Advent ideas

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The circle of the church year turns. It’s almost Advent.

In the secular world, this period of preparing for the birth of Christ has been swept up into “the holiday season,” that frantic period of time from just after Halloween (if we’re lucky) until Christmas Eve. In the church, however, we are serious about getting ready over a four-week period. While Christmas may be red, green and gold, the color of Advent is blue (for Mary, the mother of Jesus) or purple (for the newborn king). The mood is quiet, more focused. We are waiting for Jesus, and this is holy time. This slower, more deliberate approach to the season may be worth bringing home. What can you simplify? Where can you be more intentional, less rushed?

You could decorate first with just evergreen boughs, perhaps some pine cones, walnuts or apples nestled among them. Once the tree comes, try enjoying it with white lights alone for a week or two. If you or your kids are feeling crafty, string popcorn and cranberries, or make chains with festive patterned origami paper. Save the special, sparkly ornaments for closer to December 24. Save the most familiar Christmas carols, too, and listen to the delightful and quirky Keepin’ the Baby Awake or Yo Yo Ma’s lovely Songs of Joy and Peace

Some years we have had an Advent wreath of boxwood and juniper and holly for the center of the table.  This year the most I will do is gather four votive candles and one pillar candle–you can, too. Use any colors you like, and set them on a platter. Advent devotions to use with the wreath can be quite simple; these are offered by Helen Barron at Candle Press.

We are preparing not just for Christmas, but for the coming of Christ. How do we ready our hearts as well as our homes? What can we do to make giving the focus rather than getting? Who might be feeling lonely and left out at this time of year, or just overworked and under-appreciated? Take hot chocolate to the crossing guard, make cookies for the firefighters or the postal carrier, spend time with an elderly neighbor or visit the local nursing home. The internet abounds with simple ideas along these lines; Action for Happiness has created a kindness calendar for each day of December.

Advent calendars are a fun way of counting down the days until Christmas. Here’s a mason jar Advent calendar from the creative people at The Salt Project, if you haven’t already purchased one.  This year, I am participating in Advent Word, a global online Advent calendar, for which a daily prompt for a photograph and personal reflection are given. I also recommend following the adventurous Wandering Wisemen on Instagram or Facebook  from December 1 to January 6.

Sybil MacBeth wrote a book chock-full of engaging ideas for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany called The Season of the Nativity, and she’s also the creator of a favorite prayer practice of mine, Praying in Color. She has several templates for a prayerful, colorful Advent calendar that are great for kids, teens and adults.

When my son Peter was younger, we read a different Christmas book or chapters of a wintery book each night leading up to Christmas Eve, when he’d receive a new one. Some parents more organized than I ever was wrap these books from the family’s or the library’s collection in holiday gift wrap and number them, opening one each night at bedtime.

For younger children, Laura Alary’s book, Look! A Child’s Guide to Advent and Christmas helps them connect what is happening in church with what is happening at home as we get ready. Its tone is both joyful and calm, in a way that suggests the profound difference between waiting for Jesus and waiting for Santa.

All Creation Waits by Gayle Boss with stunning woodcuts by David G. Klein is an Advent book that’s perfect for older kids and adults. Each chapter opens a window into the mysterious life of a North American animal in winter, and through them we are reminded that “the roots of Advent lie deep beneath the Christian church—in the earth and its seasons.” Another adult great read for Advent is Quinn Caldwell’s smart and thoughtful All I Really Want: Readings For a Modern Christmas.

Advent is a season of wonder. We wait in darkness for the light to be kindled and grow and spread, for the long-expected child to be born, for our hope to be renewed. This year I need it more than ever.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents, which makes a swell Christmas gift.

Christmas morning

christmas-tree-2561872_1920Between now and Christmas Eve, I will have tied red ribbons on 500 bell ornaments, found and purchased 4 sheep hats, organized, rehearsed and directed a Christmas pageant with 48 participants, organized, rehearsed and supervised a nativity parade with 15 giant 12 to 8 foot puppets, finished shopping and wrapping gifts for my family and friends, and participated in four church services at three different churches. You are exhausted just reading this, aren’t you? There’s also laundry and, please God, some tidying around the apartment to do. Don’t feel sorry for me, though. I have lots of help and so will mostly be joyful and very tired.

