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LIGHT IT UP | Create new traditions to usher in the birth of Christ this Advent

Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston
Advent is a time of preparation that points our hearts and minds to the two comings of Christ: at the end of time and at His birth on Christmas. The word Advent comes from the Latin "advenio," meaning "to come."

For the first several weeks of Advent, the Church focuses on the coming of Christ at the end of time. Toward the latter part of Advent, Dec. 17-24, we focus on our preparation for the celebrations of the Nativity of our Lord at Christmas.

The liturgical color for Advent is purple, just like Lent, according to the The General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Both seasons prepare us for great feast days. Like Lent, Advent also includes an element of penance as we prepare our hearts for the joy of Christmas. This penitential dimension is expressed through the color purple, decorating the church and altar in a restrained manner, and the use of the organ and other musical instruments in a similar moderation (GIRM n. 305 and n. 313).

The third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, which comes from the first word of the Latin Entrance Antiphon for this day, meaning "rejoice." The color rose is used instead of purple on this day, to heighten our awareness of the joyful coming of our Lord.

This Advent, we encourage you to prepare your hearts for Christ's birth by creating new family traditions. It's time to light it up:

Jesse Tree

An ancient tradition that traces back to Medieval times, the Jesse Tree tells the story of the Bible from creation to Christmas. Today, the Jesse Tree connects the custom of decorating the Christmas tree to the events that lead to Christ's birth.

Jesse was the father of King David and considered the first person in the genealogy of Jesus. In Isaiah 11:1, it says, "A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots." Some consider the tree a symbol of Jesus' family tree.

To make a Jesse Tree, you'll need a Bible, a small Christmas tree and ornaments that represent the people, places and prophecies leading to the birth of Christ. Here are some of our favorite resources:

• Domestic-Church.com has some Jesse Tree inspiration, including corresponding images and Bible verses and inspiration for making a tree and ornaments. Author Catherine Fournier also has a book, "The Jesse Tree: A Family Craft for Advent." 

• Catholic blogger Jessica from Shower of Roses has a tutorial for making a no-sew Jesse Tree and ornaments from felt.

• "The Jesse Tree" (Geraldine McCaughrean), is a children's book that traces Jesus' family tree.

• The Advent Jesse Tree" (Dean Lambert Smith) includes devotions for children and adults to prepare for the birth of Jesus. 

Advent wreath

Traditionally, Advent wreaths are constructed of a circle of evergreen branches into which four candles are inserted, representing the four weeks of Advent. Ideally, three candles are purple and one is rose, but white candles may also be used. The candles also symbolize a contrast between darkness and light. In Scripture, Christ is referred to as the "Light of the World," opposite of the darkness of sin.

The purple candles symbolize the prayer, penance and preparatory sacrifices and goods works undertaken in Advent. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, when the priest also wears rose vestments at Mass; Gaudete Sunday is the Sunday of rejoicing, because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent, when their preparation is now half over and they are close to Christmas.

The progressive lighting of the candles symbolizes the expectation and hope surrounding our Lord's first coming into the world and the anticipation of his second coming to judge the living and the dead.

The circle of the wreath is a reminder of God's eternity and endless mercy. The greenery represents the hope of newness, renewal and eternal life, seen through the birth of the Christ child.

• Our Advent candle display (on the cover) is made from glass bottles ($1.49 each), candles ($3.99 for four) and colored twine ($5.99, all from Hobby Lobby). We used our own greenery from an evergreen tree, or you can use artificial greenery. The candles could easily be incorporated into your own Advent wreath.

O Antiphons

The special invocations of the Lord are called the "O" or Great Antiphons. Each invocation begins with the interjection, "O," expressing the solemnity of our eager anticipation of the celebration of the Lord's birth.

The text of the "O Antiphons" is based in Scripture and are largely taken from the messianic prophecies in Isaiah, but also texts from other prophets of the Old Testament and also writings in the New Testament are used. While it is common in parishes today to sing "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," which is based on the "O Antiphons" throughout Advent, the Church formally recites the O Antiphons beginning on Dec. 17 through the next week. Some families make the O Antiphons part of their evening prayers around the Advent wreath.

The seven "O" Antiphons, with the references to the Word of God, from which they are taken, and the days on which they are sung are:

• O Wisdom (Sirach 24:3; Wisdom 8:1; and Isaiah 40:3-5), Dec. 17

• O Adonai or Lord of the Covenant (Exodus 6:2, 3 and 6; 6,6), Dec. 18

• O Root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 5:15; Hebrews 2:3; Romans 15:12; and Hebrews 10:37), Dec. 19

• O Key of David (Isaiah 22:22; 42:7; Psalm 107:14; Luke 1:79; and Revelation 3:7), Dec. 20

• O Dayspring or Rising Sun (Zechariah 6:12; Malachi 4:2; Isaiah 9:2; and Luke 1:78-79), Dec. 21

• O King of Nations (Haggai 2:7-8; Isaiah 28:16; Genesis 2:7; and Ephesians 2:14), Dec. 22

• O Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14; 8:8; 33:22; and Genesis 49:10), Dec. 23.

