Remember what it was like, keeping Lent and Pascha at home this year? There was so much that we couldn’t do, because of the pandemic. That meant we had to figure out a different way of celebrating. We had to build on the foundations of our traditions, to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience to bring the joy of Pascha to our homes and families.
It looks like we get to do that again. Most of us will be celebrating Advent and Christmas at home. We may not be attending services, or gathering with family and friends. If we focus on what we usually do, what we want to do, what we can’t do, we’ll feel like we’re not celebrating Advent or Christmas at all.
So, just as we did at Pascha, we have to focus on what we can do to find joy in this holiday season.
How to embrace the holiday season in a pandemic
Most years, most of us try to do too much during the holidays. We attend all the services, the Christmas pageant, the concerts and special events. We shop, we cook, we decorate. We spend time with all our family and friends. We try to do everything, and by the time Christmas arrives, we feel burnt out and exhausted.
We don’t have to do that this year. The pandemic provides an opportunity to cut back on the busy-ness, focus on what matters the most, and let everything else go.
Traditions at home
Routines and traditions are especially important in uncertain times. Daily and weekly routines provide a sense of stability. The rhythm of life, doing the same things in the same way, every day, every week, help you feel grounded. These things provide a sense of connection to the past and the future. They make the world feel predictable, and therefore safe.
The holiday traditions that you keep at home seem especially important this year. There may be many things we can’t do — attending services at church, traveling to celebrate the holidays with family far away. Keeping our usual traditions at home, or building new traditions, will help us weave the current year into the tapestry of our faith and our lives. These traditions will help us build connections that transcend place and time. And this year, that seems like a wonderful gift for all of us.
How do you start Advent?
For those of us on the New Calendar, Advent starts in just a few days! I’m not sure I’m ready for it, but it’s coming. And here are the things I always do at the beginning of Advent.
First, I bring out my collection of Christmas picture books and arrange them on the display shelf of the big bookcase in the living room. The books are a visible reminder that God is coming in the form of a little child. They help me prepare my heart for Christmas in ways that nothing else does.
Second, I set out the nativity set that my mother made.
Third, I get out my St. Nicholas collection. It fills up the mantel and spills over onto adjoining shelves and even the top of the Victrola. Many of the St. Nicholases were gifts from family members or dear friends. Others, I bought when traveling. Together, they join my love for St. Nicholas to memories of people I love, in a web that connects them all in my heart with joy.
For me, these things are like flowers at Pascha. They’re a visible reminder of the season. They connect this year to years past and years to come, to loved ones who are here, or far away, or who have already died.
What about you? Besides shifting from ham sandwiches to peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, what are the things that center you and ground you in the Advent season?
Things to do throughout Advent
Here are some ideas for things you can do to observe Advent at home, to keep your heart focused on the fact that the Nativity is coming. You may find these sorts of Advent activities easier to do this year than in the past, if you’re not traveling or going to parties or other events during Advent.
- Light Advent candles.
- Make a Jesse tree.
- Fill an Advent basket for your local food bank.
- Make a kindness manger.
- Make ornaments.
You can make your Advent wreath as fancy or as simple as you like. You just need 7 candles. Arrange 6 candles in a circle, with the 7th candle in the middle. Decorate as you please, with bits of holly and evergreen if you have that, or ribbons and bows. Light the candles at evening prayers each Sunday. On the first Sunday of Advent (which, this year, is the first day of Advent!), light the first candle in the circle. On the second Sunday, light the first and second candle, and so on through the 6th Sunday. As more candles are lit, we’re reminded that the Light of Christ is coming soon. On Christmas day, light all the candles and the candle in the middle. Then, for every day of Christmas, light the middle candle. If you want to get fancy, you can use different colored candles and have Scripture readings with each candle, as described here.
A Jesse tree, if you’ve never made one, is rather like an Advent calendar that tells the story of Jesus from Creation to Christmas. For each day of Advent, you have a Bible story, perhaps with a brief meditation, and an ornament that goes with it. You hang the ornament on a tree, a bare branch in a vase, a ribbon strung across the wall, or even, as a friend of mine does, on a chandelier! You can make your own ornaments, of course. But you may want to buy the JJesse tree ornament set and book by Elissa Bjeletich. More on this later!
