Friday, December 4, 2015

A Restful Christmas: How Our Family Celebrates Advent and a Book List!

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It is December, the beginning of the end of the year 2015. It is also the month of Advent! For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the word "advent" literally means arrival or coming. Christmas marks the arrival of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who "being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men" for the sole purpose of "[humbling] Himself and [becoming] obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:6-8). In Church tradition, Advent consists of the four Sundays (and the weeks following them) that lead up to Christmas. It is a season of waiting then -- of anticipation for His second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) and reflection on God's faithfulness through the ages (Deuteronomy 7:9; Psalm 98:2-4).

I did not grow up in a liturgical church tradition, but as an adult now I can see some of the value in it, or at least in certain aspects of it. So a few years ago, a dear, sweet mentor of mine introduced me to the idea of Advent and its celebrations, how that might look in a more Protestant culture, and how her family partook. I loved the idea and was eager to share the same types of traditions with my husband and children, so we began implementing it that very same year. Now, my family is not Catholic so how we celebrate might look different from how you celebrate or how you've seen Advent celebrated. That's because they are our traditions (now) -- this is what we do because they mean something special to us -- and if it's something you're interested in, we would encourage you to tweak and adjust to best fit your family as well. The goal being to hold Christ's first and second coming in the forefront of your minds throughout the month, so you don't lose sight of the real reason we even celebrate Christmas at all.

Family Devotions

Each year has been a little different in this arena. Most nights throughout the whole year, we gather as a family right before the kids' bedtime and read a Bible story from one of their children's Bibles, sing our family song (Psalm 23), and pray together. During Advent, we use this time to do a little more intentional study. This has looked like a borrowed, homemade devotional study, Phil Vischer's What's In the Bible? Why Do We Call It Christmas? DVD with Everyday Emmanuel activities, Truth in the Tinsel, and simple Scripture reading of Luke 2.
Last year, during the Christmas season, I finally purchased the book Jotham's Journey: A Storybook for Advent, by Arnold Ytreeide, and we are reading this for our family devotion time now. It came highly recommended from several folks that I trust very much, and now that we are reading it I can see why! It is a wonderful adventure story that paints a vivid picture of Christ's first coming from the perspective of a 10 year-old boy. It does have some intense scenes, so I am glad we waited until this year to introduce it. However, my kids are entranced as much as I am as we read, and I know it will be a treasured story for years to come.

Something we are also doing this year for family devotions is singing Christmas hymns. I've had this book for years, knowing it would be a useful resource for homeschool down the road. I let the kids take turns picking one or two carols from it each night that we then sing, in their entirety, together. They are loving it! We aren't going through the history of the songs at this point, but it's a great way to introduce these Christmas classics that are so rich in verse... you know, something a little deeper and meaningful than"Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."
The book and songs have become a beloved fixture in our family worship!

Light the Candles

There are four or five candles that are lit, one at a time, on each Sunday during Advent. They can be colored (purple, pink, and white), or not depending on your tradition. We typically do the colors because we like to talk about the symbolism.

First Sunday
Candle of Hope (purple)

Second Sunday
Candle of Love (purple)

Third Sunday
Candle of Joy (pink)

Fourth Sunday
Candle of Peace (purple)

Christmas Day/Eve
Christ Candle (white)

I have made an advent "wreath" each year in the past, usually just by arranging some fresh evergreen and my candles on a platter. This year, I've asked my dad to fashion some nice tree limb tea light holders for me, so until he is finished with those, we are just lining the candles up along the top of our piano where my big nativity set lies and lighting them at the beginning of our family worship time.

Homeschool: Advent Term


You might be wondering how we fit our homeschool into all of this... If we're doing so many special things for the Advent season, how do we have time for our regular school work? My answer is simply, "We don't." Way back when my oldest was in kindergarten, I adopted the notion to take a full month off of school for Christmas. There are just too many extra activities, too many other THINGS, that I want to devote our time to and no matter how hard I try to fit it all in, it's just not possible. And I'm okay with that. I would rather be saturated in the season, steeped in family traditions, stimulating a spirit of goodwill, and shaping special memories with my kids. So I take more of an "un-schooling" approach to this month-long term in our homeschool. Books on every subject are always readily available around our house, and of course we are not neglecting our regular library visits. We color in Christmas coloring books, make Christmas cards, write addresses on envelopes, bake and decorate cookies, design and put together handmade gifts, and minister to our neighbors with special treats and a simple Gospel message. This year, I decided to keep math in the mix on a regular basis just so my second grader stays on top of her facts, but I left the format up to her: she can choose her regular curriculum worksheets, Xtramath (online computer drill), or brush up her rough spots with Khan Academy (online lessons). It's simple, mostly child-led, and easy for mom, which is important for my sanity during this busy time!

