Children are probably most amenable to fetching activities that mark the liturgical season of Advent, because they see the world through eyes of wonder and innocence. Through their purity of heart, we are more apt to remember the gift of the Christ-child that awaits us on Christmas Day. Why not encourage your child to truly enter into Advent with intention and expectation?
Most of us tend to leap from Thanksgiving to Christmas due to the cultural pressure of celebrating and feasting with lights, festive décor, and rich foods. As Catholics, we know part of our challenge is to step away from the feasting and enter into the fasting first and foremost. Here are some ways to keep things simple, yet hope-filled and fun for your child this Advent season. (Note: My daughters are 5 and 2 ½, and this is the first year they both have truly understood the following activities. My recommendation is to start teaching your kids young, but increase your expectations and level of difficulty according to mental, rather than chronological, age.)
Most of us will find vast arrays of “Advent calendars” in the big box stores, but these are really just glorified countdown-to-Christmas calendars filled with trinkets and chocolates – definitely not the authentic way to prepare our hearts and homes for baby Jesus on Christmas Day. While the rest of the world skips Advent altogether, we can create a meaningful family activity that just might turn into an annual tradition. What I love about the Jesse Tree, besides the fact that you can personalize the way you make the tree in myriad ways, is that you are also praying with your children as you read the Scriptures corresponding to each day’s ornament.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Jesse Tree, it is much like a countdown calendar in the fact that each day has a specific ornament pertaining to a reading in the Old Testament, beginning with Creation (and everything preceding Jesus’ birth) up to the Incarnation in the New Testament. Many also include the O Antiphons, which are traditionally prayed at Vespers on the seven days prior to Christmas.
Begin by creating your tree, which can be anything from a small, artificial evergreen to a large, homemade felt tree. Ornaments can also be made to last if you opt for a kit that includes patterns for sewing felt images as a hanging ornament. Some ornaments can be printed or drawn freehand. Here is where your creativity sets the stage for how your family will join together to make the Jesse Tree experience a lasting impression. Once you determine what medium to use for your tree and ornaments, then you can enjoy decorating each day while listening to someone in your family read the matching Bible verse.
The sacrifice manger is something my girls are finally participating with gusto this year. In years past, I introduced them to this kid-friendly Advent activity, but they didn’t fully grasp its meaning. Preschool age is a perfect time to bring this beloved tradition into your family’s preparation for Christmas. Essentially you can either purchase a manger or make one as a family, which is more fun. We selected a small wicker basket for our manger, but you can make one out of anything from paper and cardboard boxes to popsicle sticks or tree branches. The concept is to create a shoebox-sized “manger” and then cut something soft, like yarn or string, into small pieces that your children can – one by one, day by day – add to the makeshift manger.
In order to “earn” a piece of yarn, the child must make an intentional sacrifice that is age-appropriate. For instance, my oldest daughter has earned pieces of yarn for picking up her toys without asking, clearing the table without complaining, and sharing her toys with little sister unprompted. Little sister earns hers by using her manners, asking before she picks up an object, or taking turns without a tantrum.
The goal, then, is for the manger to be filled with soft “hay” by Christmas Day, when you will actually place “baby Jesus” in His bed. As with the manger, you can make one out of paper or fabric, cut an image out of a Christmas card, or purchase one.
Visit a Living Nativity
This is one Advent tradition that my parents established over twenty years ago, a much-anticipated and beloved activity that drew me out of life’s hectic buzz and into the cadence of solitude and tenderness that only an infant could evoke in one’s heart. Nearly every community has at least one church that reenacts the First Christmas with a crèche, people dressed up as Our Lady and St. Joseph, and live animals! Baby Jesus will usually be a doll wrapped in swaddling clothes due to the frigid temperatures in most parts of the nation. Unlike a Christmas play or pageant, the Living Nativity has no acting. Instead, all of the participants simply sit quietly with the Christ-child, which invites one to a more contemplative preparation for Christmas Day.
Children of all ages love this tradition, not only because the animals are a sure hit, but also because seeing people dressed as Mama Mary and St. Joseph brings to life something that was a story they imagined in their minds. It is a powerful way to naturally converse about all things Christmas.
Advent Calendar with Action Items
Instead of purchasing the aforementioned fraudulent “Advent” calendar at the grocery store that is filled with one chocolate (or candy cane or candle or whatever trinket) per day, why not make your own? It’s simple and worth the effort. Mine is a shadow box with twenty five compartments. I purchased the shadow box, but I made small drawers that fit neatly inside the compartments and hold whatever I choose. Each drawer has a number on it to correspond with the days in December. Of course, Advent typically begins at the end of November, but you can make yours without numbers to make it more conducive to the full rhythm of Advent. Inside the boxes, we put slips of paper that have a Scripture verse, an action item (some unofficial corporal work of mercy), or a challenge for spiritual development (such as remaining calm or patient throughout the day, keeping one’s mouth shut instead of yelling or arguing, etc.). Each paper is to be a day’s goal, and at the day’s end, we discuss how well (or difficult) our challenge was.
Reenact the First Christmas
My girls love playing dress-up, so there’s nothing more exciting than for them to pretend they are recreating the First Christmas. Typically my oldest will innovatively find some obscure towel or scarf and use it as a head covering so that she can be “Mama Mary,” then find another towel to wrap around one of her dolls as baby Jesus. By default, Sarah gets to be a shepherd or one of the animals, while Ben is St. Joseph and I am whatever is left – the angel or one of the Magi. The girls will then start with Mary and Joseph’s journey out of Nazareth to Bethlehem and reenact everything they know from memory about the events leading up to (and including) Jesus’s birth. Ben and I fill in the details as needed.
You and your family can enjoy an evening together doing the same. In our house, these types of things happen spontaneously, but you could even plan an evening in order to build anticipation. Some kids who really get into this may create props and even write a script for the family play. Allow your children to take the reins and be the facilitator so that they will glean the most learning from imagining what life was like for the Holy Family. A great wrap-up is to have a short discussion afterward and to read the Christmas story from Luke when the play is complete. Record it on camera for permanent memory-making.
Advent is a time of intentionality in our lives, which is often fraught with distractions from the monotony of routine or – this time of year – the flurry of busyness that the world calls “preparing for Christmas.” As Catholics, we inherently recognize that Christmas isn’t about grandma’s famous sugar cookies, trimming the tree, or purchasing a plethora of gifts. We hear this time and again, but we get wrapped up (pardon the pun) with the traditions of our relatives. While these preparations aren’t wrong, we often lose the most critical time we have in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day, because we are too frazzled with commitments, appointments, and holiday parties.
This year, make Advent one to remember – and one that your kids will thank you for – because everyone in your home will begin the season of Christmas on Christmas Day rather than the day after Thanksgiving. Be intentional, and your children will follow suit. Calm your heart and quiet your mind with these simple and often homemade activities that set the tone for a grace-filled holiday.