Advent is by far my favorite season of the Catholic calendar. Maybe it’s all the cozy, warm traditions, the sparkling lights, or the world’s general focus on family and loving on one another. Whatever it is, I. Love. It. My sisters and I always spent a weekend decorating all over my parents’ house. It looked like a Christmas decor store threw up in three of the rooms, and it was the best feeling ever. We’d beg my parents to let us do it earlier and earlier (but never until after Thanksgiving). Now that I’m a Catholic mom and diving into the traditions that Advent holds, I’m in love with it even more because of the meaning behind each step of the preparations and living more liturgically. I’ve always wished I had a Catholic mom’s Guide to Advent, though, so that I could get a quick refresh or an easy understanding of the traditions and feast days.
Preparing for Christmas is like getting your home ready for a guest. You do it in bite-size chunks– planning, cleaning, putting out towels, buying their favorite foods, etc. A Catholic family can prepare for Christmas the same way, by breaking up the preparations into chunks spread over Advent. You could start your first week with cleaning out your home of excess clothes, toys, books, etc. that clutter your life. This will set you up well for week two. The next week, center on clearing and rearranging the spaces of your home to allow your mind rest, quiet, peace. Find ways to make the den more cozy, your bedroom more contemplative, your kitchen more streamlined. After the first two weeks (and this is where my Catholic Mom’s Guide to Advent really comes in), the second two weeks can be spent preparing for Christmas itself through decorating and celebrating feast days!
Below, I’ve listed the biggest traditions and feast days associated with Advent so you can easily see the meaning and ways to celebrate each one, and hopefully incorporate these traditions into your home this Advent season using my Catholic Mom’s Guide to Advent. For a more detailed version of the Catholic Mom’s Guide to Advent (along with a TON of other awesome info about our faith, living liturgically, etc.), check out The Catholic Catalogue!
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A Catholic Mom’s Guide to Advent
The Advent Wreath
Long ago, a wreath was meant to remind the people who saw it that spring would come again. Catholics adapted this practice to remind us of the light that comes into the world when Christ is born by adding candles to the evergreen branches. After purchasing or creating your own Advent wreath with three purple candles and one pink candle (traditionally, but any candles may be used), say a blessing over it and then pray around it each Sunday. Light one candle the first week, two the second, three the third, and four the fourth. As we get closer to Christmas, the light of the wreath gets brighter, just like our hope that Christ will come. If you have the purple and pink candles, light two of the purple ones first and the pink one on the third Sunday– Gaudete Sunday, a time of a mini-celebration as it marks the middle of Advent.
The first creche, or manger scene, was attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. When he was visiting a small town in the mountains of Italy, he realized that the hermitage was too small to hold all the people who wanted to come to celebrate Christmas Eve Mass. So, he set up a manger in a cave, with a live donkey and ox. It’s said that worshippers saw infant Jesus lying there, even though he hadn’t brought a baby to the scene. The infant’s holiness shone through him and lit up those worshippers around him. When you set up your creche, leave the manger empty until Christmas Eve, when the baby Jesus arrives. Some Catholic families will put the magi a distance away from the manger at the beginning of Advent, moving them closer and closer each day as we approach the Feast of the Epiphany. If you’re looking for a great kid-friendly creche, we love this Fisher Price Little People nativity scene, complete with animals and all the important people to the story.
Possibly my favorite tradition of Advent, Kristkindls is a way to clear out your heart of anger, jealousy, and resentment towards someone else, just like you do your home the first week or two of Advent. A family writes their names on slips of paper and draws them on the first Sunday of Advent. Of course, if you have little people who can’t read yet, someone needs to help them. Then, you spend the rest of Advent doing small acts of kindness for that person, praying for them, and serving them as Chris would serve us. If you draw your child’s name, you might be less hard on them during Advent. Siblings might do a chore for their Kristkindls when they have homework that needs to be done, share a favorite toy or book, help with homework troubles, listening without interrupting, or coming to an event that’s important to their brother or sister.
