My friend Heather and I were joking about how we want to have all these Christmas traditions, but we keep changing things every year. For me it is because each year I get a better idea of what works and what definitely doesn’t each year. Also, being an Orthodox convert there are things I’ve decided that definitely had to drop from my own childhood and even adulthood as a Protestant.
The first two years I did the Advent candle wreath, I had a really hard time finding all the colored candles. Last year I drove to three different candle carrying stores to find them and wound up with candles that were all different sizes. I realized after two years of this that it really wasn’t worth all that trouble and really the colors are not that necessary to the activity. Plus, beeswax candles seem more Orthodox. 😉
I’ve continued to use our 25 day Advent calendar the last few years too. This year I decided that I would try and fill it twice to make it last the whole 40 day Orthodox Advent. I loved the Pascha Passports that we did at the Greek Church this year and thought it would be fun to make mini sticker icons like that for Advent. The purpose of Advent is to prepare us for and point us to the Nativity (Christmas).
“Because the main focus of Advent is our preparation for the Nativity–the Incarnation of the Son of God–the hymns for the season are shot through with references and allusions to the Old Testament: the Church’s preparation over the centuries for the advent of the messianic Kingdom, which came in the person of Jesus Christ, the long-awaited Messiah. It would therefore be no exaggeration to say that Advent is one great Bible study that sheds light on the meaning of the Old Testament as a preparation for the New. It is certainly no coincidence that so many Old Testament prophets are commemorated during this period.” -Vassilios Papavassiliou, Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth
What else pointed the world to the Nativity all those years ago? A very bright star. So the idea for Nativity star decorations to go up each day of Advent with the icons of the saints pasted on them was born in my brain and thrown together days before the start of the fast on Nov. 15.
Except my usual inner overachiever took this a bit too far, especially for some preschoolers. I don’t know why I thought it would be a fun activity to make them sit through the readings of the lives of ALL the saints every single day. Sometimes just one life story is really long and full of so much great stuff. To make little people sit through multiples of those was a bit torturous by me. About a third of the way in I started to dread this activity and we kept getting behind. I’d spend a night every few days cutting out the stars and pasting on the icons and then hanging them all by myself. While I liked the idea of the icon “stamps,” often so much detail was lost because they were so tiny. I love how rich in theology some icons can be with those details. After I found myself OK with the idea of icons (and as a convert from a “tradition” that was based in stark warehouses, iconography was a huge hurdle) one of my favorite icons became that of the Nativity because of how much of the story was there in that picture.
I started running out of cardstock and gold wrapping paper and yellow printer toner too. A trip to the office supply store followed where I discovered that they make metalic cardstock. Leave it to me to be over halfway through a project to discover a much simpler way of doing it that does not involve cutting it out three times (versus 1) and wrestling with a roll of gold wrapping paper.
I was snuggling in bed with my youngest the other night thinking about all this and what I wanted to do differently next year. Making yet another change to our “traditions” of course, ha. I remembered a technique I learned in one of my graphic design classes where you can basically take a photo or drawing or what ever and punch a shape out of it. As if you took one of those shape punches you can find in a craft supply store and did it. Once again my creative brain was working and as soon as he was asleep I jumped on the computer and went to work with my idea. Next year we are just going to focus on one saint per day. I made these PDFs for each of the days with the saint’s icon “punched” in the shape of a Nativity star. I figured someone else might find these useful too, so here are the four PDFs:
I also decided this year that I’m kind of done with my wooden 25 day Advent calendar (if you are local or family and want it, let me know and it is yours). It took a few days of brainstorming to figure out what I wanted to do: trying to find another wooden alternative online with 40 doors/drawers (does not exist), looking through my fabric stash to maybe make a patchwork looking one, and finally settling on making one myself out of felt, embroidering each day’s pocket with a doodle, something/someone that is significant to that day, etc. The stars I designed for next year are also exactly the right size to fit in these pockets.
Another thing that is definitely working out this year and will return next year are the Kindness Kids! I know we’re only a few days in of us incorporating them, but we just love them. Here are a few more ideas that we’ve done:
We have a cousin that shares the name of one of the saints on this day so we drew pictures and wrote letters to our cousins.
When we were working on letters to cousins, Jillian said we should write to the nuns at the monastery. “Today we celebrate Saint Joasaph. He was a monastic and later became Bishop of Belgorod. You just had a great time with the monastics and our very own bishop at St. Barbara’s Monastery for their feast day. Let’s write them some thank you notes for those treats and toys they gave you!” The Kindness Kids are pictured with the icon for the saint mentioned in the letter, spoils from the treat bags the nuns handed out at the monastery last week and pencils and paper for writing.
“On Friday we celebrate St. Lucia. Help Mama make St. Lucia buns today so you can take them to your family and friends on Friday morning just like in the book.”
In the end, though, none of this really is or needs to be the focus. They are just tools to help point is in the right direction and help us on our journey.
“Advent therefore signifies the Church’s journey throughout the ages–its preparation for the coming of Christ into the world. Every Advent we are called to participate in the Church’s journey from expectation to fulfillment, from preparation to joy. Thus the Church’s services do not speak of Christmas as a mere event that occurred some two thousand years ago, but as something that is real and present here and now: ‘Today the Virgin comes to the cave’; ‘Today the Virgin gives birth”; “Today heaven and earth have been made one.’ It is this ‘today’ of the Church–the ‘today’ of God that traverses the centuries–which gives full meaning to Advent and to every Feast and season of the Orthodox Church.” (same source)
PS: Orthodox Mom is doing a giveaway of some Kindness Kids on her blog since the Christmas section at Target is already pretty decimated as I discovered on my trip there last night. So if you want to win a pair, head on over!