6 Ways to Prepare for a Thoughtful Advent and Meaningful Christmas

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It's not yet half-way through November, and yet Advent, the season of preparing for the coming of Christ and of celebrating His birth, is just over two weeks away.

Each year, I feel like Advent arrives suddenly and I'm ill-prepared to deal with the onslaught of projects, parties, and decorating, let alone the meaningful times of teaching our children and reflecting on the birth of Christ, that tend to come in full flurry at this time of year.

This year, however, both because our newest baby is due within the month and because I desperately want to organize this busy season so we can celebrate it fully and joyfully without a sense of chaos, I am making a plan for Advent.

Since I know I'm not alone in this, I've put together a few tips for preparing for the season. Here are six things to consider to keep the season joyful this year.

Prepare Your Advent Calendar

If you have children, now is the time to pull the annual Advent calendar out of storage, plan your daily family activities, or gather your Jesse Tree supplies. Teaching our children that the Christmas season exists for a vastly different reason than all the commercial glitz and glamour is at the heart of Advent, and teaching children how the entire Biblical narrative points to Christ is one of the most central, joyful tasks we have this season.

And whether you're Christian or not, make special time together as a family in the midst of all the hustle and bustle. That intentional time together is a vital part of nurturing your family.

What's a Jesse Tree?

A Jesse Tree is a unique Advent calendar, if you will.

Basically, it's a small tree that gets covered with symbols of God's relationship with His people and the prophecies pointing to Christ's birth. Usually Advent calendars break the actual Christmas story up into little bite size pieces so that you take the full month to read the account of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the stable, the arrival of the shepherds and Wise Men, and maybe even the escape into Egypt.

Those narratives are a wonderful way to get to know the Christmas story itself, but the Jesse Tree takes it a step farther and gives it deeper meaning. Through all of Advent, rather than reading parts of the Christmas story itself, the Jesse Tree focuses on readings drawn from throughout the Old Testament that point to Christ's coming. During the week of Christmas, we arrive at the Christmas story and on Christmas Day, we read of Christ's birth. It is an absolute joy to watch children grow in their understanding of why Christ came to earth and why His birth was so incredibly special.

Supplies to gather ahead:

  • A “tree” – use your creativity here! This can be an actual miniature Christmas tree, a tree branch, or poster board or felt cut into a tree shape and hung on the wall. If you use a tree or a tree branch, just make sure it's anchored well in a pot or coffee can filled with sand, pebbles, or other heavy weights to keep it sturdy through the month as children hang their ornaments on it.
  • Gift tags and art supplies OR pre-made ornaments – there are many lovely pre-made sets of Jesse Tree ornaments you can buy, as well as pre-designed symbols [pdf] you can cut and paste through the month. We have found it simplest and the most meaningful, however, to have our children make their own ornaments each day reflecting the day's reading and discussion, usually by drawing a depiction of the day's story on a gift tag and then hanging that on the tree.
  • A list of daily readings – you can download the basic one I created years ago right here [pdf]. It's unusual among Jesse Tree reading lists for two reasons: one, because I provided multiple lists according to what day Christmas falls on – since Advent is different lengths in different years, I wanted to accommodate that fact. And two, Christmas Day may be the day on which we celebrate the birth of Christ, but it's not the end of the story, so I continue the Jesse Tree readings through Epiphany, so that we can cover Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, as well as Revelation and our eternal worship. It has worked well for us. 🙂
  • Ornament hooks
  • A Bible – since the Jesse Tree works through the Old Testament highlighting specific passages and prophesies, a children's Bible won't typically work in this context.

Other Advent Calendar Ideas

If you are wanting a more traditional Advent calendar that helps your child interact with the Christmas story, there are some wonderful ones available, everything from gorgeous wooden ones that will last for decades to very simple “lift the flap” types.

We've also got a DIY advent calendar tutorial on our 25 Days of Service Advent Calendar article that can be used for other advent calendar uses the days of service project.