As I rush around preparing, I am singing this lovely carol under my breath, reminding myself of why I am doing all of this:

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

People Look East by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), 1928

After the presents are wrapped and the stockings are stuffed, just before I go to sleep,  I will make this delicious and VERY EASY overnight Eggnog French Toast, and you can, too. Be sure to buy the very best eggnog you can find: Organic Valley, Horizon or Trader Joe’s are all excellent choices.

Christmas Morning Eggnog French Toast (prepared the night before)

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 loaf brioche or challah
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups organic eggnog
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

In a small saucepan, melt together the butter, honey and brown sugar and cook over low heat until sugar dissolves. Pour this mixture into the bottom of a glass or ceramic baking dish. In a large mixing bowl, beat together the eggs, eggnog, vanilla, cinnamon and spices. Slice the bread thickly and dip each slice into the eggnog mixture. Reassemble the sliced bread into its original loaf shape, set into the baking dish and pour the remaining eggnog mixture over it. Wrap tightly in Saran and refrigerate overnight. Let it come to room temperature for 15 minutes as your preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 45 minutes and serve with warm maple syrup.

On Monday morning, however, we’ll sleep late (this is when I am thankful that Peter is a teenager), and the first person up will turn on the tree lights. Once the coffee and tea are ready, we’ll take turns opening the tiny gifts in our stockings.  We’ll enjoy our yummy breakfast and each other’s company and the delights of the day. The waiting and preparing and all the errands and running around are over, for now. Love, the Lord is here among us.

The Christmas Eve worship services (including the pageant at 9:15 am on Advent 4, and the giant puppet nativity parade on Christmas Eve at 3 pm) at Trinity Church Wall Street will be webcast live and available on demand here.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of  Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents, which makes a swell Christmas gift for you or someone you love.

Giving thanks!

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I imagine that the very first prayer was “thank you.”

Saying grace at meals is a lovely practice, and Thanksgiving is the perfect time to begin or re-introduce it. Sung graces are great for little ones. If you sing the Doxology in church, you might start with that:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise God all creatures here below, Praise God above ye heavenly host, Praise Creator, Son and Holy Ghost.

The first grace my son Peter learned as a toddler is sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques”:

God our father, God our mother, we thank you, we thank you, for this food before us, for this food before us. Amen, amen.

Friends and family are a great resource for collecting graces and blessings from other cultures and religious traditions, which can be a great way “in” to this universal and timeless tradition. This year, you could crowd-source your Thanksgiving dinner blessing using this simple template from Episcopal priest Kyle Oliver, whose Creative Commons Prayer website has all kinds of engaging multimedia prayers. Sybil MacBeth, creator of one of my favorite prayer practices, Praying in Color, has some fun turkey templates  you could use for gratitude prayers.

The Quakers have a very simple said grace:

Us and this, God bless.

Their most common form of grace, however, is everyone holding hands around the table in silence. It’s easy to add the invitation to each person to name something for which they are thankful. Cultivating a practice of gratitude, a habit of noticing and naming what we are thankful for is of profound benefit to our physical, spiritual and emotional health. Doing Good Together offers a number of great ideas for families who want to practice active gratitude, and learn more about the science behind it. You could keep a thankfulness journal to which each family member contributes throughout the year, or throughout the long Thanksgiving weekend, ask each person to write their thanksgivings on leaves of colored paper to fill a jar or a window. My son Peter noticed and remarked on a significant decrease in complaints when our household became more intentionally grateful. 

Here is my go-to grace:

Bless this food to our use and us to your loving service, and keep us ever mindful of the needs of others.

Christians and Jews end prayers with a declarative, amen, which in Hebrew means “firm.” It is nearly the same for Muslims, who use the related Arabic word “amin.” Think of it as a strong YES. Let it be so.

Pray in whatever way works for you and your family, pray when you can, and where you can. Pray for what you need, what your loved ones need, what the world needs. Give thanks, give praise, give your heart. And let the people say, Amen.

  • Here’s my favorite book for Thanksgiving, The Greatest Table by Michael Rosen, newly reissued with illustrations by Becca Stadtlander.
  • Kids can make these adorable thank-you cards over the long weekend, just in time for the gift-giving season.
  • Now you can preorder this lovely book, Common Prayer for Children and Families by Jenifer Gamber and Timothy Seamans, which includes table graces and prayers for expressing gratitude throughout the day and year. 

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents, from which this post is adapted.