Morning Time

We are keeping up with our daily "circle time" (or morning time, as we call it) during this school term, but even that looks a little different. I have pegged it to our breakfast because: 1) we always eat breakfast together, and 2) at this stage it is easiest to do give group instruction (with 7-, 5-, 3-, and 1-year olds) while hands and mouths are kept busy. ;) 
Normally we pray, and while the kids eat I read aloud a portion of Scripture or a short devotion and then a chapter from our family read-aloud. By then most of them are finished eating, so we do our memory work all together. This gets them up and moving around, but it keeps them engaged too. Then we sit back down and they can do their special activity books (coloring, stickers, or the like) that they use only for Morning Time, or grab a quiet busy bag or toy off the nearby shelf. While they keep their hands busy, I'll read from an "extra" book. It could be Shakespeare, hymn study, Christian hero stories, or a picture book... whatever work I have planned for that specific term. When we're done, the little ones move on to start/finish their morning chores and I keep my oldest for a few extra minutes to do map drill.
During Advent, our Morning Time table looks much the same: we begin breakfast with prayer and a devotion. I purchased Ann Voskamp's Advent book for children last year, so we are reading through it this month. Ya'll, it is wonderful!! Her poetic language is magnificent and I love how she connects some of the intricate details throughout Scripture to tell the story of Jesus. It's so neat to see arrows pointing to our Savior in places that I'd never noticed before! Some people are distracted by her style of writing, so it's not for everyone but I would at least recommend giving it a look-see. I have a few read-alouds on my list for this month. We're beginning with The Best Christmas Pageant Ever because I snagged it from my favorite used bookstore for cheap cheap cheap (BOGO Christmas books?! Can I get a "Halleluyer!") and had barely heard of it let alone read it before, so why not? We are loving it! It's pretty hilarious actually and the plot & characters are very engaging. We're set to finish it up this week, so next up is the Dickens' classic, A Christmas Carol. I also have borrowed Bambi: A Life in the Woods from our local library, so we will finish out the term reading that. I cut out our daily memory work, extra studies, and map drill, but we still do a full review on Fridays. In the future we may integrate some Christmas-specific memorization and some Christmas carol history, but not this year.

Nature Walks

One new thing I do hope to incorporate this month is a few nature walks. We do these regularly during warmer weather, but I'll be honest, I don't enjoy going outside in the cold and snow with four children in tow. Heck, I don't even like doing it on my own most of the time! It can be bitterly cold in Iowa this time of year, and with December stuck right in the middle of cold & flu season it can make for a miserable month. But I am determined to at least try to get out with them this year. We've been very careful to stock our closet with quality WARM gear to make it a little more bearable, so we're going to give it a go. There are so many wonderful things to observe outdoors during the winter! And if we 
shoot low, say one or two short walks on the nicer days, maybe we can actually make it work.

Book List

By far, the reason Advent has become such a treasured pastime for me and my family, is all the BOOKS! I have mentioned a few that we have used and read during our family worship and Morning Time, so here I would like to add the lot that we are reading outside of that. I don't own a heaping ton of Christmas books (though my book addiction is slowly closing in on this season too!) so I borrow a bunch from the library; I make a list and request them all to be delivered to the one closest to my home, so I'm not scrambling all over town to find them. The books I do purchase are, by and large, used, either bought online from one of my favorite retailers or from a local used book shop. Because when you have a penchant for children's books but also have a limited income, it's important to find good deals!

