It seems that the most significant aspect of our Advent celebrations is to hold back the tide of music, lights, presents and parties so that we can make a distinction between preparing for and celebrating Christmas. It's so much more enjoyable and special (and less stressful - really!) that way. Here's a little tour of what Advent looks like in our house, with a little room for natural variations from year to year.
(By the way, our favorite book about Advent is Advent and Christmas in the Christian Family by Teresa Zepeda and Laurie Navar Gill - we bought this when Ria was two years old and it's had a big impact)
Long before Advent starts, we get ready for one of our favorite Christmas projects which, unfortunately, we missed out on this year. Sometime in October, our parish has sign-up sheets for their "giving tree". We sign up a pregnancy help center in Milwaukee (almost) every year for several car seats, several port-a-cribs and a variety of baby clothes, diaper bags, etc. We pick these up the first week of December (they're all wrapped and decorated) and John delivers them to the very grateful volunteers in downtown Milwaukee. This is the first year we've missed it since we started doing it about five years ago. :(
On the other side of things (also before Advent starts) we generally pick an ornament from the giving tree as one of our projects. We generally pick a "food needed" ornament for a family around the size of our own. We do a big shopping trip both at the local grocery store and Sam's Club and let the kids pick out some things (including lots of practical, but also some fun and celebratory foods).
The past two years we've put together the local public Library's "Holiday Tree" too. Though this hasn't been particularly religious in nature, it's still a small bow in the direction of Christmas, it's a worthwhile work of service and it's been an opportunity for some in our community to get to know some homeschoolers. It's also turned into an opportunity to suggest some worthwhile books to the library.
First Sunday of Advent:
I don't think I've ever purchased my Advent candles more than two or three days before the first day of Advent. Usually one of our local grocery or discount stores will have some sort of purple and pink candles that will do. This year we have "pillar" candles with pink and purple ribbons (it was either that or really compromise on what constituted purple and pink).
One of my favorite things about Advent is that, because of the Advent wreath, we almost always eat dinner around the dining room table instead of around the kitchen counter (as we usually do). We have an artificial wreath (an inexpensive wreath wrapped around with additional greenery and little bunches of holly) and two different pairs of glass candlesticks - one set is taller than the other). We also keep a candle snuffer by the wreath and the kids scrupulously take turns snuffing out the candles after dinner. Before we eat, we light the appropriate number of candles and sing a verse or two of O Come, O Come Emmanuel (usually a verse in English and a verse in Latin, if I remember right - these details tend to be "dictated" by the kids).
In the beginning of Advent we usually start reading from the Old Testament a little each night at dinner, loosely basing it on the Jesse Tree readings. Our Jesse Trees have varied from year to year. Last year we put up our Christmas tree quite early since John was heading to Taiwan right in the middle of Advent. For awhile at least, the kids each made an ornament for each of the Jesse Tree readings and put them on the Christmas tree. This year, I'm hoping to find some small wooden blocks to try something like Alice's idea, but without the tree in the background. I think it would work well for us to build the blocks up into pyramids on the mantle - perhaps more representative of "roots" than a "tree". We don't usually manage to keep the readings up as faithfully as the Advent wreath - especially since John seems to have to travel every Advent. Still, it's always worth trying again!
My father-in-law made each of his children's families a beautiful nearly-life-sized manger a number of years ago. A baby doll plays the role of Baby Jesus on Christmas morning. Throughout Advent, the children place pieces of yellow construction paper "straw" in the manger when they do a good deed of some sort (finishing their school, going to Mass, helping one of their siblings, etc. all count). That way, on Christmas, Jesus has a nice soft bed to lie in.
Often, but not always, we make advent chains out of purple and pink paper - one for each day of Advent - a chain for each child. These are hung around the room and the kids love to watch them get smaller and smaller as they get closer to Christmas. Some years I've written little "Advent tasks" on each one - a prayer to say, a good work to do, etc. Unfortunately, last year, most of them fell off the wall (haven't found a great way to secure them) and were eaten by the dog (last year was our first Christmas with a dog and she presented a number of challenges).
I love it that the Christmas season has become a traditional time to keep in touch with friends and family. I love Christmas cards and hearing from old friends. We string our cards on colored-yarn across a large doorway and hang all the photos on our fridge. I get Christmas Cards out most years, but don't usually make it all the way through my "list".
