In Pursuit of the Spirit: Picking Our Way Through Advent

Our son, Caleb, will turn three a few days after Christmas this year. For the first two years of his life, we didn’t worry too much about holiday traditions, recognizing that he was too little to understand or remember much. This year, however, he is beginning to ask questions and I want to begin some traditions that will help him understand the seasons of Advent and Christmas.

One of the traditions I want to begin this year is the Advent Calendar. When Caleb was a baby we found a simple one that we both liked on sale at Pottery Barn Kids. We’ve hung it every year, but we’ve never bothered to fill it before now. With the traditional twenty-five pockets to fill, I must admit that I find the project a little daunting. My type-A personality would like for it to be:

1. something Caleb looks forward to
2. generally cohesive
3. reasonable to do every year with regard to time and money
4. meaningful and appropriate for the season.

To that end, we have considered filling each pocket with chocolate (cohesive & fun, but not particularly meaningful), Bible verses (cohesive & meaningful, but probably not super fun for a three year old), activities to do each day that help us prepare for Christmas (cohesive, probably meaningful, possibly fun, but way too much for us to undertake during an already busy season), toys or gifts (cohesive and exciting, but probably not getting at the reason for the season and also beyond our budget).

In the midst of trying to decide, I had the unusual pleasure of sitting in worship at my home church while we were visiting my parents for Thanksgiving. In the course of a sermon full of thought-provoking nuggets, the pastor said something that shifted my perspective on finding good Advent and Christmas traditions for our family. He said that we’re not in a war with our culture over Christmas. I come from a Reformed tradition, and my pastor reminded me that in this tradition we do not believe the Church to be against culture, but rather in the midst of it. In a sermon about the importance of keeping watch during Advent, I was reminded again of the Christian call to bear witness—to pay attention and notice and point to the places where God is present. This reminder helped me to think of Advent not as a fight or struggle to find good and meaningful traditions that will stand the test of time, but rather as an opportunity to pick through the options our faith and our culture offer for celebrating this time of year to find the ones that help me point to the coming of God’s light and love.

With this criteria in mind, we’ve decided to fill our Advent Calendar with a mix of things:

1. Pieces of our nativity set that Caleb can set up, play with, and add to over the month of December
2. Fun things to do that help us get ready for Christmas (make cards for people, bake cookies for neighbors, go see Santa, get our Christmas tree, make decorations for our house, watch a Christmas movie, go on a drive to look at Christmas lights)
3. Coloring pages with Scripture verses from the Christmas story
4. A few small gifts: an ornament for the tree, a Christmas decoration for his room, and a gift on Christmas Eve

It’s not the kind of cohesion I initially wanted (all of the same thing), but it is our best ideas for how to point to God’s in-breaking of light and love in ways our three year old can begin to see and understand.

Blog-HeadShot-300x300Sarah Walker Cleaveland is a spiritual director, preacher, teacher, retreat leader, and writer. After graduating from Hobart & William Smith Colleges with a degree in religious studies, she spent two years working in Christian Education at a Presbyterian Church and a Presbyterian Retreat Center. She earned her M.Div. at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, married her husband Adam, then earned a Masters of Theology from Princeton Seminary. Adam serves as Associate Pastor at Winnetka Presbyterian Church in a suburb north of Chicago. Sarah is currently chasing their two and a half year old son Caleb and developing her spiritual direction practice.

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