One of the things that have comforted our family most after the painful loss of my husband and the kids’ dad is the Church’s familiar and soothing seasons. Rhythmically moving us from times of fasting and feasting, they are like a soothing balm to our grief and they provide a foundation for our joys. Advent is no exception. A season of the Church since the 9th century, our Mother the Church knew we needed a time of preparation before we feasted in joy and exultation for Christmas. How wise a mother the Church is! We could run into the banquet all willy-nilly with all of our loud, boisterous expectations, many of us having arrived early before the Feast table could even be set…or we could spend a season of time to prepare our hearts and homes, quieting the noise, contemplating the joy that is to come, and helping to set the Feast table so that our disposition is one of humble Adoration when the Divine Infant’s Feast of the Nativity arrives.
A sweet friend and new mom wrote me a couple of weeks ago, asking me a few questions. Her little one is almost a year old, and she relishes the thought of living this season of Advent. But, how to do that with a little one, and is it important? And what would I tell myself if I could go back to the mommy I was 26 years ago, preparing for Advent with my first child, an almost one-year-old?
As I sat down to answer her questions, my heart felt lighter. It’s always sweet to revisit those early memories, and this year perhaps I needed that reminder more than any other year. She asked permission to publish my answers on her beautiful Instagram, which I willingly gave, and I asked her permission to share our conversation here on my blog – which she graciously gave.
Ginnie said that she felt like she was sitting down to a cup of coffee with me as she read through my answers, and my hope is that you feel the same – cozy, conversational, welcomed. I wanted to share here in the hope that you feel as if we’re both sitting down and sharing – memories, traditions, ideas, struggles, and all the fruit that living the Church’s seasons has borne in my family and the hope of wonder it brings!
1) As new parents, should we bother starting Advent traditions involving our young child since they have no awareness at this age?
Yes – a resounding yes! Living the feasts and seasons of the Church is one of the most important things we can do for our children! Young children do have an awareness of mystery – perhaps more so than we give them credit for! One of the most beautiful gifts is being able to appreciate the mystery of the Incarnation through the wonder in a child’s eyes! Will he remember this Advent, or the next, probably not, but you will, and you will build your family culture in these early days. And your child will teach you wonder as he encounters the mystery of the Incarnation in some of these early Advent traditions. Find an age appropriate Nativity set (my favorite for this age is from Playmobil 1-2-3) and let him visit with the figures, say their names to him, invest in beautiful board books and read them aloud, let him delight in the tastes and smells and sounds of this season of waiting! Keep it simple, but do begin. And next year, begin again. And so on. God will multiply the fruit of your efforts!
2) What was your favorite Advent tradition to do with your children when they were little?
I have two favorites –
The first is our Fontanini Nativity set (which I love for its durability in little hands, and also its beautiful, life-like attention to detail). Each Advent, I set out the Nativity set low enough for young hands (3yo+) to reach. The Nativity set is an invitation to contemplate with hands and heart, and my role is simply to put the child in the way of this opportunity. I have only one rule – Nativity pieces stay in the Nativity, with the exception of Mary and Joseph, who are making their way through the house toward “Bethlehem.” (There’s nothing worse than closing out the season to clean up and having to search the entire house to find the Shepherd, who is buried somewhere next to GI Joe in the bin of toys.)
Each evening, after family Rosary, one of the kids move Mary and Joseph closer to Bethlehem on their journey, and every day, without fail, one of the children will be found lovingly and quietly arranging and re-arranging the Nativity figures – the animals are all arranged by small hands, each of the pieces is touched and moved and oriented in a way that shows that the whole Nativity set anticipates the King of Kings. I do nothing more than observe, quietly watching the tucking in of ducks and the arranging of oxen from afar. Over years and different children, the Nativity set has never been arranged the same way, and each time I see it I learn something new.
A close second would have to be the little crèche and bed of soft straw I set out at the beginning of Advent. I hide the little Infant Jesus, saving Him for His enthronement after Midnight Mass. The kids will quietly add a little piece of straw to the crèche (or you could cut small pieces of straw colored yarn to be your straw) each time they do something nice – make a sibling’s bed, sweep the floor after dinner, take the smaller portion. Everyone is focused on making the Little Infant’s bed as soft as possible by their sacrifices and good deeds for when He arrives on Christmas!
3) How can we balance holiday preparations with the silence of a contemplative Advent?
We live an active vocation with our families, and families are full of tumult and opportunities to serve and to suffer. And in the midst of that suffering and serving are some very meaningful preparations that are part of the season – like baking, and preparing gifts and home!
When do we contemplate? I think we can find our answer by looking to the Holy Family. Instead of quietly contemplating the impending arrival of the Word made flesh from the coziness of their humble home in Nazareth, they were thrust out in the harshness to travel. The weather was miserable and biting cold, and the Blessed Virgin’s time for delivery was nearing and Joseph knew it. He must have felt uncertain in how He could provide shelter and safety for the Blessed Virgin and the King of Kings she sheltered within while winds circled around them and nothing but dark night spread out before them. In spite of the external surroundings which howled around them, in faith and obedience Joseph led and served, and in faith and obedience, Mary followed and contemplated – both of them fixed their gaze on the hope of the long awaited arrival of the Divine Infant. Even when they arrived in Bethlehem and were turned away from shelter again and again, and the fullness of time was drawing near, they continued on in faith and obedience. There was peace because every step they took was a contemplation that brought them closer to the Light of the World.