If you want to make your own and simply do an internet search for “make advent calendar,” I promise you will be sucked in for hours with a plethora of fantastic ideas from around the globe.

Make a Gift Idea List, a Budget, and a Timeline

Now is the time to think about gifts. If you're making homemade gifts this year, you need time to gather your supplies and actually make them. If you're purchasing your gifts, it's helpful to decide whether you can find what you need locally or whether you need to source them online and account for shipping and handling time.

I find it most helpful to write out a list of everyone to whom I would like to give a gift, everyone from “My Husband” to “My Daughter's Teacher,” then write all the gift ideas I can think of for each person. Sometimes I have one specific item in mind and sometimes I can think of 10 items that could be meaningful. After each item, I write the timeline and supplies required to acquire or create each gift. Then I can survey the list and see if I have time (and energy) to create several of the items or if others fall outside my budget. This way, I can control both my time and our money more carefully through the whole season.

And remember that gifts are exactly that – gifts. They are something given without strings attached to celebrate the relationship between the gift-giver and the recipient. Often, smaller is better. Two of my favorite Christmas gifts have been the tube of lipstick my mom put in my Christmas stocking when I was 12 and the wax sealing kit my husband gave me a few years ago just because he knows it makes me feel happy to put a special touch on envelopes when I seal them up.

Plan Your Charitable Giving

This is a season of giving and when we find ways to give generously, be it with our money or with our time, our hearts and spirits are kept light – it's good for us, not just for the recipients of our gifts.

The key here is to be both creative and generous. You could anonymously pay for someone else's coffee, bake and deliver cookies to a local old-age home with your children, help serve a meal at a soup kitchen on Christmas Eve, give a donation to a local charity, or purchase an “alternative gift” through organizations such as World Vision or Partners International.

Tsh at The Art of Simple has some excellent thoughts and ideas for giving during this season, as well.

Organize Your Calendar

It obviously makes sense to write down parties and and your children's school Christmas program on the family calendar, but I find it essential to also plan all the decorating, cookie-making,  tree-trimming, and even meals for the month so that nothing gets lost in the shuffle and I can see what's coming.

For example, from experience I know it will take our family one evening to choose a tree and get it home and an entire separate evening to decorate it. Thus, I know I have to look at the calendar and find a time when we have two consecutive evenings available and then plan extra-quick meals on those nights. It's one of our favorite parts of the season, so we make time and it's worth the effort!

Decide What's Important THIS Year

I must admit I love the Christmas season – the smells of baking and of Christmas trees, the look of lights everywhere in a season when it gets dark early, all the holiday get-togethers, and the intentional times of spiritual reflection. I have many “favorite” activities for the season, but almost every year I either get burned out trying to incorporate everything I want to do or I end the season feeling disappointed that I didn't fit it all in.

What I have found helps make the season more joyful is to look ahead and to realistically decide what I can incorporate THIS year.

If I know I just won't have time to bake the hundreds of cookies that I love to do each year, I can decide ahead of time that that's not realistic and then set that expectation aside.

If I know I'll have plenty of time for handmaking all my gifts, I can schedule it in and then get them all done, but if I know I won't have the time or energy this year, I can go back to my gift idea list and choose a frugal, meaningful, purchased gift and relieve myself of the expectation that I can work on those handmade gifts “tomorrow” and end each day stressed that I still didn't get them done.

This extends to parties too. If you want to make family time a priority this year and you know that all the party invitations you'll receive will affect that time together, choose a set number of party invitations you'll accept and then stick to that number, or choose only one day of the week that you're willing to attend social functions, such as Saturday.

Choose what works for you and fill your schedule according to your priorities.

Enjoy the Season

Most of all, enjoy the season. Find opportunities to laugh abundantly with your family, to rejoice over the generosity and creativity of your children, and to cherish the times of teaching your children about Christ's birth.

This is a season of celebration that should uplift and nourish our souls, not drain them, and it helps to be intentional ahead of time to guard our time, energy, and finances from burn out.

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