The Catholic Church designates the four weeks before Christmas as Advent, a time to prepare the way of the Lord for his coming as our King and Savior.
Catholic parents can use the Advent season to teach children the true meaning of Christmas through enjoyable activities that focus on anticipating Jesus’s birth.
Many Catholic families create an Advent wreath and use it to prayerfully count down the weeks until Christmas Day. But there are many ways to mark the Advent season, says Katie Dawson, Diocese of Orange director of Faith Formation.
Dawson says children enjoy Advent rituals, such as wreaths, candles and Jesse trees. “For older children, it anchors them as a member of the family and a follower of Christ. It creates memories for children of all ages. Children love rituals; they are really comforting and engaging for young children.”
Families can participate in Advent through daily Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, or by following the weekday Mass readings at home. For ideas on home crafting projects for Advent or Catholic family traditions, Dawson recommends the website catholicicing.com and Mary Reed Newland’s classic how-to book, “Raising Good Catholic Children.”
A few of the many ways Catholic families commemorate Advent include:
Advent wreath: The Advent wreath, which has German origins, is a wreath made of evergreens that is bound to a circle of wire. It symbolizes the many years from Adam to Christ in which the world awaited its Redeemer. The wreath holds four equally spaced candles, the three purple ones lit on the penitential Sundays and a pink one for Gaudete, the joyful third Sunday in Advent. “Children love to light and blow out candles,” Dawson observes.
The empty manger: When acts of service, sacrifice or kindness are done in honor of Baby Jesus as a birthday present, each child receives a piece of straw to put into the manger. On Christmas morning, Baby Jesus is placed in the manger.
The Jesse tree: The Jesse tree tells about Christ’s ancestry through symbols and relates Scripture to salvation history, progressing from creation to the birth of Christ. The tree can be made on a poster board with the symbols glued on, or on an actual tree. “Our kids would jockey to put the ornaments on each day,” Dawson remembers. “They learned something while having fun.”
St. Nicholas Day: The feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6 is a highlight of the Advent season. Each child puts out a shoe the night before St. Nicholas Day in the hope that the kind bishop with his miter, staff and bag of gifts will pay a visit. Santa Claus is modeled after St. Nicholas.
The Christ candle: Any large white candle can be used for the Christ candle. The idea is to decorate it with symbols for Christ using old Christmas cards, sequins, holly, etc. The candle can be lit on Christmas Eve to show that the Light of the World has arrived and lit every Sunday to remind the family of our waiting for Christ and celebrating His birth and Resurrection.
The Nativity scene: The family shares the job of setting up the Christmas manger. Mary and Joseph should be far off traveling and their approach to Bethlehem adjusted daily.