“Build God-centered anticipation and expectancy and excitement into your home — especially for the children. If you are excited about Christ, they will be too. If you can only make Christmas exciting with material things, how will the children get a thirst for God? Bend the efforts of your imagination to make the wonder of the King’s arrival visible for the children.”
-John Piper, “Prepare the Way
When I was a child, my parents began doing this weird Christmas tradition every year called Advent. I wasn’t sure what the word meant when I was small, but I loved the tradition of lighting candles and reading Scripture during the month of December. It wasn’t until Christmas Day when we were allowed to light the white “Jesus candle” in the middle of our wreathed set of tapered candles. I didn’t know anyone else who included this type of practice in their Christmas traditions, but I loved it. Here’s what I’m saying: my family was participating in Advent before it was cool. There were few resources in the 80’s and 90’s, so my parents went the simple route of Scripture-reading and candle-lighting. Those two elements are the core of my own Advent practices today.
Although Advent is now a trendy, acceptable practice among believers and although Pinterest is bursting with things you can work into your Christmas rhythms, I’ve kept it relatively simple because simplicity is kind of the point of Advent. We’re pushing back against the culture of holiday busyness, excess, consumerism, and greed by stilling our hearts while we lavishly spend our time thinking about Jesus. It’s the best kind of decadence.
I won’t get into the history or origins of Advent, but I’ll give you a quick synopsis of the purpose of it. The word Advent means “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.” Jesus fits that definition as the world was waiting for Jesus, rescue, and reconciliation to God. In Christian circles, Advent refers to the first and second coming of Christ. To celebrate the season of Advent simply means to look back at the first coming of Christ and to look forward to His next one. Christmas is often the busiest, most expensive, and simultaneously the emptiest-feeling time of the year. That’s because we have largely missed the point of Christmas.Christmas is often the busiest, most expensive, and simultaneously the emptiest-feeling time of the year. That's because we have largely missed the point of Christmas. Click To Tweet
The point of celebrating Christmas isn’t to give gifts, visit family, or put up Christmas trees. It isn’t to clutter our schedules with church events, parties, or shopping. We enjoy doing many of those things during Christmas, but the purpose behind each expression of Christmas cheer or generosity should be Christ. Our Christmases should be saturated with the gospel because the gospel is God’s gift to us through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the baby in the manger.Our Christmases should be saturated with the gospel because the gospel is God's gift to us through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the baby in the manger. Click To Tweet
Advent is a way make sure our hearts are fixed on Jesus. Advent reminds us to drink deeply of the truth of the gospel at Christmastime.
Traditionally, the celebration of Advent involves lighting Advent candles, which are color-coded for meaning (I deviate from this practice by using red and white candles because I’m not a fan of pink or purple at Christmas time). The meanings differ within different denominations, but personally we don’t focus on the candles’ meanings. We use them for anticipatory reasons. Beginning on December 1st, you’ll start with one candle and light an additional candle each week (one candle on week one, two candles on week two, etc.) until you light the Christ candle on Christmas Day celebrating His birth. My kids particularly love the candle-lighting (and especially the blowing-out of said candles!).
Even before we had children, my husband and I picked an Advent reading guide (and for a couple of years, my husband wrote his own for our church, one of which you can download free here) and lit our Advent candles. Advent is special when you have children, but it is not just for families. Advent can be done as a widow, as singles, as empty-nesters. Advent is for everyone who longs to turn their heart toward Jesus. And Advent is for everyone whose heart feels sluggish and empty during the holidays. No matter who you are, Advent can be celebrated as a means to remember the scandalous first coming of Jesus and to hope for His second coming.
We’ve read some really fluffy Advent books with poor content in the past, but we’ve also found a few that we’ll hold on to. Last year we read John Piper’s Advent book, The Dawning of Indestructible Joy. So much rich truth there! It might be a bit heavy for homes with young kids, but I would still recommend it to anyone. This year we’re reading my friend Shauna Letellier’s (FREE!) e-book, Remarkable Advent.
Shauna has a gift for re-telling familiar Bible stories in a way that’s fresh and engaging while never deviating from the same, never-changing truth of the gospel. We’re enjoying her Advent book so much this year! Additionally, we’ve enjoyed some of Arnold Ytreeide’s Advent storybooks in the past, beginning with Jotham’s Journey. The readings are quite long, so you’ll want to make sure you give yourself plenty of time to read these to your elementary-aged children.
