A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Easy Advent

The "holiday season," as it's conventionally known, is supposed to be a great time of fun events and joyful traditions. Yet, for many parents of young children, it can feel very stressful. Details like figuring out gifts for the kids (and not going overboard, plus not going broke) and gifts for extended family, deciding about (and preparing for) travel to visit (or host) family, etc. The holiday season is a time when we just want to do it all! There is so much that is unique, fun, and seemingly essential for giving kids the joy of this time of the year.

Of course, for Catholics, this time of the year is actually the season of Advent, a penitential and preparatory season for the celebration of Christmas. In our culture today, it would be pretty difficult to disentangle oneself (and one's family) entirely from the delights of Christmas during the season of Advent. Nor do we who love the birth of Jesus want to be perceived as grinches during the weeks prior to Christmas Day.

So here are some ideas for having an "Easy Advent" with young kids that can also be spiritually fulfilling as preparation and not too stressful. Pick and choose...don't feel you have to do them all!

1. The Advent wreath. This traditional Catholic practice is a family favorite, which is easy to incorporate into daily life. Simply light the candle(s) before dinner while singing a verse of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" or some such Advent song.

2. All those Christmas cards. We want to pray for our friends and family, but it can be easy to forget these intentions in the midst of holiday busy-ness. Let the cards you receive in the mail be an opportunity. Set aside the day's cards by your Advent wreath, and prior to lighting the candles in the evening, open those cards to show to the kids, and then offer a prayer for these family and friends before you sing.

3. Christmas books. We are blessed - truly blessed - with the material culture surrounding Christmas. It's really the only time of the year with such a multitude of books, songs, and images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. With extra demands, it may be challenging to accommodate the kind of Advent spiritual reading you'd personally like to do, but there are many beautiful Christmas books that can help to prepare your heart (as well as your children's) during the season of Advent. Here's a link to some of my favorite books.

4. Nativity set. It's great if you can have a nativity set available for your children to interact with. The Little People set has been with us for the last ten years. Playmobil also has a set available, and there are many other such sets. Children can play with these on their own (obviously), but it also can be nice to "act out" the story for them with the figures.

5. Sing! There are many wonderful Advent hymns, as well as Christmas songs that can be appropriate during Advent as they help the kids to understand and appreciate the meaning of Christmas. As St. Augustine said, when you sing, you pray twice...so definitely sing!

6. Advent calendars. I hear a lot of complaints from moms who are sick of the Elf on the Shelf and having to make that happen for their kids in the weeks before Christmas, which are already so stressful. Advent calendars are a much easier (and more traditional) way to count down the days. You can buy an empty one and just fill with a piece of chocolate (or something else that's simple) for each day, or it's also possible to find inexpensive pre-filled chocolate Advent calendars.

7. Incremental decorations. Most of us LOVE Christmas decorations. And it can be hard to wait until Christmas eve (as Catholics used to do) to put up the tree, garlands, etc. So one idea is to try to put up decorations incrementally, perhaps on the Sundays of Advent...and try to save the tree for Gaudete Sunday (the third Sunday) or the fourth Sunday of Advent. It can be helpful to save at least SOME decorations for Christmas Eve so the house looks different on Christmas day.

8. Celebrate the feasts! The month of December brings us St. Nicholas (December 6), Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12), and St. Lucia (December 13), among others. Coming from a German background, I find it natural to celebrate St. Nicholas' feast by having my kids leave out their shoes. Candy canes and chocolate coins are not just treats, but opportunities to talk about St. Nick the Catholic bishop who stood for the truth of the faith and also acted generously to help those who were poor. Our family tradition on this day has also been the gifting of matching Christmas pajamas, which the kids love. At times, I've also given them a Christmas/Catholic book on this day: something I'd like them to have, which I know they won't be excited by in the midst of more exciting presents on Christmas day. December 8 is a Solemnity, as we celebrate the patronal feast of the U.S., the Immaculate Conception. So this is a great night for a special dessert or some other celebration. Tomie de Paola's book "Our Lady of Guadalupe" is a great way to teach kids about the December 12 feast. It's also a good day to have some Mexican food or pan dulce. St. Lucia, patroness of light, is a good day to hang up some Christmas lights!

9. Jesus stocking. A cartoon written for a children's magazine in the 1950s showed students making an effort to do something special for Jesus during Advent as a "birthday gift" for Jesus. I recently learned of a way to make this concrete for young children by hanging up a Jesus stocking during Advent. When children do something good for Jesus (putting away their shoes, giving a brother a toy he wants, participating in the family Rosary, eating dinner without complaining, etc.), they can put this present in Jesus' stocking. You can either just write the gift on paper and put it in, or get little tokens or presents to represent those gifts. The idea is for Jesus to have lots of "gifts" by his birthday.

10. Penance and being choosy. Advent is a great time to take on an Advent resolution, akin to the Lenten resolution you might normally make during Lent. Advent is much shorter, so it's not quite the same type of Lenten marathon, but it can assist mindfulness of the preparation for Christmas. A family sacrifice (meat, sweets) can also be great...but don't make your kids hate Advent by making it austere and abstemious while the rest of the US is celebrating! Also, offer some of the stresses (gift-giving, baking, etc.) as penance, mortifications that are a dying to self in that it might not be how we'd choose to spend Advent. It's easy to get overwhelmed at this time of year: pray, offer it to God, grow in dependence upon God when you realize you have too much to do. Say no when necessary, and don't think you have to do EVERYTHING. Lastly, Advent is an excellent time to seek the sacrament of confession. What better way to prepare for Christmas, than by encountering God's forgiveness and mercy!

(For my previous thoughts on Advent, click here and here.)

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