so much more profound.  We've found the same thing with Advent so it's something we've tried to make happen more and more each year. 

The 12 Days of Christmas
And, of course, we celebrate all 12 days of Christmas with special days and things reserved just for these days of the year.  Some of it is specifically related to the liturgical year and our Faith.  A lot of it is just fun.  Game days, a trip to the children's museum, Ice Cream Dinner Night, a trip to a shrine etc.  And we try to get together and celebrate with other people as much as possible!  I'll do my best to post more on that later!

I'm pretty sure this year is going to be a bit different with a baby arriving sometime in the middle of Advent but I'm excited to have an Advent baby as well!  There will be some things that we don't get to do (and that's okay) but I have no doubt that the tradeoff of the birth of a new little one and having a newborn in the house will have it's own catechetical lessons and offer plenty of seasonally-appropriate spiritual growth as well, am I right?

May you all have a blessed and holy Advent no matter how you observe!


  1. Awesome ideas Mary! Thank you so much for posting them :)

  2. What a lovely thoughtful post. We also put our decorations up about a week before Christmas, it seems to make them more meaningful. They are then taken down after twelve night. My sons are now adults, but I still like to have customs we follow and to take quiet times amidst the hustle and bustle to contemplate the real reasons we celebrate Christmas. Wishing you all the best for when your new baby arrives and joy and peace for the coming season.

    I have only recently found your blog and am obviously much older than you, but I'm loving it.


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