When our oldest son was small, I made a cloth Advent calendar with detachable characters to follow the reading that Noel Piper wrote for her calendar (which isn’t for sale anymore, sadly). We read the story each night of Advent, adding a piece from the calendar to the nativity scene at the top. You add a sentence or paragraph to the story each night, which means by the 25th, you’ve read the story twenty-five times which helps young children memorize the story of Jesus’ birth without realizing it. Because the calendar isn’t available for purchase anymore, you might try something similar with a Jesse Tree and the companion readings. My friend Suzanne has some great resources for this here.
The final piece of our Advent tradition is one we stumbled upon accidentally. For a few years we took part in a thirty day gratitude project that involved writing down what we were grateful for during the month of November. One year I forgot to do it (I believe we had a newborn baby that year), so I combined it with Advent, and now it is an important part of our Advent celebration. Each night we write down what we’re grateful for on a pennant that I string together across the door facing of our dining room.
By the end of the month, it’s difficult for each of us to come up with new things to be thankful for, but that’s the point–to dig deep for gratitude during a month that is often very saturated with thoughts of what we can get for ourselves.
I’m not a super crafty person, so if I can do this, you can, too! It involved inexpensive supplies: Christmas craft paper, scissors, $1 pack of mini clothespins, a marker, and some ribbon. (This year’s pennant is mingled with a pack of cards from Gracelaced.) When the holidays are over, you can take your pile of thankful pages and store them in a ziploc bag to read through in the years to come so you can remember God’s past faithfulness to you.
It might sound like a lot to do each night, but it only takes about fifteen minutes. We light the candles, fill out our thankfulness pennant, work through our day on the nativity calender, read our daily Advent reading, sing one or two Christmas hymns, pray, and then let the kids blow out the candles. It doesn’t have to be complicated or long to have meaning. It just takes persistence and open hearts. You will not regret taking a few simple steps to help your family or your own heart look at the glory of our Savior each day.
If you find that you feel enslaved to your traditions at Christmas, let them go. Traditions are meant to serve us, to be vehicles for fixing our gaze on Jesus.Traditions are meant to serve us, to be vehicles for fixing our gaze on Jesus. Click To Tweet
If your traditions are make you feel panicked rather than centered on the gospel, it may be time to strip down your Christmas and pick one or two simple ways to focus on Christ. It might be as simple as lighting some 75 cent taper candles and reading a few passages from your Bible. My Advent Pinterest board has several reading guides you can use.
Additionally, you might enjoy listening to John Piper’s three minute Advent devotional, Solid Joys. They’re so short that you can begin today and catch up easily. You can find it here on iTunes or here in your browser. I have loved each reading (I would recommend the audio versions). I don’t know how Piper can write about a familiar subject so beautifully and poignantly, but he does. Do yourself a favor and subscribe to Solid Joys, which will continue with a 365 day reading for 2018. You can listen or get the transcription in your inbox each day.
You’ll notice that most of our traditions involve some kind of countdown feature. While it does build up excitement for Christmas Day, the underlying purpose is to build up anticipation for the second coming of Christ. In our day-to-day living, the yearning for Jesus’ return gets squelched and quieted by all that tethers us to our temporary citizenship. Advent helps us remember to long for a new heaven and a new earth and the Groom who is coming for us.
I have a couple of books I pull out every Christmas to read to my boys.
The first one was given to us by a family friend, and we have so enjoyed it. Just Nicholas by Annie Kratzsch gives an interesting and accurate background behind the story of Santa Claus, or as he should be known: Saint Nicholas of Myra. Because we don’t do Santa, this book has helped us explain to our sons how the true story of a generous man who loved Jesus morphed into the fairy tale that it is today. It helps bridge the cultural gap for us, and helps us explain why we do things differently in our home.
If you love The Jesus Storybook Bible, you will also love Song of the Stars by Sally Lloyd Jones. As my husband and kids can testify, I cry every single time I read this book aloud. It is beautiful in its short account of how the earth prepared for the coming of the Baby Savior. I adore this book.
If you’re not sure where to begin, start small. You don’t have to go from zero to ten on the scale of Advent creativity. If you’re at zero, try to be a one or a two on the scale this year. There’s no need to be a ten, really. Start small and build into your holiday rhythms some simple ways to set your gaze on Jesus throughout the Christmas season. Don’t try five new things every year. Do the same simple things every year. That’s what your kids will remember when they’re grown and beginning their own Advent traditions. All they really need is for you to set the stage for everyone in your home to turn their faces to the beauty of the Incarnation of the Savior who left heaven to live and die and live again so that we could be free. And the good news after the good news? He’s coming again. But it won’t be as a baby in a manger. It will be as Warrior-King coming for His Bride.Advent is a way make sure our hearts are fixed on Jesus. Advent reminds us to drink deeply of the truth of the gospel at Christmastime. Click To Tweet
Happy Advent, friends.
May Christ dwell in your hearts richly.