Many families also set up manger scenes to prepare for the birth of Christ. They come in all shapes and sizes and Christians young and old take great care in placing only some of the characters out at strategic times, leaving the arrival of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus until Christmas.
I know of one family with a special manger scene tradition with the parents picking up some pieces of straw at a local farm to give to the kids. Whenever a "good deed" is done in the household, a piece of straw is given to the child to place in the manger so that Baby Jesus will be more comfortable during his stay. These kind of traditions are a great way to catechize in the home.
Last year, I had the chance to attend a parish "live" nativity scene, complete with -10 temps, animals, kids in full shepherd garb and carols led by the pastor. It was a wonderful Advent celebration.
To this day, in our family, we still have a birthday cake for Baby Jesus on Christmas Day and sing Happy Birthday together so that every generation remembers the reason for the season.
One Christmas past also ended in near disaster when two elderly grandmothers in our home didn't notice the candle wax on the Advent wreath had dripped down and set fire to the evergreens. In the midst of an intense scrabble game, it was only once the flames got to shall we say more significant proportions that things were extinguished and the "all clear" was given for play to resume.
For those interested in a little more formal history of the Advent wreath, from our website resources on Advent:
The Advent wreath is a prominent symbol of the Advent season and is used in our churches and our homes as a way to prayerfully count the four weeks of the liturgical season. It consists of a wreath made of evergreens into which four candles have been placed.
Beginning on the eve of the First Sunday of Advent, the wreath is blessed and one candle is lit to mark the start of the first week of the Advent season. As each week begins, another candle is lit until all four candles are burning brightly by the Fourth Sunday of Advent. According to tradition, three of the candles are purple and one candle is pink, although all four candles may be purple.
The pink candle is lit on the Third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday (from the Latin word which means “Rejoice!”), as the focus of the season shifts from the Second Coming of Christ to the First Coming of Christ.
In the northern hemisphere, the days grow shorter at this time of the year, and the trees and plants drop their leaves as they “die back” in preparation for the long winter ahead. The evergreens on the Advent wreath remind us of the everlasting life promised to us by the gift of Jesus Christ, who came among us to save us from sin and death. The lighting of candles banishes the darkness as a reminder of Jesus Christ, the Light who has come into the world through his birth, and who continues to shine brightly through his Church.
So whether it's gathering as a family around the Advent wreath, placing the "characters" of the Christmas story lovingly around a manger or preparing that special birthday cake for Christmas, family traditions help bring new meaning to the season, they allow us to reflect as a family of faith and who knows? They may even be passed down from one generation to the next, living on for decades to come.
So maybe there are a couple of "takeaways" for us all in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the season.
We need to take time to remind ourselves that without Christ there would be no Christmas. So let's keep Him front and centre in the season. The other lesson to learn? Grandmas playing scrabble don't like to be interrupted!