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Children look forward to opening up a new window in an advent calendar.

7 Ways to Get Ready for Jesus' Birthday

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How can we prepare well this Advent for Jesus' coming at Christmas? What are some customs and practices that can help us prepare, so our celebration of Christmas is truly joyful and Christ-centered?

1. Receive Jesus in the Sacraments

Advent is an ideal time for attending Holy Mass more frequently, daily if possible. At Mass, we have the wonderful opportunity to receive Our Savior in the Holy Eucharist. The same Jesus who became incarnate to redeem us is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine. And He desires to nourish us while we journey through Advent.

The penitential season of Advent is also an ideal time to seek deeper conversion by receiving God's mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

We can respond to this call for sacramental preparation by checking the daily Mass schedules in local parishes and deciding what daily Mass time will work best for us. We could also plan now to make a good confession during Advent. In many areas, the local Catholic churches host communal penance celebrations during Advent.

2. Follow the Daily Mass Readings

God desires to direct our steps through His inspired Word in the Scriptures. As we reflect on God's Word every day during Advent, He can prepare our hearts to receive the Savior at Christmas.

We hear inspiring stories of Old Testament figures like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and David longing for the promised Messiah. They remind us of the Chosen People's waiting down through the centuries for deliverance. Then, too, the Gospel readings speak of the Second Coming of the Lord, John the Baptist's preaching on repentance, and the early events that lead up to the birth of Jesus.

In our busy schedules, it can be difficult to find the time to read and reflect on the Scriptures. Some people find it best to take 15 to 20 minutes first thing in the quiet of the morning. For others, it works best at the close of the day when they have time to unwind and reflect.

3. Light the Candles on Your Advent Wreath

Maintaining a family Advent Wreath is one of the most cherished customs of the season.

The wreath is typically composed of evergreens, in a circle with four candles. Three of the candles are purple and one is pink or rose. A purple one is lit during the first week of Advent, then another purple one nightly during the second week. The pink candle is lit during the third week. The final purple one is lit during the fourth week, so all four candles are burning.

The symbolism of the wreath provides a wonderful opportunity for parents to teach their children about the meaning of the season. The purple candles signify the sorrow we feel for our sins, while the pink one points to the imminent birth of Jesus. The evergreens symbolize the unchanging, faithful nature of God, while the circle indicates that God is eternal, with no beginning or end. The light of the candles reminds us that Jesus is the Light of the world, and soon we will celebrate His birth.

In constructing an Advent Wreath, evergreen boughs can be fastened to a round frame. Frames are available at religious goods stores, along with a set of candles. Many parishes also offer sets of Advent candles for a nominal fee.

4. Play Kris Kringle

The spirit of giving and caring in families is captured well by the Advent custom of having each family member secretly play the role of "Kris Kringle" (Santa Claus) or "Christkindl" (the Christ Child in German) for another family member. It creates a wonderful atmosphere of joyful suspense, thoughtfulness, and kindness throughout the season.

Each family member's name is written on a piece of paper, which is then placed in a bowl. Then, the drawing of names by each family member takes place.

The person whose name one has drawn is now in one's special care. From this day until Christmas, one has to do special favors for the person — and do it in such a way that your identity as Kris Kringle remains secret. It could mean making the person's bed, buying him or her a special treat, or offering up sacrifices and prayers for the person. Then, on Christmas Eve, each family member tries to guess who played his or her Kris Kringle during Advent.

5. Open a window Every Day on Your Advent Calendar

Children particularly delight in keeping an Advent Calendar to count down the days until Dec. 25. The whole calendar typically depicts a religious Christmas scene. A door or window of the calendar is opened every day of Advent by one of the children in the family.

In the case of Christian Advent Calendars, each perforated door or window usually reveals some aspect of the season in an image and words. It might be a picture of some shepherds, wise men, or angels — perhaps accompanied by an appropriate scripture verse or reflection. The last door, for Dec. 25, always reveals a nativity scene.

