For two-thousand years (give or take!) people have been celebrating Christmas, developing songs, stories, and traditions to tell this most wondrous event, when the infinite God became a humble and helpless baby. Several of these early traditions remain prevalent in our culture. In our family, they have merged together in a daily, worship experience that allows us to align our hearts with the true meaning of Christmas. It is, hands down, my favorite part of the holidays.
Advent, from the Latin word for “coming”, has been celebrated by the church since the early 4th century as a time to prepare. The early church encouraged one another to wait in expectation for the second coming of Jesus by remembering his first coming in Bethlehem. Three purple candles and a pink candle sit together in a wreath, usually of evergreen, around a white candle. During the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, we light one new candle each week, gathering together to sing and read Scripture related to the themes Joy, Peace, Love, and Hope.
From this tradition, emerged the Advent Calendar, meant to mark each day leading up to Christmas (rather than each week, as the candles do). Little windows or boxes are opened to reveal a small gift or sweet. We have a Dickensian style house with twenty-four numbered doors that my husband and I fill, sometime after Thanksgiving, with a piece of chocolate for each of our children. Once we went so far as to put M&M’s in the doors for the weeknights and Hershey Kisses in the days for Sunday, but that was a lot of extra work! In addition to making the entire season fun, we tell our kids to remember Psalm 119:103, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”
Finally, the Jesse Tree, which dates back nearly as early as the Advent season, is based on Isaiah 11:1-4, and uses handmade ornaments hung on a tree to tell God’s redemptive plan for mankind from Creation to the birth of Jesus. When my oldest (now 11) was around 5, we used The Jesus Story Book Bible and some paper ornaments I found from Keeping Life Creative. Since our apartment was small and our Christmas tree already full, we hung them on our Advent wreath. Or to be more accurate, we string them together on a piece of twine which then wraps around the wreath, giving the same effect. We start the season reading about the perfection of Eden and our relationship with God, and end on Christmas Eve with the birth of Jesus, whose life and death made that relationship possible again. The wreath turned out to be a perfect picture of that circle of restoration.
Story time in our house, between December 1st and the 25th, is sacred. We light the candles, enjoy a piece of candy, sing, and tell the story behind every ornament hanging on the wreath before we add a new one to the chain. As the Story is told day after day, our anticipation for Christmas grows, a shadow of the Church eagerly waiting for Christ’s return. As the kids get older, they can take on more responsibility for telling the stories, reading Scripture, or even making new ornaments. However the tradition evolves over the years, I am confident that my children will grow up knowing the reason we celebrate this season.