Thanksgiving is right around the corner and then the whirlwind to Christmas Day begins–parties, concerts, family engagements, travel. Did you know that traditionally, the holiday cheer didn’t begin until Christmas Day? December the 25th is just Day One of a twelve day season of Christmastide that doesn’t end until January 6th!
Does that make your head spin? Some of us are beginning to already feel the holiday stress in the air. Twelve days of Christmas after we’ve already been Jingle Bell Rocking for weeks doesn’t sound appealing, it sounds exhausting. But maybe the problem isn’t with the twelve days of celebration, maybe the problem is that our culture has lost the beautiful season of Advent amidst all the hustle and bustle.
Most families are completely wiped out by December the 26th. We stuff ourselves with holiday cheer from Halloween to December the 24th, and we’re ill by Christmas. We jump right into feasting well before Thanksgiving and by the time Christmas actually gets here, we’re sick to death of the holidays and are itching to get the tree out to the side of the road as soon as the presents are unwrapped.
So what’s the solution? Not celebrating? Just ignore the holiday? By no means. We want to celebrate Christmas and we should. After all, the Incarnation of Christ is a feast of feasts. The solution to holiday burnout is simple, but it’s difficult to practice because it flies in the face of the holiday madness. Let me introduce you to my good friend, Advent.
There is no better way to truly delight in the Christmas season than stepping back, slowing down, and giving ourselves the grace to observe the liturgical season of Advent, a quiet time of reflection, spiritual preparation, fasting, and soul-searching. Set your family calendar with intentionality so that you are spiritually nourished instead of thoroughly exhausted by Christmas morning. This quiet time is a gift from the Church, practiced by Christians throughout the ages–giving you the space to prepare your heart for Jesus.
What Exactly Is Advent?
Advent is the penitential season of the Christian Year in preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It comes from the Latin word “adventus” which means “the coming” because it’s Jesus’ coming that we’re waiting for during this quiet season.
It begins on a Sunday (the Sunday closest to November 30th, the Feast of St. Andrew) so it always begins in late November or early December. This year, it begins November 30th and it continues for four Sundays and ends on Christmas Day when the season of Christmastide begins.
Advent is not a pre-Christmas countdown. And it’s not a list of things you have to add to your already bursting at the seams calendar. It’s your permission to slow down and say yes to only the things that will help you prepare your heart for Christmas. Advent is like the quiet waiting in the early morning for the sun to come up. It’s dark, but hopeful. But how do we set that tone of joyous, quiet expectation?
How Do I Observe Advent?
Don’t worry, you don’t have to add more “stuff” to this busy time of year to observe Advent. There are some simple traditional ways to mark the season, but the whole point is that you should do less stuff. But doing less can be difficult when packed holiday schedules pull you this way and that. It will require some thoughtful intentionality on your part.
Step One: Fasting
Let’s talk about fasting. Sometimes Advent is called “the little Lent” (Lent being the long 40 day season of preparation before Easter Sunday). Fasting is a way to clean your spiritual lenses by giving up certain things. But our culture isn’t too big on fasting, especially not during November and December.
So how do you make fasting part of your family culture during Advent? That really depends on you and your family. Here’s what we do to make Advent look a little different from Christmas. Instead of jumping into the Christmas cookies and celebratory meals, we make lots of soups and simple slow cooker dinners. Simplicity is the key word here. We skip the dessert and we eat less meat and more beans and rice than usual.
Ignoring all the festive recipe pins ain’t easy, but here’s why we do it: we’re human, so we’re sensory. Using our senses to remind ourselves of spiritual truths is a valuable practice. When we sit down to a simple black bean soup, it’s a reminder that “Hey! It’s Advent. We’re waiting for the celebration to begin.”
Simple meals help preserve the celebration of Christmas, because what’s the use of a party without the anticipation? It’s like celebrating Easter Sunday, but forgetting all about Good Friday (which is what makes Easter Sunday so amazing!) The birth of Christ becomes more precious if we first take the time to reflect on the world’s longing for our Savior.
