By the time we’ve put away the pumpkins, Christmas decorations and gift buying are in full swing. Storefronts blaze with advertisements, television specials and commercials light up our living rooms with holiday themes, and the radio has us singing about snowmen and reindeer before we’ve finished our Thanksgiving turkey.

It can be difficult, especially with children, to keep Advent as a sacred time of preparation rather than a long, run-on feast. By the time we actually arrive at the liturgical celebration of Christmas, we may already feel overstuffed and exhausted from the noise, lights and materialism of our modern culture.

How can we still our hearts and focus on the real meaning of the season with our families — without begrudging the joy of authentic anticipation? This is a time of expectation that should feel sacred but celebratory. Is that possible?

Many Catholic parents have found a healthy balance. Here are some simple ideas to live Advent well.

1. Try to have gift shopping done by the start of Advent, and cull the house of catalogues and references to toys, wish lists and shopping, in order to focus on spiritual preparation.

2. Fill your home and cars with sacred seasonal music — there is music specific to Advent that can balance the holiday tunes filling stores and airwaves. The Advent at Ephesus CD from the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of Apostles, is ethereal and will fill your soul and quiet your heart: This could be a perfect gift for a Catholic teacher, too.

3. Set out an empty manger along with a container filled with pieces of straw or yellow yarn. Each time a child does a charitable deed or makes a sacrifice, have them place a piece in the manger. By the time Christmas comes, Jesus will have a soft bed made out of the straw or yarn that each represent loving actions. On Christmas morning, the first gift to be opened can be the statue of the infant Jesus, and the youngest child can place Jesus in the place the family has prepared. This hand-painted Baby Jesus in the crib is exquisite, from, Item: N1126, $68.

4.  Begin your observance of Advent by blessing your Advent wreath with this traditional prayer, which the entire family can participate in (source:; from Shorter Book of Blessings, USCCB Publishing). This short one is perfect for little ones:

All make the Sign of Cross as the minister says:

Our help is in the name of the Lord.

All reply:

Who made heaven and earth.

One of those present or the minister reads a text of sacred Scripture, for example:

Brothers and sisters, listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah: 9:1-2, 5-6:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone.

You have brought them abundant joy and great     rejoicing,

As they rejoice before you as at the harvest, as men make merry when dividing spoils.

For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests.

They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.

His dominion is vast and forever peaceful,

From David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains.

By judgment and justice, both now and forever.

 A minister who is a priest or deacon says the prayer of blessing with hands outstretched; a lay minister says the prayer with hands joined.

Lord God,

your Church joyfully awaits the coming of its Savior, who enlightens our hearts and dispels the darkness of ignorance and sin.

Pour forth your blessings upon us as we light the candles of this wreath;

may their light reflect the splendor of Christ, who is Lord, forever and ever.

R. Amen.


Lord our God,

we praise you for your Son, Jesus Christ:

he is Emmanuel, the hope of the peoples,

he is the wisdom that teaches and guides us,

he is the Savior of every nation.

Lord God,

let your blessing come upon us as we light the candles of this wreath.

May the wreath and its light be a sign of Christ’s promise to bring us salvation.

May he come quickly and not delay.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.

R. Amen.

5. Read the daily Mass readings or the Gospel at dinner. Demonstrate how the readings are leading us up to the birth of Christ with themes of conversion, watchfulness and preparation, and point out how the third week, beginning with Gaudete Sunday, reminds us to rejoice as we light the rose-colored candle.

6. Sing a verse of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel each evening while lighting the Advent candle during before-meal prayers. Nervous about mixing little people and flames? You can use battery-light options: LED Advent Tea Lights, Item: 37954, $7.50.

7. Use a religious Advent calendar. At EWTN Religious Catalogue, there are several beautiful, affordable options, including Item: BB886, $4, and Item: BB881, $4.

A fabric option is ideal for little fingers, Item: VC200, $45. A calendar that allows children to add a sticker to the manger scene each day is also a good choice, Item: BB204, $6. And a back-lit Nativity scene/Advent calendar can become a treasured heirloom. It has 24 drawers that can be custom-filled with a prayer, holy card, charitable deed or even a small anticipatory treat:  Item: 32371, $65.

8. Already have your tree up? What about pink and purple decorations for Advent?

Some families wait until Gaudete Sunday or even later to put up the Christmas decorations. 

In the meantime, a Jesse Tree tradition is fun for kids and teaches them about the stories of the Old Testament that lead up to the birth of Christ.    

 The Jesse Tree Book and Ornaments Set is a good choice, from EWTN Religious Catalogue. Item: JTSET, $49.95.

9. Seasoned parents would advise not to take on too many traditions. Choose a few that work well for your family, and be faithful to those.

The key is consistency and simplicity and not feeling like you’ve failed if you don’t “do it all.”

Remember: Children will cherish time together above all else and will  continue traditions into adulthood that meant the most to your family. Jesus is our joy. 

He is coming, and that is celebration enough!

Claire Dwyer is editor of  and coordinates adult faith formation at her parish in Phoenix,

where she lives with her husband and their six children.