Advent traditions teach children the faith

Decorations and advertising for Christmas begin appearing shortly after Halloween. Christmas music on the radio and at the mall elicits a festive spirit. And the hectic, noisy, hustle-bustle of shopping, traveling and celebrating builds to a frenzy as Christmas draws ever closer.

Peter and Elizabeth Hansen, though, will have none of it.

Members of Holy Cross Parish in Omaha, the Hansens teach their children, Catherine, 5, John, 3, and Margaret, 1, that Advent is a time of waiting that unfolds slowly and quietly.

They use Advent symbols, reflections and Scripture readings to teach their children the fundamentals of the faith. "We try to keep Advent sacred," Elizabeth said.

They watch minimal television and stay away from the malls, helping them avoid the commercial aspects of the season, she said. They also wait until Christmas Eve to decorate their Christmas tree.

The season is filled with noise and distraction, Elizabeth said, but people need to allow the quiet to hear and know that Christ is present in the Advent and Christmas seasons.

"We are trying to appreciate the sacredness of silence," she said. "And we’re trying to help our children learn at an early age to wait."

Using the Jesse tree, the Advent wreath and the crèche, they build a sense of anticipation for the coming of the Lord.

During Sunday dinners, they use an Advent wreath created by Catherine two years ago in her pre-school class at Holy Cross School. They count off the weeks as she "lights" each candle, pulling a tissue paper flame up from the cardboard tube candle, and read a text from Scripture.

"She has some ownership with it," Elizabeth said.

"The year she made it, she was pretty excited that we were using it," Peter said.

This year, the Hansens will invite several other families to join them for their Sunday meals and Advent traditions, Elizabeth said.

They also decorate a Jesse Tree, an ancient symbol tied to Isaiah’s prophesy about Jesus’ lineage as a shoot coming from the root of Jesse (King David’s father). The activity is accompanied by readings geared toward children and uses materials obtained on a Catholic website.

As the children cut out and glue onto the tree pictures representing the prophesies, people and events leading to the birth of Jesus, they learn about the salvation story throughout Advent.

"It’s helping them know this story is their story and how it affects them," Elizabeth said.

"We’re teaching them that we are God’s people and are called to be holy," Peter said. "They’re learning an appreciation for the faith, and we’re seeing in them the beginnings of a good relationship with God."

Other traditions of the season include celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas, Dec. 6, with the children setting out their shoes at bedtime to receive candy and fruit, he said.

And, setting up the crèche atop their piano, the Hansens help their children experience the Christmas story, Peter said, with the Wise Men set far off, slowly journeying toward the stable; Mary and Joseph arriving next; then the baby Jesus; and finally the angel and the shepherds.

Capping off the Christmas season, the Hansens exchange their major gifts on Epiphany, Peter said, with Santa Claus bringing several smaller gifts as a prelude on Christmas.

"The anticipation makes the flowering of the season that much more spectacular," Peter said.

Also, following Scripture and church teaching, the family’s lessons on faithfulness and waiting go beyond Advent, Peter said.

"I like the idea of also teaching the kids about the second coming of Jesus and how we’re still a people waiting for God to come."

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