Get out your largest Pascha basket, and put it in the kitchen or near your icon corner. Each day during Advent, when you have your family prayers, get an unopened, nonperishable item out of your pantry and add it to the basket. A jar of peanut butter, a can of tuna, a box of noodles, that sort of thing. On the day after Christmas, take the basket to your local food bank. They’ll need to restock their shelves after Christmas.
For this project, you just need a small box (maybe a shoe box) as a manger, and lots of pieces of yellow yarn, all cut to about the length of the manger, more or less. And on Christmas morning, you’ll need a doll that will fit in the manger. Throughout Advent, every time someone notices an act of kindness, they ask the kind person to put a straw in the manger. On Christmas morning, the baby doll (wrapped in cotton) is placed in a manger full of kindness. If you want to read more about it, check out the kindness manger on Many Mercies.
My friend Jennifer does Christmas crafts with her family every Wednesday afternoon during Advent. If you want to follow her lead, try making red egg ornaments. Or cinnamon applesauce ornaments. String cranberry and popcorn garlands. Make paper snowflakes. Whatever makes your heart happy!
If it’s all too much
If you’re working from home, and trying to manage your children’s online schooling, this all might sound like too much. School, work, shopping, may all be so disrupted that you just can’t add anything without feeling like it’s all going to come crashing down around you. If that’s the case, don’t stress. This year is what it is. Here are some small things you may be able to manage. There’s nothing to buy, and nothing to prepare. They may be just what you need to prepare for the Nativity with joy.
- Read Christmas picture books with your little ones.
- Sing Christmas songs.
- Practice gratitude.
- White board Advent countdown.
Little ones love to hear the same story over and over and over again. So get out all of your Christmas picture books, and read them with your children at storytime and bedtime every day. Or let them read the books to each other, if they can.
Yes, I know it’s not Christmas yet. It’s Advent. And maybe it’s not time to sing Christmas songs. But your family knows a lot of Christmas songs, yes? Songs that you love? Songs that make you long for Christmas? Those might be exactly the songs to sing now. Sing the ones you love most at supper time, or at breakfast, or after your prayers.
At supper time or bedtime every day during Advent, have each person in your family say one thing that they’re thankful for. If you have time, read a portion of the Akathist of Thanksgiving. Gratitude is at the very heart of our faith. The word Eucharist itself means thanksgiving.
Okay, this one takes a tiny bit of preparation. All you need is a white board and a dry erase marker. Write the numbers 1 through 40 on your white board. Each day at bedtime, let one of your kids erase one of the numbers, starting with 40. When you get to 1, the next day is Christmas! And if you don’t have a white board, you can still do an Advent countdown. Just take a sheet of paper, write the numbers 1 through 40 on the paper, and tack it up in the kitchen. Every day, let one of your kids cross off one of the numbers. You can see Christmas getting closer every day.
Celebrate the saints of Advent and Christmas
You can find a brief story of the life of each saint on the Abba Moses website. Read the story when it’s time for prayers, or at any other time convenient for the day.
- November 25: St. Catherine.
- November 30: St. Andrew the First Called.
- December 4: St. Barbara.
- December 6: St. Nicholas.
- December 7: St. Ambrose.
- December 13: St. Herman of Alaska and St. Lucy.
- December 27, which is the Sunday after the Nativity: St. Stephen, and King David, St. James, and St. Joseph.
- December 31: Melania the Younger.
- January 1: St. Basil.
Celebrate St. Catherine’s Day with a sweet vegan cake, like this vegan chocolate cake that Catherine’s godmother makes for her every year.
Because St. Andrew was a fisherman, have goldfish crackers for a snack.
There’s an old story that St. Barbara, locked in her tower, found a dried up cherry branch. She watered it each day with a bit of her drinking water, and shortly before her execution, it bloomed. From this, there grew up a custom of cutting cherry branches on St. Barbara’s Day, and bringing them in to get them to bloom in time for Christmas. You can celebrate the day with flowers from the floral department at your grocery store, or maybe with cherry pie.
There are so many ways to celebrate St. Nicholas! You can have your children set out their shoes for St. Nicholas on St. Nicholas Eve, and fill them with chocolate coins, small oranges, and other treats while they’re asleep. Or read The Saint Nicholas Day Snow, and try some of these book activities. Read stories from his life, starting with The Unwilling Bishop of Myra. Make cookies. Eat oranges. Find lots more activities at The St. Nicholas Center.