Christian Advent Calendars can be obtained at most religious bookstores. Many grandparents enjoy purchasing Advent Calendars for their grandchildren. An even simpler option is to use a daily calendar and have your child mark off each day of Advent.

6. Make a Jesse Tree

Tracing one's family tree is very popular today. And the Advent custom of the Jesse Tree involves tracing the family tree of Jesus Himself. The prophet Isaiah tells us of the promised Messiah, "But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom" (Is 1:1). Jesse is highlighted here as the "stump" because he was the father of King David, and Jesus is frequently called the "Son of David" in the New Testament.

Your Jesse Tree can be as simple or involved as you like. The idea is to make ornaments that symbolize the ancestors of Jesus and then to hang them on a tree. Through a concordance or Bible dictionary, you can also look up a scripture verse or two for each ancestor. You can hang all of the ornaments at once, or make enough ornaments to hang one each day of Advent. A wonderful way to involve children is to let them hang the ornaments and write down the scripture verse for each one.

The tree can be made out of many things. You might use an actual tree limb. Or the tree might be done on a piece of felt or burlap, or even a large piece of construction paper. All family members can participate in making the ornaments from construction paper or light cardboard.

To help get you started, here are some ancestors and commonly used symbols for your tree: Adam and Eve (the apple), Noah (ark), Isaac (lamb), Abraham (knife), Jacob (ladder), Joseph (coat), Moses (burning bush).

7. Put Straw in the Manger

A couple of years ago, another Catholic family introduced mine to the custom of having family members place a piece of straw in the manger every time they performed a good deed or a work of mercy.

This tradition gives family members a chance to share the joy of the season with those in need. There are undoubtedly plenty of opportunities to perform works of mercy not only at home, but in the neighborhood, at school, at work, and in the local parish. This might entail volunteering to help out at the local soup kitchen or shoveling snow from the front walkway of the elderly lady who lives down the street.

Your place of work can present opportunities to perform works of mercy. During the Advent season, the Marians' staff here on Eden Hill supplies a needy family in the local community with a food basket and each member of the family with Christmas gifts. On a larger scale, the staff sponsors a charity raffle each year for a worthy local cause. Local businesses and suppliers donate the items, which are then raffled off on Christmas Eve. One year the raffle benefited the Children's Health Program — an organization that serves families in need here in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.

Whatever the work of mercy and wherever it is performed, we know that the straw symbolizing our charity will provide a warm manger for the Baby Jesus on Christmas morning. Then, we will have continued Christ's loving action for those in need — sharing the warmth of the manger with others.

Adapted from the Association of Marian Helpers BULLETIN, Winter 2000-2001 — now known as Marian Helper magazine. Receive a free copy of the latest Marian Helper magazine.

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CatholicMom - Dec 3, 2012

Great article! What's the title/author of the Advent Calendar shown with the windows opening? I've searched online for something similar but haven't come across anything as creative and informative.
Thank you and God bless.

EDITOR - Dec 4, 2012

Hi CatholicMom.
I took that photo three years ago. I got the calendar from our Shrine gift shop here in Stockbridge. But they no longer carry it. I just purchased another one last week. It's not as good. It's also a little too small.

Unfortunately, I cannot direct you to a store that sells that one.

I hope you and your family have a blessed Advent.

Anna - Dec 9, 2012

One good way to have lot of straw :) would be , when an angry /accusing thought against another comes into the mind , to tell the enemy - 'I choose to forgive. ' and thank The Lord for the grace He gives , to be able do so and to bring the other to His mercy too, asking for same on their behalf too !

Anna - Dec 9, 2012

The above can work well for most children too , even as young as 3 !

The parent can be the one to do the above miniwarfare prayer , on behalf of the child , finger pointing down -" I choose not to fight / be selfish / greedy /whine " and finger up ," I choose to be patient / sharing / not fearful, thank You Jesus , for making me strong ! "

Taking one step furthur , the older one can soon be trained to be the intercessor for the offending younger one and vice versa or between husbands and wives and so on !:)