Once I have my stack of books in hand, I pull out my Christmas wrapping paper and get busy wrapping! Each book gets wrapped individually, numbered (1-25) and placed in a basket just for Advent reading. The kids then take turns each day unwrapping the book for the day and we snuggle on the couch or wherever and read together. Some days are allotted more than one book because there are just SO many great ones that it's hard for me to limit our options to only twenty-five. The kids don't seem to mind. ;) So these are the books that we're reading this year. It does vary a bit year-to-year, except for the ones that belong to our family's collection -- those are the tried and true-blue favorites! Now without further ado... my Top Ten, followed by the rest of the basket's contents (in no particular order):

Advent Book List
A Christmas Tapestry, by Patricia Polacco
One Wintry Night, by Ruth Bell Graham
The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry
The Little Match Girl, by Hans Christian Anderson
The Tale of the Three Trees, by Angela Elwell Hunt
An Orange for Frankie, by Patricia Polacco
Night Tree, by Eve Bunting
Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck

The Birds of Bethlehem, by Tomie dePaola
The Christmas Candle, by Richard Paul Evans
Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree, by Robert Barry
The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: an Appalachian Story, by Gloria Houston
Christmas Cricket, by Eve Bunting
Christmas in the Barn, by Margaret Wise Brown
Gifts of the Heart, by Patricia Polacco
It's Snowing!, by Gail Gibbons
Jacob's Gift, by Max Lucado
The Legend of the Christmas Rose, by William H. Hooks
Saint Nicholas, by Ann Tompert
Song of the Stars: a Christmas Story, by Sally Lloyd-Jones
Tacky's Christmas, by Helen Lester
This is the Stable, by Cynthia Cotten
Toot & Puddle: I'll be Home for Christmas, by Holly Hobbie
The Twelve Days of Christmas, by Jan Brett
The Crippled Lamb, by Max Lucado
The Legend of the Poinsettia, by Tomie dePaola
Humphrey's First Christmas, by Carol Heyer
The Big Snow, by Berta & Elmer Hader
The Wild Christmas Reindeer, by Jan Brett
White Snow Bright Snow, by Alvin Tresselt
A Shepherd's Gift, by Mary Calhoun
How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss
The Jacket I Wear in the Snow, by Shirley Neitzel
The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs
The Berenstain Bears Meet Santa Bear, by Stan & Jan Berenstain
A Very Marley Christmas, by John Grogan
Mickey's Christmas Carol, (by Disney)
Board Books:
Christmas in the Manger, by Nola Buck
What Am I? Christmas, (author unknown)
Look Who's Jolly, (author unknown)
Baby's First Nativity, (author unknown)
Christmas Peekaboo!, (DK publishing)

I hope this gives you a good starting place! Remember to check out your local library and favorite used bookstores first, whether local or online. There is typically a high turnover for holiday books, so you should be able to grab a few great bargains to get you started on your own Advent library collection. Happy reading!

Community Outreach

In years past, we have made conscious efforts to get out into our neighborhood and community and reach out our hands with goodwill and kindness and the Gospel during the month of December. We have participated in simple random acts of kindness, non-profit and food bank donations, Operation Christmas Child shoebox parties, and the like, but I was convicted this year to take a step back from these activities. Don't get me wrong, these are all admirable, kind-hearted, and even critical things to do! Many ministries rely on this "season of giving," when people are feeling a bit more generous than other months through the year, to bolster their efforts and make a greater dent in fulfilling their outreaches' needs. And if you participate in some of these activities, please do not stop! Supporting missions in your community and abroad are incredibly important and the impact they can have for the Gospel is far-reaching. But my husband and I have decided that for our family, the best coarse of action is to spread our outreach across the full year instead of localizing the majority of our efforts, both physically and financially, to a single month. There are a myriad of opportunities to give or get involved at any given time, and when we allow ourselves the freedom to choose our involvement as occasion or need arises and as the Spirit leads, I think we can be more effective in our chosen partnerships. So, setting aside the "burden" to do ALL the things, we are able to then devote more of our time now to training our mindset to be one that is focused and intentional with the Gospel continuously. Because as we set our minds on things above (Colossians 3:2) and the return of our coming King, we align our wills with His and are more prepared to DO the thing He calls us to.
Now with that said, we have chosen to participate in a couple of activities this month, including a nursing home outreach with our church and Christmas caroling with our homeschool co-op. We don't have to remove ourselves completely to have peace. ;) But you do what's right for your family.

These are the things that form the spine of our family's Advent traditions. There are, of course, other activities that we like to do... like movie nights, Polar Express night, or own very own Night Tree! But at least you have a taste now, and hopefully some ideas of how to make the Christmas season more meaningful for your own family.

Merry Christmas!