But food isn’t the only way to fast. Here’s some other ways to make space in our hearts for expectations:
- Unplug a bit from TV and social media.
- Use candlelight in the evenings (to remember that while we wait in darkness, the light of the world is coming.)
- Wait until Christmas Eve to get a Christmas tree and decorate, listen to Christmas music, or attend Christmas parties.
Hang on! Am I saying you can’t do any Christmas stuff before Christmas? No, you do what suits your family. Some families prefer to wait until Christmas Day for all the festivities. That doesn’t mean you have to adhere to a list of rigid rules to observe Advent.
We take a middle of the road approach. While meals are simple, music is tranquil, and parties are few for our household during Advent, there are a handful of special traditions that we hold dear and we keep those in the calendar (for us it’s the local performance of The Nutcracker, the community sing-along of Handel’s Messiah, and cutting down a Christmas tree with extended family). Most families have special events that would be painful to give up and I’m not recommending you do. But anything else that fills up our calendars and could contribute to holiday burnout shouldn’t be committed to without careful consideration.
Simple Advent Traditions
The Advent wreath is a common custom to mark this season of the year and a simple one to start with. It’s a wreath of evergreens with four candles (three purple and one pink) and having the visual reminder definitely helps our family focus on waiting for the Light of the World.
One candle is lit each Sunday of Advent (purple, purple, pink, purple.) The purple is chosen because it’s the color of penitence and preparation, the color of the bruised heart. We look at ourselves and see, wow! We need Jesus! Then the pink is chosen for Gaudete (or Rejoice!) Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, reminding us that the joy of Christ’s coming is near and that we wait with hope and gladness. (I love these Advent candle kits because they’re made of 100% beeswax.)
Other Advent Traditions to Choose From:
- Learn a new Advent hymn and sing it as you light the Advent wreath at dinner time.
- Turn the lights out and eat by candlelight.
- String the lights on the tree (the light of the world is coming!) but wait to decorate with ornaments until Christmas Eve.
- Wrap up an Advent or Christmas-themed picture book for each day of the season for the kids to open up and read together each morning (I made a list of some of our family’s favorite Advent/Christmas picture books.) This is especially helpful for toddlers who can’t remember the previous Christmas to get a sense of what we’re getting ready for.
- Listen to hymns and carols that are specific to Advent. (Anybody else’s favorite Christmas song, O Come O Come, Emmanuel? It’s an Advent song! Crank it up!) I’ve created a couple of Advent spotify playlists to tide us over until we’re ready.
- Break up the quiet season by adding some festivity by celebrating St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. (We get up early and get dressed up fancy, go to the early morning Mass, and then cook a big breakfast and open presents. Doing our family gift exchange on St. Nick’s Day helps us keep the focus on Jesus on Christmas Day.) And Katie has a great St. Nicholas cookie recipe!
- Find a good Advent devotional to read to focus your thoughts in a spiritual direction.
- Pray together. We say the St. Andrew Christmas Novena during Advent (you can download a free printable of the prayer).
- Choose a charity to contribute to as a family.
- Volunteer together for a good cause.
- Do a Jesse Tree.
- Sing the O Antiphons.
There are many ways families around the world observe Advent. Many do Jesse Trees or sing the O Antiphons, but we haven’t brought those traditions into our family culture, yet (because adding too many new traditions to the mix makes me start to feel stressed which is so not the point of Advent).
If this is your first year to observe Advent, start small. Order some Advent candles and get accustomed to a slower season. Get refreshed and nourished so that when Christmas arrives your heart is ready to celebrate Our Lord. And you’re ready to feast and crank up the holiday jams.
We haven’t always observed the season of Advent. In fact, we’re still newbies to the seasons of the Christian Year. But a few years ago my husband and I started compiling ideas and recipes for observing the liturgical seasons and released it as a book last year. More than a cookbook, Feast!: Real Food, Reflections, and Simple Living for the Christian Year is a how-to guide to organizing your meals around the Christian calendar with 23 easy, nourishing, real food recipes and practical suggestions for simple celebrations. So check it out if you’re interested in learning more about Advent!