My wonderful wife, Tracy Bradford, has written more on the subject of celebrating Advent with children. Full of practical ideas fueled by spiritual consideration, take some time to see what’s here!
I remember the first time that my husband and I sat with our two small boys to officially celebrate the Advent season 13 years ago. I had made a lovely little wreath and found candles in just the right hue. I had song books and a crèche set up near by. I had great expectations for a warm, memorable Christmas moment. And then we started, and I didn’t understand why my husband had chosen such un-Christmas-like passages, and the kids were distracted by the candle, and they didn’t appreciate three full verses of Oh Come All Ye Faithful. Thankfully we ended with Away in a Manger which gave us all a happy feeling and off to bed the boys went. It was a start for sure, but far from what I had expected.
Over the years I have learned a lot about Advent and realized that I had approached the daily practice with my mind filled with ideas and images inspired largely by the likes of Norman Rockwell, Bing Crosby, and Coca-Cola. Eleven years since that starting point I have a much richer and more accurate understanding of the purpose of daily Advent readings. Changing my expectations has led to our whole family having a more involved and deeper experience as we daily consider Christ’s first Advent together.
Now, eleven years from that first attempt, the starting place for anything I do related to celebrating Advent with my church or family is remembering what I am doing and why I am doing it. No matter who is participating in the celebration with me, it is important to me to remember the essential elements of the celebration. Here are some thoughts about what we are actually celebrating and why we are celebrating that as well as some practical tips about how we celebrate.
In my Advent celebration time, I want to focus solely on the concept of Christ’s coming to dwell on Earth in human form and all of the implications of that. Of course the Christmas narrative is an important part of the story of his coming. It is not, however the beginning of the story, or the most important part of the story. The story begins way back in the Garden of Eden when God promised to provide away for His creation to be restored to Him. This promise is affirmed often throughout the Old Testament, often in the form of prophetic reminders that a Savior, a Messiah is coming.
It is so hard for us to relate to the mindset of the Old Testament readers. We live on the resurrection-side of this eternal plot, equipped with the New Testament, literacy, excellent Biblical teaching in so many places, and a Holy-Spirit-nurtured, personal relationship with the Savior. The Jewish readers or hearers of the Old Testament prophecies really had little concept of how the fulfillment of these prophecies would turn their world around. Their great expectations were not at all like what actually took place. They were looking, understandably, for a political end to some pretty serious political problems. They were looking for a king in royal robes and with a golden crown, not a teacher with a cross and a crown of thorns. I don’t find fault with them. I myself came looking for a certain something in starting the discipline of daily Advent celebrations. I didn’t understand how all of the various parts of God’s redemption plan fit together and how Christmas plays its part in that plan. My expectations were off, and then so was my experience. This is only a small sampling of what the Jewish people of that time were living.
Here is some of what I have learned. Jesus’ coming started a series of actions that led to the climax of the Christian story: the resurrection of Christ from the grave. THIS is the climax of the story, and now we are living on the other side of this event. In doing so, we can find the Christmas story of Luke 2 warming and mysterious, but lose the perspective of how amazing it is that Christ came and intervened in the world. A lot of our Advent readings focus on the longing expressed in the Old Testament for a Savior to come and save the world and right the wrong way life was going. I was at first frustrated that the readings were not centered on the Bethlehem events in the gospels. Now I know that this reading of scriptures that seem so distant from shepherds and mangers actually helps me to better understand how Isaiah’s contemporaries heard his words.
My hope, in participating in Advent, is that my family and I will have a renewed appreciation for the enormous impact of Christ coming to the world. Of course our ideas can only be understood through the lens of redemption and grace. But by reading the prophets, I have a better understanding of what civilization can be like without his presence. This gives me a greater appreciation of my relationship with him and the impact of his coming on the world.
Finally, I am celebrating Advent as a direct response to the commercialization of the Christmas season. In our daily life we see countless messages that tell us that Christmas is about having a picture-perfect feast with the best and shiniest gifts being exchanged. There are very few messages about the people who are part of those celebrations or any notion of sacrifice, self-denial, or our world’s need for a Savior. We do still see a nod to helping those less fortunate than us, but it is not connected to our common need of a Savior or to our looking to Christ to redeem us all. It is connected to feeling warm and cuddly knowing that we have done a part to help someone else. I do celebrate the Christmas season with special baking, present-giving, and even have a shelf full of figurines of “the man in the red suit.” I enjoy these cultural moments, but I keep Advent as our focus for the season and the other parts as side shows.
