Advent Traditions

Traditions are funny things. Often we establish them without even thinking. We do something one year, and then again, and before we know it, it's an annual expectation. Sometimes we borrow a tradition from a friend. Other ideas we take from the internet. And of course many of our traditions we get from our families.

This past Thanksgiving my two newly-married children encountered a tradition with their new families that surprised them. Both of them married southerners, and they found that instead of a breadcrumb based stuffing like they were used to, cooks down south serve cornbread dressing. It's made with crumbled cornbread, lots of broth, and eggs. Kristen put together her new family's recipe, and she used a dozen eggs for two pans of dressing. Yes, twelve. Neither of my offspring were impressed with this traditional dish beloved of their in-laws. I'm fairly certain that my new son- and daughter-in-law will feel a similar dismay when they sample my sausage stuffing at Christmas!

Christmas is replete with traditions. We sing the same songs, bake the same cookies, attend the same special holiday events, and even watch the same movies -- year after year. Traditions, mindlessly repeated, can become the equivalent of "busywork" which any good teacher seeks to avoid, merely filling time with extraneous activity. But traditions, when built with care, can be helpful things, giving us a structure in which to stop and pause in our busy lives to consider the great works of our God.
Gramps reads a traditional Thanksgiving story

Now nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to celebrate Christmas. Yet as we look at the Old Testament we see how God gave His people a number of annual holidays to teach them and cause them to recall what God had done for them. Take Passover, for example. This holiday, which so beautifully looks forward to Christ's work of redemption, was a yearly reminder of God's deliverance from slavery in the land of Egypt. Even today children play an important role as Jewish families sit down to a Passover Seder. The youngest child traditionally asks several questions beginning with, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" This is a reflection Exodus 13:14 which says: “And when in time to come your son asks you, 'What does this mean?' you shall say to him, 'By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of Israel.' ”

The Advent season gives us a prime opportunity to remind both ourselves and our children and grandchildren exactly what it means that our Awesome God sent His Son to take on human flesh, humble himself by being born as a baby, and live among us! 

Psalm 145:4 says: "One generation shall commend Your works to another and shall declare Your mighty acts." Christmas traditions - carefully chosen -- can help us declare God's mighty acts and to help us all to stand in wonder at and worship Immanuel -- God with us!

When it comes to specifics, this will look different for everyone depending on family makeup and stage of life. But it really doesn't matter if you are single, a couple with no children, a family with little ones, a family with teens, or an empty nester, because the truth is, all of us can be strengthened in our faith by taking time once a year to focus on the Incarnation of the Lord Jesus. 

Let me give you five areas which can be helpful as you consider your Christmas patterns.

1. Advent Devotions!
No tradition has been more important in the Wegener household! When I asked our children what was most important in helping keep the focus on Jesus during this time of year, my kids resoundingly answered, "Advent devotions!"

Advent devotions might mean making a Jesse Tree and studying a different part of God's redemptive history each day. (My friend Michal has written an excellent devotional along this lines!) Or you could study the names of Jesus. Or you could make use of an Advent wreath with weekly readings that you supplement during the week. Options abound!

The devotional we used for many years used felt symbols to represent something in each day's lesson. Through the years Tim and I rewrote it about three times. This year, our grown children are doing a massive re-write to update and strengthen it as they use it with the children they have (or hope to have) one day!

Since we no longer have little ones at home, Tim and I have struggled to find something appropriate for the teens still here. This year we are doing a study on the prophecies and fulfillment about the Messiah. I compiled 25 days of lessons largely using Gary and Wanda Sanseri's Advent Foretold and this link and wrote each day's lesson inside a blank notecard. This month we are having our sons lead the study on some nights. So far it's been good!

2. Memorize Luke 2 (or Philippians 2 or Isaiah 9:1-7)
In our church the children learn Luke 2, KJV, and recite it at our Christmas Eve service. I've found that visuals often help children memorize. From old Christmas cards, it's not too hard to make a book like this one. (More details here.)

Luke 2 book made from old Christmas cards

My daughter Kara, who minored in art history, took it a step further and made a book using pieces of art as illustrations.

From Kara's Luke 2 book

Ready-made books with the straight KJV Luke 2 text can also be found pretty easily.

If you and/or your children already have Luke 2 down pat, some other good Advent passages to memorize are Philippians 2 and Isaiah 9:1-7.

3. Encourage generosity, not selfishness
As a child, Christmas was chiefly all about the getting. I'd sit down with the Christmas Sears catalog and go crazy circling anything and everything that caught my eye. (I mostly wanted craft kits.)  My generous parents indulged many of my whims, and I had great fun with my paint spinner, rock tumbler, and similar presents.

