It really can be different this year
In a couple of weeks, as Americans recover from stuffing themselves with turkey and holding their tongues at Thanksgiving family gatherings across the nation, Advent will quietly arrive. It will slip in through the back door largely unnoticed and be briefly thought of on Sundays in December when parishes light their purple-and-pink-candled wreaths.
But the season of Advent deserves our attention. It’s a gift before the rest of the gifts start flowing, an invitation to slow down and prepare ourselves for the Savior, whose birth we will soon be remembering and celebrating once again.
Making Advent meaningful is all about what happens before it even begins. Here are nine things you can do right now to help ensure that the weeks leading up to Christmas are sacred and joyful for you and your loved ones:
1. Get your Christmas shopping done before Advent begins on Nov 29.
I know, this probably seems impossible. And let’s face it, it’s hard to go there when the Thanksgiving menu hasn’t even been planned. But if you have most of your shopping done before Advent arrives, you’ll save yourself a huge amount of time and stress, which will give you more energy to devote to what Advent is supposed to be about—prayer, being present and peacefully preparing for the great feast of Christmas. Which brings us to another point about shopping …
2. Be thoughtful about what you buy.
When you’re intentional about what and where you shop, both Advent and Christmas are more meaningful. Save yourself time in traffic, parking lots, and malls by shopping locally if you can—and online. Consider using your hard-earned dollars to support artisans both at home and abroad—as well as monasteries and religious orders that make and sell beautiful handcrafted items. (Aleteia will soon be coming out with our 2015 best gifts from monasteries and convents, so stay tuned.)
3. Pick no more than three Advent traditions this year and stick to them.
It’s tempting to want to do it all, but that’s a recipe for crazy-making. Decide which three activities are best for you and your family this year and commit to them. Gather the supplies you need. It’s no fun running around at the last-minute trying to find candles for your Advent wreath—or looking for them two weeks after Advent has begun. So prepare now. Order your wreaths. Gather your Jesse tree craft items. Buy the treats you’re planning to put into your kids’ shoes for the feast of St. Nicholas. Whatever the traditions are going to be, get a head start on them.
4. Commit to spiritual reading this Advent.
Even if reading time for you these days amounts to little more than noticing the ingredients on your children’s cereal box, you can probably still find 10 minutes before going to bed, or first thing in the morning for an Advent reflection, a passage of Scripture or a spiritual memoir. Among the many edifying options out there, Aleteia staff recommends Advent Meditations by Fulton J. Sheen, Bert Ghezzi’s The Saints Devotional Bible, God’s Bucket Listby Teresa Tomeo, Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writingsby Alfred Delp, S.J., Silas Henderson’sLights for a Waiting World: Celebrating Advent with the SaintsandMary, Mirror of the Churchby Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM.
If you need more prompting and encouragement, consider signing up for some inspirational messages that will come straight to your computer or smartphone, such as the Advent program by #ShareJesus or Dynamic Catholic’s Best Advent Ever program.
5. Create a prayer space in your home.
Aleteia just published an interview with author Leila Lawler, coauthor of The Little Oratory, about how to do this. The season of prayerful waiting is a perfect time to set up a prayer space. Pick a corner of a room or little nook somewhere. I know someone who set one up in a closet. Even if all you have is a window sill, or the surface of a table or a shelf, creating a focus for prayer and reflection will help draw your heart and mind to the themes of Advent. Icons, sacred images, a Bible, prayer cards, a book of reflections, small statues, candles and rosaries are some of the items you can place in your prayer space.
6. Just say no.
Advent is richer when it’s not overbooked. Get your calendar out and mark the commitments you already have—the required office party, the kids’ Christmas concert, etc. Save a few nights for special Advent observances or outings—vespers, caroling, visiting a soup kitchen or maternity home. And give yourself permission to say no to everything else—all the extras that can distract you from your commitment to live a more meaningful Advent. It’s hard to turn down good things, but every no means a yes to what matters most.
7. Put confession in your calendar.
Speaking of commitments, decide right now when and where you’re going to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation this Advent. If you have a time and place set aside, you won’t find yourself at midnight Mass regretting that you never made it. Give Jesus, and your loved ones, a gift this Christmas—a brand new you. Here are a number of examinations of conscience recommended by the American bishops if you haven’t been to confession for a while.
8. Get your Advent music ready.
Music sets the mood. While it’s hard to avoid Christmas tunes during Advent because they’re everywhere, you can make a point to play Advent carols and music in your own home and in your car. Pick up some CDs or download a few selections on iTunes. A couple you may want to check out include Advent in Ephesus by the Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles, and Cantate Domino by the Sistine Chapel Choir (which is the first CD to ever be recorded in the Sistine Chapel).
9. Choose a special way to give.
During Advent, we’re called to pay special attention to the poor, and to reach out in generosity. There are so many ways to do this, but something related to gift-giving is always meaningful during Advent, especially if you have children. Baking goodies for your local firehouse, collecting change in a decorated container for a charitable cause, and participating in your parish’s seasonal outreaches are great ideas. I know a family who buys fleece blankets and hands them out to people on the street as they’re driving around during Advent. These “blessing bags” for the poor from Catholic Icing are also a terrific idea and fun for kids to get involved in.
Experiencing a more meaningful Advent begins with planning and preparing ahead of time. It might make the next couple of weeks a little busier than usual, but you’ll be grateful that you prepared for Advent as though it’s its own season—because it is.
Zoe Romanowsky is Lifestyle Editor and Video Content Producer for Aleteia