I like that for the Christ follower, Advent historically helps us prepare for Christmas, the birth of Christ. Advent is a season of longing, lament, yearning, and no over-the-top cheerfulness is required! Advent says, "Not yet, but soon." Advent gives Christ followers permission to clear out what isn't working (so many areas of my life where this applies), and ask God, "When will you make good on your promises to us?" Advent is increasing rays of light breaking into confining darkness. Advent says, "The baby is coming, but not here yet."
The birthday celebration continues to Epiphany on January 6, too! But some of these words can be unfamiliar. Some of our extended family are lapsed, post-Christian, and newly Christian. They struggle sometimes to understand the accurate meanings of words Christians use during this season. First, some help understanding this vocabulary:
Advent - (Latin: arrival, coming) approximately 4 weeks (4 Sundays) leading up to Christmas.
Christmas - (Old English: Christ's Mass) the celebration of Jesus' birth, on December 25.
Epiphany - (Greek: to manifest, to show) the celebration of the Wise Men worshipping and giving gifts to Jesus, the king of kings; the first showing of the Messiah to non-Jews. Observed January 6.
Saint Nicholas - a real man, a bishop (leader of many churches) from Myra, Turkey, who was generous with the good things that God had given him, especially to the poor and disenfranchised. Observed December 6.
Two Advent TraditionsHere are some of our family's new traditions from the past 3 years. We're still exploring how best to communicate about Jesus' birth to our kids and non-believing family. I hope these ideas give your family a bright hope in the competing messages this season!
Advent Wreath, Readings, and Crafts
Candles bring special light at dinnertime, as darkness falls. We light our wreath at the end of dinner and talk about each week's theme and how it showed up that day in our lives. Both kids were mesmerized by the flickering lights. Our candles are beeswax, made by Redbird Mission, empowering individuals and bringing justice to low-income areas of the Kentucky Appalachians.
Hope - Week 1, Make recycled cards and send to someone who gives others hope. Read Scripture that defines hope well, and paraphrase it for young toddlers to memorize.
Peace - Week 2, Make a gingerbread house; walk/drive through our neighborhood at dusk, praying for the households and enjoying the lights. Read Scripture that talks about how God and those who love God bring light where there is dark evil. Paraphrase for easy memorization.
Joy - Week 3, Bake, decorate, and deliver Christmas cookies to neighbors and family. Read Scripture that reminds us that our source of joy is Jesus, and joy goes deeper than mere happiness.
Love - Week 4, Finish shopping, wrapping, cooking and other prep with enough time to spend the 22nd-25th simply enjoying one another's presence and enjoying worship. Read the Christmas story each night in the light of the Christmas tree. Have your toddler fill in key words, or tell the story to you!
Saint Nicholas Stockings
As a French and German teacher, I've taught about the European legends and the real Nicholas of Myra for several years. It was a favorite day of mine and students': familiar, celebratory, and a chance to share faith. The public school classroom is not always tolerant of any religion or faith, but when I talked about the Christian bishop, Nicholas of Myra, some students felt comfortable enough to let their peers know that they were Christ followers. December 6th also let me directly challenge one of the (many) ways that American legends and traditions get the original stories very wrong; openness to owning our wrongs is an important first step in genuine cross-cultural engagement. Dare I extend "openness to owning our wrongs" as an important first step in genuine relationships and friendships for teens? I digress.
If you read many of the accounts and legends at the Saint Nicholas Center, you'll discover how the misinformation and lack of education of the Middle Ages contributed to some fantastic and imaginative accounts. For example, the horrible Père Fouettard (Father Whipping) and Krampus (beastly devil) have some origins in a misinterpreted symbol: Saint Nicholas is often shown baptizing 3 youths - the legend became that he brought 3 youths back to life after an evil butcher killed, dismembered, and soaked them in a brining tub (nope, dear worshiper, that's baptism...), the butcher was made to follow Saint Nicholas and punish bad youths (whoa, forget grace). A good starting page is this one, which contrasts Saint Nicholas with the American Santa Claus. It answers some questions that a young child would have. "How is Saint Nicholas different from Santa?" "What is the Santa game that other people play?"
We don't celebrate Santa or even teach our kids about him. Mostly, they are young enough that when other people mention Santa, they stare blankly back and go back to playing. Later, my husband and I tell them simply that, "Santa is a game other people play. We celebrate how Saint Nicholas loved others and Jesus' birthday." Our daughter has just begun correcting her grandpa when he mentions Santa this year, reminding him that "Christmas is Jesus' birthday." Heart love!
How do we teach about Nicholas? On the evening of December 5th, I hang stockings with candy canes, chocolate coins, and either chocolate oranges or real oranges. The candy cane is like Nicholas' bishop miter staff. The coins remind our kids of how Nicholas generously paid 3 girls' dowry money. The (chocolate) oranges can be like "gold balls" or "gold bags," or they can be something sweet and good to share. In any case, only our kid's stockings are filled and once they are discovered and opened on December 6th, we encourage them to share their goodies by giving some away to other family members. Saint Nicholas shared the good things that God had given him with others. We read often a board book with beautiful pictures that introduces just this 1 dowry story and ends on the strong note that God generously gave us Jesus, the best gift of Christmas. Stiegemeyer, J. Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend, Concordia Publishing House, 2003. My 9 month old son pulls this book out of the Christmas book pile every time; he loves the paintings.
Next year, we want to make this sharing more concrete and include the poor more obviously.
As our kids grow, we'll teach them about their stockings. Artisans in India made them, and we bought them through fair trade retailers. Although we could have used our children's shoes (more traditionally European), we decided that beautiful stockings can remind our children of the majority world in a way that their own shoes cannot.
Blessings to you and your loved ones in this season! May Christ and how he lives in you be a true light.