Reclaim the Gifts of Advent. Cultivate Empathy and Kindness as forms of Hope and Patience. Fight Back Against Current Traditions of Fear and Consumerism.
Advent Calendars, traditional and digital
Traditional Advent calendars, featuring small chocolates or treats like tiny Lego constructions for each day, have long been favorites for this season. There are all sorts of Advent calendars that fit this description. These can even be paired with a calendar like those listed below that emphasizes spirituality as well. The advantage of these digital or nontraditional Advent calendars is that you can share this tradition even in the midst of busy-ness, if your kids split time between you and another parent, or in the midst of geographical separation.
Busted Halo: Probably one of the first online Advent calendars, dating back at least 7 years, this quick and easy calendar offers a short quote and a simple but profound #microchallenge, like “Instead of pulling out your phone in line, strike up a conversation with someone in line.” The site also has a great, accessible and short video about what Advent is. Daily quotes come from spiritual giants like Desmond Tutu to comedic geniuses like Stephen Colbert.
The Economist: (Adults, college-age, upper high school) Each day reveals a new chart or infographic about the state or trends happening around the globe. Some of these graphics fit in nicely with the rather dire, apocalyptic tone of some of Advent’s lectionary readings. With each graphic, spend some time praying for creation and for the people affected by the issues presented by the calendar.
#AdventWord: (All ages) An example of digital formation from Anglicans. Join with others observing Advent in this Anglican-led hashtag calendar. Each day a word is revealed on its Web site or via e-mail. Spend your day looking for an example, snapping a photo or jotting down an observation. At dinner, as you light your Advent wreath, share your finds.
Praying in Color (all ages): Each day, using one of the templates, fill in the day’s box with the name of a person you’re praying for, a word from the day’s Scriptures or a word associated with Advent, a word you need to remember (stillness, slow down, ponder) or just doodle a prayer in the box. Use butcher paper, divided into sections spread across the table for a family activity or creative prayer time after lighting an Advent wreath.
Homemade Creations for the Non-Crafty (all ages): Large jar + homemade questions/words/quotes/Bible verses. Draw one from the jar in the morning to introduce it. Talk about it in the evening around the Advent wreath.
Loyola Press (Adults, older teens, college students): Each day takes you to a short blog post, story, or reflection on the season, offering much conversational fodder or thoughts for reflection. Remember that exams and end-of-semester projects are due this time of year, so adding prayers to that effect in your time together might be helpful or a thoughtful text including a prayer or word of encouragement that we believe in our kids AND that, ultimately, their identity isn’t about grades and performance.
Whisky Advent Calendar: Because Advent calendars aren’t just for kids and because, well, the holidays can be stressful.
Advent Kindness Calendar (All ages) + Sneaky Cards! The world definitely needs more kindness and more surprises of a good kind, remembering what a surprise God becoming human as a helpless newborn was.
Secret St. Nicholas (All ages): Speaking of sneaky kindness, instead of Secret Santa, engage in an Advent version not focused on exchanging gifts in honor of St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6). Gather your group of friends together and assign certain days to them during the Advent season. On those days, everyone else sends them messages via text and social media, encouraging, affirming, and sharing specific things that are meaningful about them. Conversely, gather a smaller group of people do this as a surprise for coworkers, family, clergy and church staff, teachers, or other public servants.
Jesse Trees (Elementary and up):
Long a tradition, the Jesse Tree uses ornaments to represent important stories from Scripture leading up to the birth of Jesus. In a sense, it is a retelling of the story of our salvation through the family of God. The tree also has genealogical overtones (“a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” Isaiah 11:1, from the Second Sunday of Advent).
Grafted Jesse Tree: Adapt this activity include your own family’s “story of salvation.” Set up some interview or conversation time with older members of your family when you visit them during this season or talk with them on the phone. Ask them about their faith, important moments in their spiritual lives and what they want to pass on about their faith in God or spirituality. Record it, if possible, and create a symbolic ornament out of it to add to your Jesse Tree, grafting your family’s story into the broader story of salvation. If your own family isn’t an option, ask someone in your church family instead (Examples of this can be found at StoryCorps’ Great Thanksgiving Listen Project)
LEGO Jesse Tree (all ages, Duplos for younger kids): Everything is better when you do it with Legos, amirite?
Prayer and Preparation
Make an Advent wreath and use it, even if it’s just once a week!
Find a Lessons and Carols service or attend a worship service at a liturgical church, taking care to notice the difference in tone and content from traditional “Christmas season” services.
Preparing the Manger (all ages): One lovely tradition, shared with me by a friend and fellow priest, is to prepare the manger during Advent. Each evening, parents and kids place a piece of straw in the manger for each secret act of kindness done during the day. There’s no rule for telling about the deed or sharing it. Just a simple offering to Jesus to prepare our hearts by preparing the manger. The hardest part of this is NOT asking your kids what they did and gently reminding them they don’t need to tell you, but to talk to Jesus about it.
Nativities: Instead of moving around the Surveillance Elf (Elf on the Shelf), set up your nativity or creche and move the different animals and characters closer to the manger, placing the baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas/Christmas Eve and have the ‘wise men’ arrive on Epiphany. One year, we had G.I. Joes and superheroes at the manger. Lion laying down with the lamb, indeed!
Create your own Labyrinths are remarkably simple to make and a wonderful way during the hustle and bustle of the season to slow your pace. In an open space in your home or basement or in a quiet space in a yard, these can be made simply with tape, string, bird seed, found sticks, logs, or rocks. Folks have even made these atop mountains or in clearings with the simplest of tools (chalk or small rocks for a mountain bald works great) If you’re feeling industrious with a labyrinth at home, place a small treat, word, quote, or Bible verse at the center each day as an embodied version of the Advent calendar. One of my best memories is of watching my then-4-year-old wake up one morning before school, get dressed, and go outside to walk the makeshift labyrinth.
Pray As You Go App (all ages): This is a stunning spiritual resource from a group of Jesuits. Short daily devotions, accessible via their Web site or free app, feature Ignatian Spirituality, gentle, open-ended meditations, beautiful music, and questions that open listeners to the deeper relationship with God. There is the Examen, an Ignatian exercise, adapted for children (5:00) and teens and young adults. Seasonal digital ‘retreats’ pop up for Lent and Advent. Simply lighting an Advent wreath and pressing play on the Examen would be a profound Advent practice.
Advent Conspiracy: This is a resource from the evangelical tradition that addresses the rampant consumerism of this season with a snappy video and a nice call to action, even if it’s a tad heavy-handed.
Create an Advent Mix Tape (middle school and up): Share some of the traditional themes of Advent (hope, waiting, expectation, darkness/light, gestation) and create a family Advent mix, not limited to sacred music. You’ll be amazed by the incredible, collaborative fun you’ll have making this. Be creative. Mumford & Son’s “I Will Wait” or the Dixie Chick’s “I Hope” come to mind as an appropriate, if unconventional, songs. If your kids are active social media users, have them collaborate there. If your kids are away at college or at another parent’s house, exchange playlists and talk about them when you next see each other.
What ideas do you have? What are your traditions? If you’ve tried any of these, what’s worked and what hasn’t?