St. Ambrose is the patron saint of candlemakers, so celebrate with candles! Have candles on the table for your meals. And candles anywhere else you can!
You may already be familiar with the Swedish custom of having a little girl wear a crown of candles and carry a plate of saffron rolls to her family. If that sounds like too much for you, check out this St. Lucy resource page. Since St. Lucy’s name means “light,” it might be the perfect day for your family to drive around after dark looking at Christmas lights. For St. Herman, since he lived on Spruce Island, make Christmas-tree-shaped cookies. If you have a cookie press, use the Christmas tree and this recipe for vegan spritz cookies.
For St. Stephen’s Day, you can feed the birds, or ride a carousel, or make footprint cookies. And for the Sunday after the Nativity, pray all a portion of the Akathist Hymn to St. Joseph the Betrothed.
St. Melania was incredibly rich. Chocolate coins would be a fun treat for her feast day.
Technically, December 31 is the leavetaking of Christmas, so technically, St. Basil isn’t a saint of Christmas. But I don’t do technicalities during the holidays. I keep Christmas until the Eve of Theophany. And, of course, on St. Basil’s Day, you want to make St. Basil’s bread. If you can’t get mahleb, use cardamom. If you can’t get gum mastic, use vanilla.
Even though we can’t be with each other in person, the way we usually are, we can bless each other with kindness.
- Write letters.
- Deliver Christmas goodies.
- Have a virtual live-action Advent calendar.
Older people and those who live alone may be having an especially difficult time when physical distancing rules are strict. You can send sweet, short notes to let them know that you’re thinking of them. Include art by your younger children. Let older kids add their own notes to yours.
Put together small gift boxes with homemade cookies or other Christmas treats. Then deliver the boxes to the door of friends and family. Put the boxes by the door, ring the bell, and back up 6 to 10 feet. When they come to the door, wave, blow kisses, and wish them a merry Christmas!
You may not be able to have a children’s Christmas pageant this year. Instead, try what our parish is doing: Have your Sunday School offer a virtual Live-Action Advent Calendar. Each day of the fast, have a different child read an Advent meditation from Welcoming The Christ Child by Elissa Bjeletich — that’s the book that goes with the Jesse tree ornaments. You can have the readings live over Zoom, or record them and share them in a private Facebook group. (To get permission from the author for the readings, use Elissa’s contact page.)
The thing you miss the most
As we were all approaching Holy Week and Pascha this year, many of us (maybe most of us) found the prospect of Pascha from home overwhelming. And the closer we got to Pascha, the more irritable we got. Where we expected joy, we were grieving.
I finally figured out that most of my grief was around missing the Holy Saturday liturgy with all the Old Testament readings. I know the midnight Pascha service is THE Pascha service, but the Holy Saturday service is honestly my favorite. I love the way it starts in Holy Week, and over the course of the service, everything changes. It’s now and not-yet. And I love listening to and participating in the Old Testament readings. Most years, for most of my adult life, I’ve read the Book of Job at that service. I love Job. And the idea of missing that service was breaking my heart.
When I realized that (and it took me a while), I decided to gather a group of friends on Zoom, and have each of us read one of the Old Testament readings. It wasn’t the Liturgy. It didn’t replace it. But it filled the hole. It comforted me, and sharing those readings with friends softened the grief. After the readings, after I said goodbye to my friends and ended the Zoom call, I was content.
I suspect that, for many of us, there’s something about Advent or Christmas that the pandemic will prevent us from doing. Something that the thought of missing will cause sorrow and grief. For me, it’s not church. It’s our open house on New Year’s Day. That tradition means so much to me. And my husband already came up with an idea for how we can fill that hole, and be content with what we can do this year.
May God grant us all joy and contentment as we anticipate, and then celebrate, the birth of our Lord Jesus, by the prayers of St. Nicholas and all the saints.
Holiday gift guide for Orthodox families: You don’t have to go anywhere to buy unique, meaningful gifts for Orthodox families from Orthodox makers and creators. You’ll find something for everyone here.
Getting kids to write thank-you notes: Getting kids to write thank you notes doesn’t have to be a struggle. Here’s how you can make it easy, even fun.
St. Nicholas, pirates, and Thursday prayers: We honor St. Nicholas, not just on his feast days, but every Thursday, as part of our weekly cycle of prayers. It all started when a poet was on a ship that was captured by pirates.