A Beginner's Guide to Celebrating Advent
Stores and radio stations have already begun to prepare us for Christmas, trotting out their decorations and playing seasonal music much earlier than the day after Thanksgiving that was once the traditional beginning of the Christmas season in the past. For families and individuals who want a less commercial and more spiritual period of preparation, here are a few ideas, some arising from long-standing Christian traditions and practice and others having developed from our own family’s practical experience.
Decorating . . . with a Purpose
It is no secret that so many of our traditional Christmas decorations actually have pre-Christian antecedents. While few today look at Christmas trees, lights, mistletoe, and Yule logs and think of the early pagan midwinter festivals and practices they came from, these decorations can be more than just festive if we take the time to think and talk about the Christian meanings that we have since given them.
In our family, we decorate the tree and put up most of our decorations on the Monday after Thanksgiving. That gives us a chance to use our Family Home Evening to talk about the symbolism that we have given each of these decorations (see, for example, Sherry Dillehay “On the Symbolism of Christmas” from “The Sixth Word,” Especially for Mormons, Vol. 2, and Eric D. Huntsman, Good Tidings of Great Joy, 8). We talk about how the green Christmas tree and wreaths represent the eternal life that Jesus was born to bring, and we point out how the lights, both outside and inside our home, represent that Jesus, the True Light, came to light up a world in darkness. Likewise, the stars on our trees and even in the shapes of our cookies remind us of the Star of Bethlehem, calling us, too, to come to the newborn King.
But in addition to these kinds of trimmings, we have decided to make one set in particular the center of our Christmas decorations. While the tree and other decorations go up on the Monday after Thanksgiving, the day before, on Sunday, we set up our Nativity scene. Setting up this crèche has become a treasured tradition in our family. Elaine and I bought the stable and the figures of the Holy Family, a shepherd, and the wise men for the first Christmas in our first home. Since then we have established the pattern of buying one new figure each Christmas season to add to the set—which is fast becoming quite a crowd! But by putting the Nativity out first, it helps the children, and us, remember what the holiday is all about throughout the season.
While stores use a month (or more) to prepare us to shop for Christmas, we try to use that month as a season of spiritual preparation. Many Christian traditions have long used the four weeks as a period to celebrate the Advent, or coming, of Jesus Christ into the world. While celebrating Advent is not a common Latter-day Saint practice, many with German or Scandinavian roots or those who are converts from other faiths may be familiar with the practice of using the four Sundays before Christmas as a special time to gather and look forward to the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Advent can also look forward to his glorious Second Coming that still lies ahead.
In 2002, our family decided to add a modified version of Advent to our Christmas traditions. Like many who observe Advent more formally, we purchased a simple green wreath and set in its circle four candles and placed a single white candle in the middle. On the fourth Sunday before Christmas we light the first candle, and each Sunday thereafter we light another until Christmas Eve, when we light the center candle as well.
Lighting these candles each Sunday of Advent and then again on Christmas Eve provides us with an opportunity to hold a family devotional that helps us keep our Christmas focused on the birth of Jesus and the joyful hope of his return. One tradition holds that these candles represent the Advent themes of hope, love, joy, and peace, so on each of the four Sundays before Christmas we read selections from the scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, and talk about how they relate to those themes. After singing a seasonal song, we have our family prayer and then move to more fun traditions, such as opening that day’s pocket in our Advent calendar and then sharing a treat together.
Having a Scripture-Centered Holiday
Reading scriptural passages together on each of the Sundays of Advent is only one of the ways we have tried to keep the scriptures the center of our holiday season. Borrowing ideas from others, we have put together a list of scriptures about the coming of Christ and use it together with a collection of Christmas stories and carols that we draw upon for each of the days in December leading up to Christmas Eve. Before our family prayer each night during that month, we gather to read a story, read a scripture, and sing. These daily Christmas devotionals have done much to keep all the commercialism and other festive holiday practices from squeezing out the true meaning of Christmas.
