A few years before our first child was born, my husband and I joined a Baptist church that celebrated Advent.
Neither of us had past family traditions of Advent, so we began creating traditions. We tried calendars, wreaths and daily devotionals, and gradually created some traditions that became our own.
This experience has taught me that there is no right or wrong way to “do” Advent, as long as you remember that Advent is about anticipation – waiting for the arrival of Emmanuel, God with us.
A new question arose with the birth of our first child: “How do you teach children about waiting, anticipating the arrival of Emmanuel?”
I learned that first I had to quiet myself and prepare for the Advent season. I could not teach my children about expectantly waiting if I was too busy with all the distractions of the holiday season.
I had to make choices about what our family could and could not do. We could not to go to every concert and party, for example. Eventually, giving ourselves permission not to go to every Christmas event was a great blessing.
As we tried various ways to teach our children about Advent, our favorite tradition became the Advent chain. This was a simple paper chain that our church gave my daughter when she was very young.
Printed on each link of the chain were the dates from Dec. 1 to Dec. 25. On the inside of each link was a short part of the Christmas narratives beginning with God’s promise of a Messiah and continuing on to Elizabeth and Zachariah, the angel’s announcements to Joseph and Mary, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem and culminating in the birth of the Savior.
We set a time each day to read that day’s part of the story, and the anticipation built as no one was allowed to read ahead.
This also provided a visible reminder of how much longer we had to wait for the arrival of the Messiah as the chain grew shorter each day.
This planned time of just a few minutes focus each day on the meaning of Advent gave us opportunities to share our faith with each other and to find out how our children were connecting with the Bible stories.
Because 25 days seemed impossibly long to our son, we added special links in our chain for each Sunday in Advent. We cut three purple strips and one pink paper strip.
On the first purple strip we wrote “1st Sunday in Advent” on one side and the word “Hope” on the other side with a Bible verse about hope.
On the second purple strip we wrote “2nd Sunday in Advent” and the word “Peace” with a Bible verse about peace.
On the pink strip we wrote “3rd Sunday in Advent” and the word “Joy” with a Bible verse about joy.
And on the third purple strip we wrote “4th Sunday in Advent” and the word “Love” with a verse about love.
We also added a white link for Christmas Day at the end. Our son would get very excited as we got to one of those special links in the chain each Sunday. He was really excited one year when the first Sunday in Advent was in November so we started the chain with a purple link.
Setting up our nativity scene became part of our Advent chain tradition, too. As we got to the part of the chain that told the story about when Mary and Joseph began their journey to Bethlehem, we would set up our nativity scene with only the stable, the animals and the crèche.
We could only add Mary and Joseph to our nativity when that day’s reading was about the couple arriving in Bethlehem. We had to wait until Christmas Day for Baby Jesus, Emmanuel to arrive!
As our children got a little older and I became more comfortable with the idea of lighting candles, we added a traditional Advent wreath and lit the appropriate candles each Sunday of Advent.
Some of our best conversations came from hearing our children plan how they could live out the four special Advent words, from how to be kind to that kid at school that nobody likes to what the Light of Christ coming into the world meant to them.
While children can and should learn about Advent in worship on Sundays during the children’s sermon and in Sunday school classes, there are also many ways for parents to teach their children about Advent at home.
Introducing children to Advent is about taking time to share the stories of your faith with them and about taking time to listen to them tell you about how Emmanuel, the Light of Christ, is coming into their lives.
Dorothy Strickland is the minister to children and their families at the First Baptist Church of Austin, Texas.