So, practically speaking, I find it very important that my family be entrenched in the Biblical narrative of Christ during our celebration time. I am carrying out this Advent practice so that they have a full understanding of why we as Christians make such a big deal out of Christmas. It is Jesus’ birthday, true, but it is also the beginning of the big event of the Christian story. I want them to know that we are not just celebrating the fact that Christ came as a baby. We are celebrating that he came and brought redemption to our world—a world in desperate need of a Messiah, a group of people clinging to a promise made thousands of years earlier. (As a side note to this, children learn from an early age that God fulfills his prophecies and his promises, and this is such a gift to give your child!)
This entrenchment takes on different forms depending on the age of the child. Each developmental stage that a child passes through has unique characteristics that suggest various methods of teaching and experiences for the most transformational experience.
As our children have grown, we have invited them to participate in all parts of our celebration at age-appropriate moments: lighting and extinguishing the candles, reading the passages, handing out song books and collecting them, sharing thought on the passages we read, putting together puzzles of the Christmas scenes, serving snacks from time to time, leading our family in prayer, etc. Our boys who were just 1 and 2-turning-3 when we started are now 12 and 13-turning-14, and they seem to anticipate our Advent time as much as we do.
It does take a bit more effort to engage preschoolers during our family time. Below are some practical tips that we have found useful over the years, both with our two older boys and now with our young son who is a new 5-year old.
Toddlers and Preschoolers
Developmental Characteristics: “hands-on” manipulative play, imaginary play, tactile, short attention span, thrive on repetition and singing.
Advent Focus: The basic Christmas narrative from Luke 2 and Matthew 2; simplified versions of the prophecies, light coming into darkness, the difficulty of waiting
Items I have found Useful for this Age
(I am assuming you have a Bible and a list of Advent scriptures to read each day. You can look on our church’s website for a suggested list of scriptures.)
A child’s version of a crèche (see Playmobile or Fisher Price) or any crèche that you won’t mind children playing with,
Finger puppets like the ones on this free printable http://www.craftaholicsanonymous.net/nativity-finger-puppets-free-christmas-printable , or go online and look for some clever sets made from felt.
Instruments to be played softly while singing Christmas Carols about Jesus.
Many child-friendly books telling the Christmas story (lift the flap, rhyming text, thick board pages, counting activities or searching activities, cloth books, accurate illustrations are good elements to look for). We like Nativity Lift the Flap by Usborne. http://www.amazon.com/Usborne-Lift-Flap-Nativity-Brooks/dp/0746047274/ref=pd_sxp_redirect
A song list that you are familiar with—We do sing some lullaby songs about baby Jesus, but we also sing Christmas Carols so our children become familiar with them from early on.
Coloring Sheets like the ones found here http://www.dltk-bible.com/advent/index.htmare great to have on hand, both to keep little hands busy, but also to use as picture to emphasize the story.
A children’s Bible from which the story is read multiple times a week. This reinforces the idea that all of this Christmasy-ness is rooted in The Bible.
A flashlight. If your child is more the serious type, they might enjoy holding a flashlight as one of the Advent lights. Making a point to dim the house lights and let the candle(s) be the main source of light emphasizes the idea of Christ being the Light of the World. Kids who love to tease and be silly will most likely lose attention on anything Advent and will instead start flashing the light into various corners! Perhaps a flameless candle is a good compromise!
Notes: Keep this time short enough for the child to stay engaged. Try to anticipate how your child will interact with the celebration and have various items ready to help them stay focused. Talk to them, ask them questions they can answer (who is in the manger? Who saw the star in the sky?), and invite them to sing with you. Allow them to share who they are holding in their hand or show you the picture they are coloring. Keep the candles out of their reach for safety.
Avoid mixing secular (Santa Claus, reindeer, Father Christmas, elves, etc.) with this Advent time. Keep these two concepts separate during the daily Advent time to help the child learn the true Christmas story.