St. Andrew's Day (November 30):
This falls before the first Sunday of Advent this year. We like the Christmas novena which begins on this day.
St. Nicholas Day (December 6):
In the Milwaukee area, the tradition has endured for generations to celebrate St. Nicholas Day by hanging stockings on St. Nicholas Eve. Neighbors, friends and people out on the street are actually preparing for this in common. It's kind of neat! Our kids generally leave a Christmas wish list in their stocking, along with a list of what they will try to do to prepare for Baby Jesus' Birthday. We like to emphasize the traditional roots of Santa Claus through "old-fashioned" Santa decorations, stories, and some neat Santa paper dolls from Dover Publications.
We also take out our Nativity set stable (this was handmade by my husband out of scrap wood from a discarded futon bed a number of years ago) with some animals and shepherds for St. Nicholas Day. Mary and Joseph appear on the other side of the house, beginning their journey. We have a Roman Soldier reading a proclamation near their starting point. The whole family joins in the process of moving Mary and Joseph appropriately around the house throughout the season. Unfortunately, they do "lose their way" on occasion.
Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8):
Holy Day of Obligation and usually a day to celebrate with a cake, at least. We have some lovely Marian children's books I like to take out at this time too, such as Tomie de Paola's Mary the Mother of God. We've recently welcomed a large statue of Our Lady of Fatima into our home. I'm hoping to start a new tradition of a little Marian procession (with singing of course) for Marian feast days.
Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12):
This is a particularly special day we always remember (partly because of our California roots, I suppose). We try to make it to Mass and we always read Tomie de Paola's The Lady of Guadalupe. We have a large picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the living room. My sister-in-law brought it back from Mexico a number of years ago and John built a hand-made frame for it.
St. Lucy's Feast Day (Decmeber 13):
We've only officially made St. Lucy's Day Buns once (though it was particularly memorable). Rumor has it that plans are afoot for some real baking again this year. We've certainly got enough girls (and lovers-of-baking) to manage it.
Somewhere in the middle of Advent, depending somewhat on the weather, we start decorating the house (a little inside and a little outside) with Christmas lights. The deck railing in back and some smaller trees in front are the main projects to tackle. Last year (the first year we had roses, which we take inside each winter) we decorated the rose bushes with lights and a few bulbs.
Our "standard" day to get a Christmas tree is on the third Sunday of Advent. We try not to do it early, but don't want to make things too much of a rush on Christmas eve, so we just hold off pretty much as long as we can. We always get a live tree (though they are significantly drier and less expensive by this point). Once John puts the tree up (oops, we need a new stand this year - he accidentally melted it in the fire pit in back last year) and I put up the lights, we let the kids at it, one category of ornaments at a time. First, plain red bulbs (and try to spread them out), then candycanes (no, you can't eat any yet!), cardboard angel ornaments (actually quite pretty) then various homemade and purchased ornaments of all sorts. 99% of our ornaments are unbreakable, and it's really nice. The kids LOVE helping and it really works out pretty well.
Books and Music:
Most of our favorite books are listed here.
We make an effort to sing Advent songs throughout Advent, but also take out our Christmas CDs somewhere in the middle of the season. Here are a few of our favorite Christmas albums:
The Bells of Dublin (The Chieftains)
Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite (my kids also love the movie version with Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker)
The Christmas Song (Nat King Cole)
Kings College Choir: O Come All Ye Faithful (Musical Heritage Society)
This year, a friend of mine and I are "adopting" the Christmas Eve over-flow mass in our parish gym. We sang for this last year and realized that it was sadly neglected. There is only one Mass down there and decorations were sadly minimal (two poinsettia plants and two very sad-looking Christmas trees). I'll be bringing a team of our co-op teens over to help decorate a few days before and hope to secure a number of trees inexpensively beforehand (I think live ones - very much on the dry side by that point, but suitable for one night's use - might be the ticket). As it happens, since we've been doing the Library tree too, we were able secure some of their discarded ornaments - including dozens and dozens of bulbs. The library has switched over to all unbreakable bulbs (so nice with little ones running around), but these should be very suitable for our needs.
I expect to be adding to this over the coming weeks.