An edited repost from the archives.

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent. And although I love Christmas, and go all out with my decorating (I even put up two trees!), I come from a tradition where Advent–those four weeks before Christmas–were treated as a mini-Lent. My grandparents never decorated their trees until Christmas Eve, and the actual Twelve Days of Christmas started on December 25 and were celebrated until the Epiphany on January 6th. Growing up, my parents slowly let the Christmas creep in and we started decorating earlier and earlier. But never before the first week in December. And we certainly didn’t decorate before Thanksgiving. Now, with a family of my own, I like to take the holiday season slowly and appreciate what Advent has to offer.

So, what is Advent? In Latin, Advent means “coming towards” (“ad” = towards, vent = coming) and around the middle of the fifth century, it became a 40-day period of fasting and spiritual preparation, starting on St. Martin’s day (November 12) and ending on December 25. Advent traditions became popular during the middle ages when candles were lit to show that despite the growing darkness, God would always provide a light for our spiritual journey, especially in the winter season. Advent is about waiting with faith for God’s promise, while Christmas is about the promise fulfilled. The former is a time of contemplation and prayer, the latter is about joy and celebration. And once upon a time my grandparents (and their grandparents) understood this.

Although the tradition of fasting during Advent has waned, there a number of devotions that support both prayer and contemplation during this time. The most popular are the Advent wreath, the Advent calendar, and setting up Nativity scenes. But others have regained their popularity, such as the Jesse Tree, Stir-it-up Sunday, and celebrating St. Lucia’s Day. Since my trees aren’t up yet, here are a few of my Advent decorations.

Advent wreath: I have two Advent wreaths. The first sits on my kitchen table. It’s a simple wreath of greenery with four candles, three purple and one pink. We light the first candle on the first Sunday of Advent, then each week add another candle, allowing the candlelight and the day’s lections to guide us towards Christmas day. Purple is a penitential color, reminding us that the celebrations are yet to come–but not yet. And the pink candle, lit three weeks into Advent, is for Gaudete Sunday. The word Gaudete, which means “Rejoice” in Latin, reminds us that in spite of the darkness, joy is coming soon.

My second Advent wreath is much simpler. It is a wooden spiral wreath with 25 candle holes. A small wooden cut-out of a pregnant Mary on a Donkey follows the lighted candles, reminding us of our own spiritual journey during this time.

Jesse Tree: The Jesse Tree, which also dates back to medieval times, tells the story of Christ’s lineage. The Jesse Tree, named after King David’s father, represents a direct ancestral line from creation, up to King David, then straight through to the Nativity. Every night during advent, the kids place Jesse ornaments, representing Jesus’ ancestors, on the tree and read the corresponding bible story. The interesting thing about our tree is that I thought the kids would lose interest the older they got. Instead, now that they’re young adults, they’re the ones who want to keep up the devotion.

St. Lucy’s Day Celebrations: This is the festival of lights celebrated on December 13 in honor of St. Lucia of Sweden, a young girl who was martyred around the year 303 AD, during the reign of Diocletian. When I was a kid, we used to process around school (a public school!) holding real candles (how did we ever survive the 70’s and  80’s?!?) which represented St. Lucia’s triumph over darkness. Then we’d get hot chocolate and St. Lucy’s Buns in the cafeteria. Now, on this is the day, I plug in the lights on my Christmas Dickens Village and my Christmas trees. Once the tree lights are lit, we start decorating them while we eat St. Lucy buns and Christmas cookies. (sometimes homemade and sometimes store bought, depending on my schedule and mood!)

Nativity or Manger Scene: This one is easy and the kids love helping me. I bought this set not long after we were married and we even took it overseas when my husband was stationed in Korea. Now my kids put this up every year and hide the baby Jesus until Christmas morning. They also take turns moving the Wise Men around until the Epiphany on January 6th.

Finally, the music. I love Christmas music but can get sick of it quickly. So instead of jumping into the all-Christmas music all-the-time model, I start with some of my favorite Advent Hymns. Yes, some of the oldest Christmas Carols are actually Advent hymns. Maybe you’ve heard of “Lo! He Comes”, “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, “Come thou long expected Jesus”, and” People Look East”. Here is my favorite from youtube.

However you celebrate this season, even if you don’t, I hope you have a safe and happy December filled with love, light, and happiness.

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