This season doesn't have to be complicated to be full of joy -- and Jesus!
“It is impossible to celebrate the Lord’s birth except in an atmosphere of sobriety and joyous simplicity and of concern for the poor,” says the Vatican’s Directory on Popular Piety.
In America, where Thanksgiving is the start of Commercial Christmas, it seems impossible to make Advent sober and simple, what with Christmas parties and recitals and shopping and more. If you’re like my family, you have probably tried and failed at various Advent activities: Jesse Trees, video series, and “Giving something up for Advent.” By all means, try any or all of these. Many people have had great success at them. But here are some ideas that I have found (practically) foolproof.
1: The Nightly Nativity Set Rosary (or Decade)
Mary is the patron saint of everyone who was too busy before Christmas to prepare properly for Christ. She had to do it on the road to Bethlehem and then finished up in a cave! So spend some time each night with her. The good news: A family Rosary is actually easier in Advent. You have the Nativity set out, and you have beautiful lights that fill you with wonder. Gather around the manger and welcome Jesus with Mary. For smaller kids or to introduce this gently, start with just a single decade. (You can even use the figurines of the Nativity set to your advantage. See No. 5 here.)
2: Pray for Those Without Gifts
To make the Rosary even easier to pray, dedicate it each day to children who will not get any gifts this Christmas. Pray that they will get the greatest gift of all: Christ himself. This has the added benefit of making everyone in the family appreciate their gifts more, and realize that material things are not the point. (While you’re at it, you can bring a list of those you plan to give gifts to and pray for them, too.)
3: Join With Others
Those who followed the Bible in a Year Podcast with Father Michael Schmitz may have discovered what I did: It is a lot easier to do something if you know you are part of a worldwide community doing the same thing. This is true of Advent in the sense that it is something the whole Church is doing, from Canada to China — but there are many organizations offering Advent prayers with a subset of Catholics. As a member of the worldwide Aleteia community, you might want to try this one.
4: Make an Advent Mercy Jar
If Advent is all about prayer, fasting and almsgiving, Father Michael Gaitley gives a great way to accomplish the “fasting” and “almsgiving” part in You Did It To Me: A Practical Guide to Mercy in Action. He shares his college practice of making a Mercy Jar with his friends. First, everyone should decide something they can do without. Then, they take the money they would have spent on that thing and put it in a jar. Maybe you can forgo an entertainment subscription, or give up eating out or drinking wine. Collect money throughout Advent, and then give that money to charity at Christmas.
5: Visit the Blessed Sacrament on the way to shop
If you have to run a Christmas errand, you often have to deal with it being prolonged by crowds or difficulty parking — so why not prolong it just a little more? Stop by a church and visit Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Go through the ABCs of prayer as quickly as you need to, or as slowly as you can: A is for adoration of God, B is for the Blessings you are thankful for, C is for Contrition for your sins and S is for Supplication, asking God for what you and those you love need.
6: Make an Advent Gift Box
Okay, this one takes more effort than the others, but it has actually worked for April and me. It involves putting resolutions on slips of paper in a gift box under your tree or by the Nativity Set. Each family member takes a slip of paper as often as you like: Every week, every day, or every time you remember. Get the details here.