My family’s Advent ritual begins with the lighting of squat tea candles sitting atop a wooden wreath I made out of cedar shingles from our neighbor’s kindling pile, and a prayer. The wreath is simple, tacked together with wood glue and a few nails. If a storm comes and breaks off some pine boughs, perhaps we’ll add those too.
For the last two years my family has been observing Advent, the season when Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth and await his second coming, for three additional Sundays; instead of starting in December, we start in early November. This puts our family’s emphasis on the sense of expectation that defines Advent, and less so on the letters to Santa and mountains of presents that attend Christmas. It’s not that we’re abandoning gifts or Santa (though I’ve thought about it)—expanding Advent simply allows us to shift our focus during an otherwise chaotic season.
Expanded Advent was actually a common Christian practice up until the 11th or 12th century. The Advent Project, a small movement within the Episcopal Church, has aimed to bring it back, and almost 100 churches across the U.S. and Canada have adopted the practice.
For my family, the shift to expanded Advent came just as the weight of carrying out Christmas started to crush me. My boys were two and four, and December’s frenetic pace left me depleted and battling bronchitis. My immune system’s holiday collapse was becoming a tradition as consistent as filling the Advent calendar with goodies. I had started to wonder what this exhaustion was for, since my expectations rarely materialized. Instead of an idyllic family Christmas, our kids’ excitement would dissolve into turf wars over new toys that ended in meltdowns on Christmas morning. Meanwhile, my husband and I would debate when we could impose mandatory naptime in order to get some peace from the havoc we had created.