The Christmas Tree
The Christmas Tree is most people’s favorite part of Christmas, and I’m definitely no exception. There’s just something magical about turning out all the lights, pouring a cup of hot chocolate (with more marshmallows than are probably reasonable), and watching the Christmas tree glitter in the darkness. Traditionally, Catholics wait until Christmas Eve to put up the tree, but most find a balance between the secular part of the country that says to decorate while you’re putting the turkey leftovers away and waiting until Christmas Eve. We decorate the tree on Gaudete Sunday. It adds another way to celebrate and rejoice that day, while it also gives us more time with our beautiful tree standing tall in the den.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary
On December 8th, we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The Church teaches us that Mary was without sin. Now, she was not without sin because she is divine– that’s Jesus’ thing– but because, through the mercy of our Lord, he bestowed that grace upon her. God gave Mary the gift she needed to be able to conceive, bear, give birth to, and raise the Christ. She is known as being “full of grace” because, like all gifts, she had to accept it from our Lord. By saying “yes” to this gift, God was able to prepare her to, hour by hour, accept the gift of grace which left no room for anything that was not grace. As she grew up, she became more and more like God. Because she is full of grace, there was no room left for sin.
The Feast of St. Nicholas
As the story goes, St. Nick was a bishop who heard of a man who was going to sell his three young daughters into prostitution because he couldn’t afford the dowry to find them respectable husbands. So, to save the three girls, St. Nicholas returned to the house three nights in a row, tossing in a bag of gold coins each time– enough for their dowry into a safe marriage and out of the cruel home in which they grew up. St. Nick is now the patron saint of pawnbrokers, Greece, sailors, children, young women seeking husbands, and more. December 6th is the Feast of St. Nicholas, so, on the evening of December 5th, many children leave their shoes out, only to wake and find them filled with gold “coins” (chocolates) or other small treats. In some places, children write letters to the Child Jesus and leave them out with their shoes. When St. Nick comes that night, he picks up the letters and takes them to the Lord after leaving the treats in their shoes.
The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe
This day is marked as the day that Mary gave Juan Diego the sign requested by the bishop so he would believe that Juan Diego had, in fact, seen the Virgin Mary. Because Mary knows what it is like to be God’s unlikeliest choice, she appears to the lowliest in our cultures. Juan Diego was an Aztec Indian and farmer whose land had been conquered by the Spanish. He had no standing whatsoever among the Spanish conquistadores. When she appeared to Juan Diego, she asked him to go to the bishop and tell him that she wanted a church to be built on the spot where she appeared, to be a source of help and healing for the people of Mexico. Now, this man had no experience with high officials, but he went, twice, and was sent away both times. The second time, the bishop said that he wanted a sign of proof before he would believe him. When Juan Diego went back to the spot where the Virgin Mary had appeared to him twice before, she lead him to a garden filled with roses in the dead of winter. When Juan brought them to the bishop and unfurled his cloak the roses had disappeared and been replaced by an image of the Virgin Mary. The image had been imprinted on the cloak and, to this day, is still in perfect condition. Tests have shown that the average life of the cactus fiber cloth that his tilma was made of is generally 20 years, but for 116 years, the image hung exposed to the elements, along with the traditions of the Church– oils, candles, incense, hands touching it. The feast is celebrated in Mexico on December 12th, but it’s a gift to the rest of the world, too, so make a traditional Mexican dessert (tres leches cake is a favorite of mine). Read The Lady of Guadalupe by Tomie dePaola today to your children, and allow them to decorate your creche or home with roses in the middle of winter.
St. Lucy’s Day
December 13th is the Feast of St. Lucy. This is one of my favorite feasts, despite generally living where it doesn’t necessarily equate with our climate. This feast is all about light in the darkness, warmth during the cold, and not having to get out of bed on a cold winter morning. St. Lucy is the patron saint of the blind and lamplighters (when there were lamplighters). Because she is literally “St. Light,” consider lighting a fire in your fireplace or one in your fire pit out back, and inviting your friends and family to bask in the warmth of the glow of the fire and the Light of the World. Many families celebrate by having the eldest daughter get up early in the morning, dress in a white robe and evergreen wreath atop her head, and serve hot coffee (or hot chocolate) and warm pastries to the rest of the family, still asleep in their beds. Once everyone is served, she climbs into the largest bed (usually Mama and Daddy’s), and enjoys her own breakfast alongside them.