But as a mom, I have wanted to change the focus, so we keep the gift-giving simple. So usually each child receives one gift from Tim and I along with small things in their stockings. I'm not sure, but I think that having fewer gifts actually helps children be more appreciative and less crass.

We've also worked on helping them be givers and not just receivers. We may have helped the older children purchase little gifts for their siblings for a short while, but very quickly our tradition became for each child to choose one other's name, and then make a gift for them. This has become the most anticipated part of our Christmas day celebration. What will everyone have made for their draw recipient? Our offspring have become increasingly creative, and it is such a joy to see their love expressed for one another in the items they spend hours crafting for one another. You can see some of the past year's gifts here (2015) and here (2014) and here (2013) and here (2012) and here (2011.)

Even young children can help make gifts which grandparents, neighbors, and Sunday School teachers will appreciate. Some simple ideas they can make (with help!) are woven potholders, snack mix, apple butter, or pine cone bird feeders. As you brainstorm ideas of things to make and people to give to, watch your children become excited about being a giver instead of merely a receiver.

4. Find some way to serve others in some way each year
As we work to help our children think more about giving than receiving, we also want them to share with others what Christ has done for them. At this time of the year particularly, opportunities abound for serving others. Instead of getting overwhelmed with possibilities, choose one or a few ways of reaching out.
Here are some simple ideas:

- Operation Christmas Child : Pack a shoebox with toys and useful items for a child in need somewhere in the world.  (It's too late for this year, but you can think about this for next year.)

- Angel Tree Christmas:  a ministry of Prison Fellowship. This is a way you can purchase gifts for children of prisoners. Again, this needs to be done in the fall and not the month of December, but it's worth tucking this idea away for 2018.

- Send gifts to missionaries you know. We used to pack our Christmas gifts to Zambia with bags of chocolate chips, something not available locally.

- Serve in a community kitchen or rescue mission

- Go caroling in a nursing home

- Have a neighborhood Christmas party

5. Fill your house with good Christmas music and books!

Finally, and maybe simplest of all, make use of excellent Christmas music and quality holiday books to set the atmosphere in your home.

Everyone has his or her own favorites. I'm partial to a beautiful album of pan pipe Christmas music, which is maybe a bit strange. Of course this is an excellent time to listen to Handel's Messiah, and do look for opportunities to not just listen but to sing carols! Some of the best ones like "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Of the Father's Love Begotten" are full of fabulous theology.

Here are some beautiful renderings done by our church's band:

Gabriel's Message

And - I also think Andrew Peterson's Christmas album, "Behold the Lamb of God"  is superb, especially  "Deliver Us."

News flash! You can hear an entire concert of music like this on Friday, December 8 at 7 PM! Clearnote Church, Bloomington.

And books!

What would a holiday be without excellent reading material? And good Christmas children's books abound!

Here are some our family has enjoyed through the years:

Christmas Day in the Morning (Pearl Buck)
My Birthday, Jesus' Birthday (Davis) – very simple for toddlers
A Christmas Carol (Dickens) 
Papa Panov's Special Day (Holder, adapted from Tolstoy)
The Tale of Three Trees (Hunt)
The Jesse Tree (Geraldine McCaughrean) – one of my favorites
The Twenty-four Days of Christmas (L'Engle) – sweet family story
"The Gift of the Magi"  (O. Henry)
The Handel's Messiah Family Advent Reader (Donna Payne and Fran Lenzo)
The Legend of the Candy Cane (Walburg and Bernadin)
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (Susan Wojciechowski) – impossible to read without tears
Jotham's Journey (Arnold Ytreeide)

And here's one for adults I haven't read, but it comes highly recommended: On the Incarnation by Athanasius.

Whatever your family traditions, examine the ones you already have and consider incorporating some new ones. Take time to slow down long enough to consider God's great love for us in sending His Son to live among us! Make the most of this season to tell your children and those around you about His awesome deeds!

Psalm 78:3-7New American Standard Bible 

Which we have heard and known,
And our fathers have told us.
We will not conceal them from their children,
But tell to the generation to come the praises of the Lord,
And His strength and His wondrous works that He has done.
For He established a testimony in Jacob
And appointed a law in Israel,
Which He commanded our fathers
That they should 
teach them to their children,
That the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born,
That they may arise and tell them to their children,
That they should put their confidence in God
And not forget the works of God,
But keep His commandments,


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