But in addition to this use of the scriptures with my family, I have found that in-depth personal study of the coming of Jesus Christ does more than anything else to bring the Spirit into my life and help me focus on the meaning of Jesus’ birth—and his later suffering, death, and resurrection. There are four weeks in the Advent season, and there also happen to be four chapters in the so-called Infancy Narratives of Mathew and Luke. So part of my personal study each December is to read, study, and think about Matthew 1 the first week, Luke 1 the second, Luke 2 the third, and finally Matthew 2 the fourth. When I do this, I am better able to teach and bear testimony of what Christmas is all about when we finally arrive at Christmas Eve.
Remember What the Gifts Are All About
The happy custom of exchanging gifts first and foremost is a recollection of how God so loved the world that he gave us the greatest gift, the gift of his only Begotten Son (see John 3:16–17), and how Jesus so loved us that he was willing to die, and rise, for us (see John 15:13). Like many, we use the story of the wise men bringing gifts as a precedent for our own gift-giving (Matthew 2:11), but in addition to thoughtfully making or purchasing gifts for our loved ones as a way of showing our love, we also talk about what gifts we can offer our Savior that year. A few years ago we adopted the tradition of some friends who hand out a small card with a picture of Mary or Joseph with the Baby Jesus to each member of the family on Christmas Eve. We then take time to write on the back of that card what we can offer the Savior that year in return for His love and mercy.
The True Meaning of Christmas
Recalling why Jesus came into the world reminds us of an important fact, that “there would be no Christmas if there had not been Easter. The babe Jesus of Bethlehem would be but another baby without the redeeming Christ of Gethsemane and Calvary, and the triumphant fact of the Resurrection.” As a result, as we decorate, I always point out that besides green, the other traditional color of Christmas is red, reminding us of the blood that Jesus would shed for us. Likewise, when we celebrate Advent, we use the fifth candle, which we light on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day, to represent a new Advent theme, that of the salvation that Jesus Christ came to bring.
Finally, just as I make the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke the focus of special study during the four weeks before Christmas, I also read with them beautiful prophecies about the coming of Christ from the Book of Mormon such as 1 Nephi 11:12–33, Mosiah 3:1–13, Alma 7:9–14, Helaman 14:1–8, and 3 Nephi 1:1–21. These passages not only talk about birth of Jesus, they also tie it directly to his atoning sacrifice and Resurrection, making the “good tidings of great joy” of the Christmas story as much about the “glad tidings of great joy” of Easter.
Ideas for the Sundays of Advent
First Sunday of Advent: Hope
• Scriptures about hope: Isaiah 61:1–2; Jacob 4:4–5; Romans 5:1–5; Moroni 7:41; 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17
• Read the Annunciation to Zacharias: Luke 1:5–17
• Suggested song: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”
• Week’s study: Matthew 1, Son of David
Second Sunday of Advent: Love
• Scriptures about love: Isaiah 49:13–16; 1 Nephi 11:14–22; John 3:16–17; Moroni 7:47–48
• Read the Annunciation to Mary: Luke 1:26–38
• Suggested songs: “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “O Holy Night”
• Week’s study: Luke 1, Promised Savior
Third Sunday of Advent: Joy
• Scriptures about joy: Isaiah 12:2–5; Mosiah 3:3–4; John 16:20–22
• Read the Visitation of Mary to Elisabeth and Mary’s Magnificat: Luke 1:39–55
• Suggested songs: “Joy to the World,” “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” “The Holly and the Ivy”
• Week’s study: Luke 2, Babe of Bethlehem
Fourth Sunday of Advent: Peace
• Scriptures about Peace: Isaiah 11:1–4, 6–10; Mosiah 15:18–20; John 14:27; Philippians 4:7
• Read the Annunciation to Joseph: Matthew 1:18–23
• Suggested song: “It Came upon the Midnight Clear”
• Week’s study: Matthew 2, King of Israel
Eric Huntsman is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He has authored or co-authored many books, and his most recent book, Good Tidings of Great Joy, is a book of ideas for celebrating Christ’s birth throughout the Christmas season, and is a companion volume to God So Loved the World. Click here for more information.