Each winter families all over the world celebrate the Advent season, the four weeks of December leading up to the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas day.
Advent is the liturgical season marked by a spiritual time of prayerful waiting, expectation, and preparation: remembering the birth of Christ in the past, awareness of his presence in our hearts today, and awaiting his Second Coming in the future.
Advent traditions are a great way to encourage and strengthen the natural bonding of families with each other and with God.
Over the centuries, and even in recent decades, several Advent traditions have emerged as favorites among families. Not surprisingly, they are ones that best teach kids about the Christian faith and help them join with the Church’s liturgical calendar.
So, here are the top four Advent activities for kids to help your family receive much grace and blessing this holiday season. Each one can be added to, or “dressed up” to make a special time of learning and hands-on play time with children. Make a new Advent tradition this year!
1. JESSE TREE
The Jesse Tree is an Advent activity that symbolizes the ancestry of Jesus. It’s just like the family trees we often construct to illustrate the descendants of our own grandparents and great-grandparents. So, making Jesus’ family tree is a fun way to teach children some of the best Bible stories and get them excited about the upcoming birthday of Jesus.
The Jesse Tree gets its name from the passage in Isaiah 11:1-3 that reads,
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”
The Jesse Tree adds a visual representation of Jesus’ ancestral genealogy as given in the Gospels of Matthew:
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers . . . “ etc.
Now since Jesus has such a long lineage, key figures are taken out to represent his family tree. These are the major biblical figures that best represent salvation history, such as the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, along with King David, King Solomon, all the way to St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary.
Jesse tree kits come in a variety of styles (whether you use a real tree, tree branches, or a flat paper tree) and children can draw or color symbols associated with each biblical figure and hang or paste them on the Jesse Tree. This can be completed all at once as a single Advent activity, or children can hang one ornament per day through the whole Advent season.
2. ADVENT CALENDAR
The Advent calendar counts down the 24 days of December ending on Christmas Eve. Advent calendars are a great way to engage children in the entire Christmas season by helping them channel their anticipation and excitement of the approaching Christmas Day, while keeping that anticipation focused on the birth of the baby Jesus. It is a joyful and popular activity that helps kids learn how to join with the Church in waiting, expectation, and preparation of the Advent season as they count the days off one by one.
There are many styles of Advent calendars available. Usually the popular and inexpensive versions are made of card stock with 24 numbered and perforated doors or windows. Each day one is opened to reveal a special picture, or a special message, or even a piece of milk chocolate candy. There are also many fancier versions you can buy as well, made out of velcro or even wood, or you can get creative and hand-make them at home.
3. ADVENT WREATH
The Advent wreath is perhaps the most common Advent symbol, and is also one of the most popular Advent traditions for the home. Each part of the Advent wreath symbolizes our spiritual preparation for the birth of the world’s Messiah, Jesus Christ, on Christmas day: the circular shape of the Advent wreath symbolizes eternal life; the purple Advent candles symbolize our repentance and waiting; the pink Advent candle symbolizes our joy of Christmas coming soon, only one week away.
Each of the four candles represents the 4,000 years of waiting for the coming of the promised Messiah, from Adam and Eve in the Old Testament up to the time of St. Joseph and Mary in the New Testament. One candle is lit on each Sunday of Advent, often accompanied by a special prayer and Scripture readings that go along with the meaning of each week. Sometimes a fifth white candle is added, often called the “Christ candle” that is lit on Christmas day. Together, the soft candlelight rising from the Advent candles symbolize the coming of Jesus as “The Light of the World.” There are many styles of Advent wreaths available, from traditional evergreen wreaths to children’s Advent wreaths.
4. NATIVITY SCENE
The first nativity manger scene was created by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. St. Francis had a special devotion to the Infant Jesus and even had visions of the Child Jesus. Ever since, nativity scenes have been a popular Christmas celebration in Christian homes and churches across the world. Displaying a nativity scene near the Christmas tree is a reminder for the whole family of the reason for the season.
Nativity scenes are usually store bought and come in a variety of styles, from children’s nativity play-sets to elaborate and traditional heirloom-quality nativity sets. Nativity scenes can be fun for kids because you can “dress them up” in a variety of ways by creating a whole scene into which they are featured. For example, you can turn it into a snow-scape or a desert-scape, or re-create a Bethlehem stable scene.
Of all the seasons of the year, the Advent and Christmas seasons are undoubtedly the favorite for children and offers them the most to get excited about. These Advent activities channel that natural anticipation and excitement and directs it towards learning more about the Christian faith, and reserving a special place for Jesus in their hearts. With these fun activities, children have to much more to look forward to than just Christmas presents!
Are there any other Advent activities that have become a family tradition in your home? If so, please share with our readers in the comments below.
Here’s another Advent tradition you might like to try this year: Teach Children How to Make Small Sacrifices for the Baby Jesus During Advent.
This article has been updated and was originally published in November 2012. © The Catholic Company. All rights reserved.