Advent presents Christian families with a unique challenge. Our Catholic tradition and liturgical calendar tells us that it’s a time of preparation, prayer and reflection on the birth of Christ and His second coming, but our culture is already popping the cork for a party they intend to abruptly end on December 25th. It’s hard to “prepare” when the party is already in full swing.
The liturgical calendar can be especially hard for kids to comprehend in our secular culture. Around this time of year, they are bombarded with images and messages of an alternative Christmas that is perfectly packaged for their consumption. Let’s face it, for a five-year-old, Rudolph and the Island of Misfit Toys are so much more fun than the nativity story. Adding to their confusion is the current trend in generic Christmas euphemisms such as “holiday” parties, “winter wonderland” parades and “family” trees. Even in small town America, it can be nearly impossible to find a public display of a nativity.
As Catholic parents, we cannot let these trends discourage us from teaching and offering our children the true meaning of Christmas and Advent. However challenging, it’s still our job to impart the faith and to do it in a way that our children will delight in and be proud of. So how do we compete with Frosty and Toys R Us? Well, in this difficult task, Advent can actually be our friend. By being faithful in our homes to our Advent traditions, our children can experience the intended anticipation of the season and a much more satisfying understanding of Christmas. By adhering to the liturgical calendar, Christmas lingers into January and culminates on January 6 with another round of celebration and gifts on the feast of the Epiphany.
If you think Christmas is stressful enough without adding the “pressure” of Advent, let alone Epiphany, think again. While the secular culture is stressing to get the cards in the mail and the tree up early, we can take our time. While they hurry to lock up a date for their “holiday” party, we can have gatherings after Christmas when everyone’s calendar is free. We can even wait for that present to go on sale after Christmas and gift it on Epiphany, when the Three Kings come to leave gifts by the sugar-filled shoes of our little children.
To help, I’ve compiled a list of very simple things every busy family can do to keep Advent holy and meaningful – especially for our children.
1. Display your Advent wreath with candles prominently in your home and make a commitment to gather as a family around it nightly or, at the minimum, once a week on Sundays to pray and light the weekly candle.
2. Purchase an Advent calendar – the kind with little doors that kids can open each day to find a piece of chocolate.
3. Place a baby doll that looks like Baby Jesus in a Moses basket or doll crib. Keep a bag of straw nearby. Every time a family member does a good deed, they can place a piece of straw under the baby. If you truly want to be liturgically correct, don’t bring out the doll until Christmas day. The goal of course is to create a soft comfy bed for the Christ-child by Christmas – one truly made from love.
4. Store Christmas books separately and bring them out only when Advent begins. The excitement of seeing these special books appear imparts that feeling of anticipation for Christmas. Make sure your collection includes age-appropriate religious books. Keep them in a basket in your family room where you can remember to stop, take time and snuggle up with your child and a good Christmas story.
5. Display nativities and religious decorations in and outside of your home. My mother lovingly created the entire town of Bethlehem for us. It was rather elaborate (mountains, rivers, animals and houses) and remains an indelible Christmas memory for me. Even if it’s a small, simple nativity, allow your children to unpack and help set it up.
6. Real or artificial, gather around your tree when it goes up to pray and bless it (preferably with holy water). You can go online to find and print prayers.
7. Make family a priority during this time. Whether it’s baking together or cuddling on the couch for a family movie night, let the kids know that this is part of preparing for the Christ Child. Begin and end each activity with a family prayer.
8. Say “Merry Christmas” and refrain from using the popular abbreviation “X-Mas.”
9. On Christmas day, my husband makes the kids sit on the stairs and sing “Away in a Manger” before they can go downstairs to open their gifts. It’s a tradition passed on from his family, and yes, it is a form of torture for our kids who can see the presents from the staircase. However, it does help them in a small way understand that ultimately, this is all about “the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay” – not Santa.
10. Finally, keep Christmas going in your home after December 25. That means keeping the carols playing and resisting the urge to toss the tree out by New Years. If you don’t already celebrate Epiphany, take time to explain it to your kids and plan a celebration with your family. There are plenty of websites and books on the subject.
Rachel started her television career as a pioneer of reality TV on MTV’s groundbreaking reality show, "The Real World, San Francisco" and went on to make numerous guest-hosting appearances on "The View" going head-to head with the likes of Barbara Walters and Meredith Vieira. Along with Florence Henderson, she co-hosted "Speaking of Women's Health" on the Lifetime Network.
She frequently appears on national talk shows and is currently AOL’s resident parenting expert. In addition, she writes a weekly column for Parentdish.com and contributes to blogs for Anderson Cooper’s CNN 360, TheDailyBeast.com, and Catholicnet.com.
Campos-Duffy is also author of a modern guide for at-home moms called, "Stay Home, Stay Happy: 10 Secrets to Loving At-Home Motherhood". You can purchase her book at: http://www.amazon.com/Stay-Home-Happy-Secrets-Motherhood/dp/0451228073