Here’s how to fully embrace the art of Advent and true celebration

Therese Bussen

For parents especially with young children, it’s a difficult balance to raise them in the world with its own culture while trying to instill a way of life that’s centered on the Catholic faith.

So how does one create a Catholic culture in their family? For several families, it’s as simple as sticking to the liturgical year — and the Advent and Christmas season is ripe with beautiful traditions to practice together.

Truth, beauty and goodness

For Ryan O’Connor, assistant principal at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic school, it wasn’t enough just to cut out the secular culture from his family’s life — it was about replacing it and creating their own, based in faith and expressed through the beautiful, true and good.

“We were inspired by the Michael O’Brien quote, ‘How very difficult it is to resist an entire culture, and especially for children to do so, because it is a right and good thing for children to grow into awareness of being members of a broader community.

“‘That is why the solution will never be simply a matter of criticizing the false culture surrounding us. The absolutely essential task of parents is to give their children a true culture, a sure foundation on which to stand,’” O’Connor said.

He and his wife, Sarah, committed to intentionally created a faith culture for their children early on in their marriage, and they’ve been building upon it over their 10 years together as a married couple.

They focus especially on prayer, order (following the liturgical season) and story (by encouraging reading or passing down family stories, etc.).

“It’s not a monastery, but we try to grab the beginning, middle and end of the day,” O’Connor said. “We do morning prayer, the Angelus at noon and the rosary is the goal [in the evening], but we do at least a decade after dinner.”

He said they also teach their children how to pray from their heart at bedtime, by prompting them with, “Thank you for…, I’m sorry for…, help me to…, and a special prayer for….”

Their family has also incorporated plenty of ways to follow the liturgical season and celebrate the Advent season.

“We have a tendency to go right to Christmas, so we try to avoid that,” O’Connor said. “We do a Jesse tree, which takes you through salvation history, with a Bible verse and ornament for each day.

“We’ve built a collection of Advent and Christmas books and they only come out [this time of year],” he added. “My wife wraps a book for each day in either purple or pink and numbers them to show the buildup [to Christmas].”

Instead of decorating for Christmas all at once, their family slowly puts up ornaments and calls it an “Advent tree.”

“We make it clear that Christmas is a season,” he said. “We will be formed by culture, you can’t void out of it, so you have to be intentional in forming one. It’s either be swallowed up by it or intentionally form a proper, good culture.”

True celebration, a crucial part of culture

While the O’Connor family puts off celebrating Christmas until the Advent season is over, they also fully enter into the celebration of other feasts during the season, like St. Nicholas’ on Dec. 6, with other families around the Denver area who share their commitment to create a culture of faith for their children.

Following tradition, they put chocolate coins and oranges in their children’s shoes — and then finish the day with a party with friends to celebrate the feast.

“We [also] have the kids write a prayer for all sorts of things and have them include three requests for gifts,” O’Connor said. “Something they want, something they need, and something to read. And then we tell the story of St. Nick and teach how God answers prayers.”

Another family that celebrates a feast during the Advent season with gusto is Father Doug and Lynn Grandon, who always celebrate the feast of St. Lucy on Dec. 13, even as evangelical Protestants before their conversion to Catholicism.

“For Scandinavians, she’s the only saint even Protestants honor,” Lynn said. “[There] was this reverence and beauty about it, and I thought it was so holy and beautiful even as a child, not even realizing there were other saints.”

To help in the spirit of celebration for the Advent and Christmas seasons, the Barga family throws a big party on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

Andrew and Rebecca Barga, parishioners at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Thornton, celebrate the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8 by throwing a big party and inviting other families to come.

“A feast day party is a big thing, and we each take a solemnity with friends and switch off,” Rebecca said.

Like the O’Connor family, they also create a faith culture in their family this time of year by celebrating Advent more intentionally with traditions like the Jesse tree and Advent wreath, or more slowly decorating their home. And this year, they’re celebrating 12 days of Christmas with various activities every day.

“We also go downtown and bring a crew of people with us and go hand out bagels and coffee and other donated goods to hand out to the homeless, and the kids physically give to them, which they love,” she said.

Both Andrew and Rebecca stressed that intentionally creating a culture of faith in their family is something that’s difficult to do without a solid community around them — but so worth the way of living they pass on to their children.

“You can’t do this in isolation and do it well, and it’s good for us as parents to have this support structure,” Andrew said. “We actually have to meet and talk about it, and it’s hard work. [It’s also] our relationship with the Lord.

“Without that active prayer life and community, it’s an overwhelming amount of work, but with God’s grace, the little contribution becomes a big contribution,” he added. “It’s harder to look at our daily life with our kids and see how I have an impact in culture. There’s a way of life we’re passing on, and it demands intentionality.”

COMING UP: The “O” Antiphons, a family-enriching tradition for Advent

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As most people begin the Christmas celebrations after thanksgiving, Catholics are called to prepare for the coming of Jesus into their hearts and homes.

The ancient monastic tradition of chanting or reciting the “O Antiphons” during the week leading up to Christmas is a great means to help the Catholic family do just that.

“It is a wonderful tradition for all Catholics,” said Sister Maria-Walburga Schortemeyer, novice mistress and farm manager in the Abbey of St. Walburga in Colorado. “The Church gives us these antiphons as a great tool to help us enter into the longing for God to come.”

They are sung or recited in every Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours from Dec. 17 to the 23, before and after the Magnificat.

Sister Walburga recommends families to take the monastic practice into their homes.

She grew up being exposed to Benedictine monasticism, which played a key role in her vocation. Her family used to pray the Divine Office daily.

“Even if you don’t pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day, you could have a little ceremony at home [to incorporate this tradition],” Sister Walburga said. “You can solemnly pray the Magnificat with the antiphon sung, light a candle and have an icon of our Blessed Mother.”

Such practices deeply enrich Catholic families and prepare them to welcome our Savior by meditating on the prophetic titles given to Jesus from the Old Testament. It’s meant to help Christians reflect on who the child to be born really is.

They also “exercise” the Christian desire for him by the repeating supplication, “O come…”

Sister Walburga has helped us explore each antiphon to help the faithful reflect on their deep meaning.

Dec. 17: O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.

This antiphon, along with the last one, contain the pivotal names being evoked. This verse takes us to the beginning, to Creation, where the Word was already with God and was God. It is this God, powerful and tender, the one who is to become man and teach us.

Dec. 18: O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: Come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

This verse puts us in the tradition of our Jewish roots. The leader of the house of Israel is to be born. God chose the people of Israel to give man a way of being the people of God. Now he will reveal himself fully in the person of Jesus, setting us free.

Dec. 19: O Root of Jesse, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

God becoming man is a historical event. He is born into a specific family, people and genealogy. He is not outside of humanity but is part of it. Yet, even though he is to be born into a people, all of humanity will cry out for him.

Dec. 20: O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in the darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

David was not a perfect king, he was a sinner. Yet, the Messiah will come from his house. He will have power over death and the power to free the people enslaved to the darkness of sin.

Dec. 21: O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: Come, shine on those who dwell in the darkness and the shadow of death.

The Lord that is to come will bring joy and hope to those who are in darkness. As expressed in the Book of Malachi: “The sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go forth leaping [joyfully] like calves from the stall.”

Dec. 22: O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.

The one who formed man will come to him as a child. He will be the king of all the nations because every human heart already longs for him without knowing. Jesus will be the cornerstone in which humanity is united: Jews and gentiles.

Dec. 23: O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.

This antiphon encompasses various other antiphons. It proclaims the identity of Jesus – “God with us” –  the God who has pitched his tent among man by taking on his human flesh. The child is the fulfillment of all revelation.