I don’t really like the word balance. I think it suggests we do one or the other thing as if we’re holding two heavy plates in our hands, and precariously balancing the preparations with the contemplation and trying not to drop either plate, but I believe we must complete one within the other – contemplation within our active vocation and seasonal Advent preparations. We contemplate along the way just as St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin did. We contemplate as we serve our family, each person made in the Image of God. We contemplate as we work to make the home a beautiful and welcoming haven from the noise and danger-fraught culture of the world. We contemplate as we travel through our days – even if life is howling around and whipping us with its pace and its suffering and dark, unknown night. We contemplate even with the external noise around us, fixing our gaze and our hope on the Light of the World. There is peace when we live the duties of our vocation and within them, we contemplate.
4) What’s your biggest takeaway from your first Advent or two as a new mom?
Be content with slow and simple beginnings. When my daughter was young and I began to discover that Advent was actually a season of the Church, I started with a handful of holy cards, a homemade Advent wreath, and ornaments we made of cinnamon and Elmers glue. Soon there would be another pregnancy, a devastating and heart-wrenching loss of an infant, and another pregnancy. Our beginning Advents were humble in terms of what we had and what we did, but in that simplicity was possibly the richest and most fertile beginning of what would grow over the years to become some of my favorite memories and the richest treasures of my parenting – our family culture.
5) Now that your children are older and you have grandchildren, what would you tell your younger self about the holiday season?
You’re living hard, messy days that are often thankless and exhausting. In them, you’re trying to find time to make your home a haven, to make your husband and marriage your focus, and to pour all your love and service into your children. Holy Mother Church in Her wisdom has given you seasons of penance to prepare, and seasons to feast. If you try to step outside of that wise order into the frantic pace of the culture, you’ll find overwhelm. So stay on the road to Bethlehem and travel light, just as the Holy Family did. Keep your preparations simple and meaningful and look with wonder through the eyes of your children toward the Light of the World.
6) When do you decorate for Christmas?
I usually set out a few things in Advent – like the Nativity set (without wise men and without Joseph and Mary). We decorate and light the tree on Gaudete Sunday or the Feast of St. Lucy, whose name means “light bringer.” After Midnight Mass the youngest child in the family enthrones the Divine Infant in the crèche we’ve been preparing with soft straw all season long.
7) How did you approach gift giving when your children were little? Did you have a method or set # of gifts?
We do a set of three gifts –
1. St. Nicholas stockings on the Feast of St. Nicholas – the kids get a few small things in their stockings and some candy.
2. Christmas Eve – the kids get a wrapped gift from mom and dad. It’s usually a clothing item, or something they need.
3. Christmas morning – the kids awake to find that Santa has left them a gift (unwrapped) under the tree. This might be one large item, or a couple of small items, and usually includes a book along with something the child really wants. (Don’t be afraid to thrift some gifts! Many years a thrifted gift or book was under the tree – and some wonderful bargains can be found on ebay, too!)
For a few years, we selected a charity as a family and made a donation as a family and included that as a part of our “gift giving.”
We always set a budget for gifts, and I spread out the gifts because it’s less overwhelm of stuff for the kids.
8) Midnight Mass – should we take the little children?
This is a question I can only share my experience with because your answer is a prudential one, and the only two people capable of making the correct prudential decision for your family are you and your husband.
I can tell you it’s easy when they’re little (under one) because they sleep – before Mass, usually through Mass, and usually after Mass. It’s harder when they’re older because they may or may not sleep through Mass, will probably be wired once you get home, and the more kids there are, the harder it gets.
My husband and I decided that our focus of energy and brainstorming would always be to get as many of us to Midnight Mass as possible. It meant early prep of gifts, early prep of clothes, organizing time, managing naps and a good meal for children on the Vigil of the Feast. As in most things, the time investment on the front end can yield so much fruit on the back end. There may be years you all go as a family, years your husband takes the older kids while you stay home with littles and go to Mass Christmas morning, and years you all get to attend together again as a family.
9) How can we balance a busy Christmas day spent in service to our family but still enjoy some of the merriment ourselves?
I guess it might depend on your idea of “merriment.” For me, I was happy if I could nap when the kids napped on Christmas Day (LOL!) – that was my idea of merriment after getting everyone dressed and to Midnight Mass, to bed around 2 or 3 am and waking up at 6 am to be with the young excited children. In general, when it comes to intense seasons of serving (and Christmas definitely fits the bill!) I would communicate to my husband that I needed a break, and he’d give it to me – maybe an hour to myself in my room with a cup of coffee and something to read, or he’d put the kids to bed early for me, and we’d enjoy a movie night. For this one I’d suggest communicating to your husband what you need, and then figuring out a way to do the same for him!
Well…there’s a lot here. I never promised succinct answers!! LOL!! The Church and her seasons are so beautifully ordered and rich and if we follow Her liturgical seasons of preparing then we arrive at the Feast full of wonder! As a mother of a young child, you are in for the treat of your life. Sure, it’s intense and full of messiness and activity and dirty clothes and spills, but there is nothing in the world like seeing these rich mysteries through the eyes of your child! My children’s wonder has been my teacher! I pray it will be the same for you, too, Ginnie!