For Mrs. Sharp's family, the holiday excitement begins as soon as the Thanksgiving turkey starts simmering on the stove for soup. Then we put away the everyday china to make room for the Christmas crockery and bring out the Advent Box.
"Advent Box, Mrs. Sharp? Is this another old-fashioned Victorian tradition?"
No, dear readers. Advent is one of the oldest celebrations of the Christmas season, dating back at least 14 centuries. The Advent season--the four weeks preceding Christmas--is traditionally set aside for spiritual preparation before the Nativity of Christ. Mrs. Sharp likes to think that Advent is the doorway through which we enter into a joyful Christmas.
And the Advent Box is just a cardboard box, clearly labeled "Advent" (to distinguish it from the hundreds of "Xmas boxes" in the attic). It contains all the books, supplies and materials Mrs. Sharp needs early in December in order to celebrate Advent.
Do you observe the season of Advent in your home? Victorian families did, for the many colorful customs that surround its observance--the Advent calendar, wreath and candles, as well as mini-festivals such as St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) and St. Lucia's Day (Dec. 13)--all added to the children's understanding and appreciation of Christmas.
Our first tradition is the Advent wreath. On the first Sunday in Advent (this year, Nov. 29), Victorian families would suspend an evergreen wreath with a single red candle over the dining room table. Every day a white or gold paper star with a biblical verse would be added and another candle every Sunday until Christmas.
Your family will enjoy their Advent wreath, too. One of the easiest ways to make one is to use a wire hoop with four candle holders or a circular Styrofoam base with four candle holes (available at most craft or florist shops). Next, place a plain evergreen wreath on top of the base; if using a wire hoop, secure the wreath with thin wire or pin it to the Styrofoam with hairpins.
While the suspended Advent wreath is enchanting, Mrs. Sharp prefers, for safety's sake, to leave ours lying flat on the table. After we've inserted four red candles and tied four red bows in between, the effect is just as festive. Each day during Advent the children take turns adding one large gold foil paper star (available at stationery stores) to the top of the wreath.
You can easily turn your Advent wreath-making into a family party by adding Advent wreath cookies and mulled cider. Simply take ready-made refrigerator cookie dough, roll into eight-inch, pencil-sized strips and shape them into wreaths. Before baking, let the children sprinkle them with red and green decorative sugar.
During the 1880s, European craftsman made elaborate Advent calendars, which families used to tell the Christmas story. Each calendar contains 24 windows. Beginning Dec. 1, one little flap is lifted each day, with the story completed on Christmas Eve.
While Victorian Advent calendars were almost all religious, today a number of calendars with holiday themes--from the Nativity to "The Nutcracker"--are available. To insure domestic tranquillity, be sure all family members from the youngest to the oldest (including Mother and Father) has their own Advent calendar.
Another charming Advent custom is the lighting of an Advent candle, a beautiful white taper that counts off the 24 days until Christmas with colorful red numbers and holiday decorations. We place our Advent candle in the center of the Advent wreath and each night, at supper, we light the candle to burn off another day until Christmas (Advent candles, $2.25 from Abbey Press, St. Meinrad, Ind. 47577, (812) 357-8393).
Your family might also enjoy Mrs. Sharp's tradition of an oral Advent calendar. After supper, while everyone is still at the table, we take turns reading a short (less than five minutes) seasonal story or verse aloud. These are arranged one per day until Christmas in the delightful book, "Follow The Year: A Family Celebration of Christian Holidays" by Mala Powers ($14.95, Harper & Row, San Francisco).
Finally, on the first Sunday of Advent, Mrs. Sharp's family sets up the empty creche. For every good deed--a job well done, a thoughtful gesture, even patient waiting--a child is permitted to place straw into the empty manger in order to make a cozy bed for the baby Jesus. This gathering ritual is performed just before bedtime. It is a tangible way to demonstrate to young children how their good deeds grow into gifts from the heart.
By sharing Advent traditions, parents and children can discover special moments of family togetherness through simple pleasures and give each other a holiday gift of precious memories.