Since several people had questions about Advent, I thought I’d talk a little bit about the Christian traditions and more specifically what we do to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Stephen and I both grew up Southern Baptist. Baptists tend to be a bit more low church than other strains of Protestantism, so in many cases they don’t follow the liturgical calendar. The church we belong to right now is the most Liturgy-minded church I’ve ever been a part of (our church is also dually aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, so we tend to be a bit more liberal than a typical Southern Baptist church). I don’t know if this more liberal view is why our church is a bit more focused on Liturgy or if it’s our pastor but I do know that following the liturgical calendar produces a rhythm to life that I love. Geof will say that I’m secretly Methodist. I’m not sure that he’s too far wrong in that assumption.
Our two big events during the Christian year are, of course, Easter and Christmas. So just as Lent is the beginning of preparing for Easter, Advent is preparation for Christmas.
My Advent season starts in October. Advent is actually the period of time comprised of the four Sundays before Christmas. I start in October by helping Stephen’s father, Ray, put together his church’s Advent devotional booklet. People from his church write devotionals based on scripture passages (usually tied to the day’s liturgy but sometimes it’s scripture about the coming Christ child), he edits them, and I prepare them for printing. The books are passed out at the beginning of Advent and are a way for the congregation to spend some time every day focusing on anticipating the coming celebration of Christ’s birth and also as a time to anticipate the Second Coming. This year I helped prepare our church’s Advent booklet as well.
At our house, we tend to read them both during Advent. The scripture from each usually overlap but the stories that people tell are often vastly different. The one from Ray’s church is usually chock full of folks that Stephen grew up around, so I know for him, it’s a little piece of home to read from that booklet.
Some people celebrate Advent with an evergreen wreath and candles. (I say some people because I am lazy and have never taken the time to search for the correct colored candles to use. I know that’s a really lame excuse but there it is anyway.) There are four candles that sit on top of a circular evergreen wreath and one that sits in the middle. (More on evergreens in the next paragraph.) The four candles are tied to the four weeks. Usually before a family meal, a devotional and/or scripture is read or a hymn can be sung, a prayer is offered, and one or more candles are lit. The first week is a purple candle that stands for hope. The second candle is also purple and stands for love. The third week candle is either purple or pink and stands for joy. I’ve also heard this called the “Mary” candle but didn’t find any reference to it in my research. The fourth candle is purple and stands for peace. And the white candle in the middle is the Christ candle and is only lit on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The candles were originally just a way to count down the weeks before Christmas, but of course, in use, have developed a ton of meaning.
Early in the Advent season we have a church service that incorporates the “hanging of the green.” We hang evergreen bows and branches around the sanctuary. Evergreen branches are symbols of the unchanging nature of God and are a physical reminder of our everlasting life in Christ. In researching exactly what the hanging of the green stood for I ran across something that said early Christians put evergreens in their windows to indicate when Christ had entered their home. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s a really great story and I love the symbolism behind that. Also, our lovely secular Christmas tree that caused us so much trouble this past Saturday totally counts toward our Evergreen quotient.
We also have lots of extra music during this time. The choir usually has a big performance and the children and youth usually have a musical/drama program sometime during Advent. We sing all the Christmas hymns during the Advent season. My favorite is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” but pretty much all of them make me cry.
We also have a service especially for the grieving. At our church we call it a “Service of Remembrance and Hope.” This is probably a celebration of All Souls Day which is traditionally December 2.
There is usually a Christmas Eve Communion Service which we unfortunately don’t ever get to attend as we are always traveling during the holidays. The Christmas Eve Communion Services I’ve attended are some of the most holy services I can remember.
When we gather on Christmas day we always start with a reading of the Christmas story from Luke 2. Nothing puts consumerism in perspective like a family having no place to go but a stable. We also talk about the things/events/people in our lives over the past year that we are thankful for.
Epiphany is usually the last thing celebrated during Christmas and we don’t do it very well. It is January 6 and commemorates the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem after the birth of Christ. We typically keep our wise men separated out from our nativity and then after Christmas, move them closer. But a lot of years we take our Christmas stuff down before January 6, so we don’t even do this small commemoration.
After Eli was born, we instituted a three gift rule for birthdays and Christmas at our house. If you want, you can tie that to the three gifts the wise men brought but really, for me, it’s just a reasonable number of toys for the grandparents to be giving. When Eli asks about it, I’ll totally be telling the wise men story. “If it’s good enough for Baby Jesus…”
We are also doing something new with Stephen’s family this year to try to stem the flood tide of stuff coming into our house. Instead of everybody buying gifts for everybody we are trading names and giving the money we would have otherwise spent to charity. The best part is we are going to tell who we gave money to and why when we get together to open gifts.
So that’s what we do during Advent and Christmas. A lot of it about building community, some of it is based on old traditions and all of it is about anticipating the coming of light into a very dark world. This is the second time I have been pregnant during Christmas. It is amazing how much extra anticipation I feel during this time, my eagerness and hopes for my own child tied up in the hope and anticipation of the Christ child. I hope you are anticipating Christmas as well. I hope you have family and friends to share it with. Merry Christmas.