Advent calendar

Advent calendars are a popular tradition. They're also plentiful — you can find anything from a simple cardboard calendar to an elaborate one with small boxes. Most calendars follow the calendar month of December, and not the four Sundays of Advent, which can begin in November. Here are some of our favorites:

• The Archdiocese of St. Louis has an online Advent calendar with Scripture readings for each day. 

• The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has an online, interactive Advent calendar that includes activities and readings. 

• Stained glass nativity chocolate Advent calendar, from Vermont Christmas Company: 

Alternatives to Elf on the Shelf

Elf on the Shelf is a popular children's Christmas tradition in which a toy elf watches over children at home and reports on their behavior to Santa Claus. Several families have created alternative activities that teach children about kindness and giving, or keeping Christ at the center of Christmas. Here are some of our favorites:

• The Heart of Christmas: This is an activity to draw children toward Jesus' birth and bring His light to others. Write on red construction paper hearts several simple acts of kindness or other activities to do together as a family. Each morning, the children search for the baby Jesus (use one from your nativity set) and find his "instructions" for the day. 

• Manger for Jesus: Take an empty manger and place in it a piece of straw for each good deed or sacrifice made for others. By the end of Advent, the manger should be filled with enough straw for Baby Jesus to have a soft place to rest. Catholic Icing has instructions on how to make a manger and Baby Jesus.

• Stocking for Jesus: During Advent each family member writes on a piece of paper one thing they want to do for Jesus in the coming year, and places it in a stocking. Ideas include reading more Scripture, spending time in prayer, exercising the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, forgiving others more, or random acts of kindness for others. The following year on Christmas Eve, the family reads the "gifts" they gave Jesus throughout the year.

• Wise Men Adventures: Balthazar, Melchior, Caspar and their camel go on a search for Baby Jesus. Each day, they are placed in a new location, looking for Jesus until the Epiphany. Read more at Catholic Inspired: 

Random acts of kindness

Practicing acts of kindness should be something we do year-round. Here are some ways we can further open our hearts to Christ this Advent. Our acts of kindness calendar begins on the first Sunday of Advent, Nov. 29, and concludes on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24. We encourage you to "Light it up" this Advent. The Archdiocese and the St. Louis Review will be using the hashtag #lightitup on Twitter throughout this Advent so please share your kindness ideas with others!

Let a car merge in front of you and do it with a smile.

Introduce yourself to neighbors and bring baked goods or sweets.

Smile at people.

Open the door for someone.

Help someone with their bags or luggage

Leave a nice note for your spouse.

Write a letter to your parent or grandparent telling them how much you appreciated something they have done in the past.

Pay for the coffee for the person behind you.

Pick up litter and put it in a trash can.

Get the paper towel ready for the next person to use in the restroom.

Forgive yourself for any mistakes you've made and promise to confess them in the sacrament of reconciliation.

Give a generous tip to your waiter.

Befriend a lonely person.

Reach out to someone you haven't talked to in a while.

Let someone take your parking spot.

Bring sweet treats to share at the office.

Sit with someone who is eating alone.

Tell your parents you love them and how much you appreciate everything they have done for you.

Let someone go in front of you at the cashier.

Donate clothes and shoes to the needy at St. Vincent de Paul.

Clean up after someone in the lunchroom or cafeteria.

Volunteer at a soup kitchen.

Let go of old grudges.

Hold the elevator door for others.

Praise a child to the parents while the child is present.

Bring misplaced shopping carts back to the designated area.

Send a photo in a frame to your parents (or grandparents).

Tell someone you've fought with that you're sorry and that you forgive them.

Be kind to someone you dislike.

Encourage someone who is working hard at the gym.

Bring a homeless person food and drink.

Say "good morning" and "thank you" to public service workers (bus drivers, police officers, mail carriers, and firefighters).

Let your friend vent and listen to her problems.

Write a letter to your former schoolteachers and tell them how much they influenced you.

Fold the laundry for a family member.

Participate in a fund-raiser or donation.

Tell your spouse that he or she looks extra handsome or beautiful today.

Hug someone you love like you mean it.

Pray for people in cars next to you at stop signs/lights asking God to give them peace.

Instead of hosting a holiday party, host a service project to benefit others in need.

Visit a nursing home and bring cookies or sing carols to the residents

Buy grocery store gift cards or make small care packages to give to homeless individuals.

If you're a boss, be extra kind to your employees.

Make cookies or shovel the snow for your neighbors.

Collect toys no longer being used and donate them to a toy drive.

Write a note to a family member or friend and send it in the mail.

Make or buy a bird feeder and feed the birds in your yard.

Make a hot chocolate treat kit (mug, packet of hot cocoa, marshmallows and a candy cane) and give it to a stranger, family or friend.

Put together a craft or activity kit for sick children to be given to the children's hospital.

Make a homemade Christmas card for your regular mail carrier or UPS delivery driver.

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