Our last Christmas with Evie 2014
The other week, I was reluctantly driving around town trying to pick up a few things I needed for Christmas gifts. I can’t begin to express how much I loathe shopping. Trekking out into Christmas shopping madness for me is akin to some form of penance or torture. As I looked around the store, I became almost sick to my stomach at the commercialization of Christmas. I am convinced that if someone who had never heard of the holiday were dropped into the middle of a shopping center and told to discern the meaning of Christmas their answer would be as follows: “Christmas is a holiday beginning on Black Friday and ending on December 25th in which people spend a lot of money on things they don’t need, put up bright lights and decorations, and gain weight eating excessive amounts of food. The central celebrated characters are a jolly bearded man in a red suit, reindeer, and little elves who live on shelves. At the end of their shopping spree, some people put a few coins in a red tin located next to a person ringing a bell to assuage any guilt induced by superfluous spending.”
Unfortunately, this assessment doesn’t even begin to touch the surface of the great mystery of the Incarnation and the Virgin birth.
After leaving the store in frustration, nothing in hand, I decided to head over to Chik-Fil -A for a sandwich. The parking lot was a mess. As I pulled in, I happened to look in my rearview mirror. There, in plain view, was a large nativity set situated in front of the door. The Virgin and St. Joseph were kneeling in wonder beside the manger, adoring the tiny Babe who would change the world forever.
The tears began streaming down my face.
In that moment, I wanted to jump into that Nativity set and just BE. I wanted to shut out this world gone mad and just lay prostrate before the Infant King. I wanted to see the glory that Evie sees in Heaven and escape the sorrow and brokenness that I see all around me and in myself. I wanted to fly away.
Our culture has turned the days leading up to December 25th into an abominable cacophony of spending and excess. It’s principle virtues are happiness and instant gratification. It’s no wonder the holidays are so devastating for those grieving a loss, the lonely and the suffering. We just don’t quite fit into the mold, do we? We can barely stand to open the Christmas cards containing images of happy, healthy, fully intact families without crying and wondering how we’ll ever take a family photo again.
But this season isn’t supposed to be about all of that. In fact, it’s not even Christmas yet. The Church is celebrating the season of Advent…traditionally a season of fasting and penance not one of excess and constant celebration. Advent demands that we pause, slow down, and contemplate the coming of our Savior. It beckons us to prepare our hearts to receive Him and wait in hopeful expectation.
In our home over the years we’ve tried, however imperfectly, to maintain the spirit of the Advent season. Evie absolutely loved celebrating Advent as do her sisters. We have a large Advent wreath that sits on our kitchen table. Four purple candles and one pink candle represent the four weeks of Advent. We light the candles each week at dinner time and as the season progresses, the light grows as a symbol of the light of Christ permeating our dark and broken world.
On the first Sunday of Advent we string up our Jesse tree ornaments across the mantle. Each ornament represents a story from redemptive history beginning with Creation and ending with the birth of Jesus. We read a different Scripture passage each day and the children take turns placing the ornaments on our tiny Jesse tree.
Unlike the rest of the culture, we do not sing or listen to Christmas music during Advent. There are so many beautiful Advent hymns and we have scoured our collection to put together a playlist for our home. On Christmas day, we break out the Christmas songs and continue to sing them and listen to them well into January.
Of course, Advent wouldn’t be complete without celebrating the feast days of the great saints. The liturgical year always offers opportunities for celebration even in the midst of a penitential season. December 6th marks the feast of St. Nicholas. The real Santa Claus was actually a Catholic bishop living in the 3rd century, know for his love of children and his giving spirit. He is said to have saved one man’s three daughters from a life of slavery by throwing bags of gold into an open window of the man’s home. The gold landed in some shoes that had been placed by the fire to dry. To celebrate Saint Nicholas’ giving spirit and remember his kind act, many Catholic children around the world set out their shoes the night before his feast day. We usually fill our kids’ shoes with chocolate gold coins. Sometimes the shoes are replaced with warm fuzzy slippers.
New Slippers for Saint Nicholas Day
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated on December 8th, is a day to remember God’s act in saving Mary from sin before her conception in order that she could be a perfect vessel for the Divine. All Catholics are obliged to attend Mass on this day. We sometimes also celebrate with a special meal of all-white foods to represent Mary’s purity.
On St. Lucy’s feast day, December 13, we recall the life of this great 3rd century saint who is believed to have carried a wreath of candles on her head leaving her arms free to deliver large amounts of food to Christians imprisoned in the catacombs. Traditionally, many Catholic girls around the world follow suit by carrying cinnamon rolls or cookies to their parents in the morning in white dresses with candle wreaths gracing their foreheads.
Evie and Eden Celebrating St. Lucy
No Advent season would be complete without celebrating the remarkable appearance of the Virgin Mary in 1531 to a peasant named Juan Diego living in Guadalupe, Mexico. The Virgin left a remarkable image of herself on St. Juan’s tilma that can still be seen to this day at the Basilica in Guadalupe. The image itself and the fact that it has remained intact over centuries still defies scientific explanation. Our family likes to celebrate this feast by reading about this amazing appearance and of course eating Mexican food!
Celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Traditional Goofy Evie Form…(you can see our Jesse Tree ornaments in the background)
Instead of putting up our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving, we like to wait until the third Sunday of Advent, also known as “Gaudete” Sunday and represented by the pink candle on the Advent wreath. “Gaudete” literally means “rejoice”. The priests put aside their purple Advent vestments on this Sunday in favor of rose-colored ones and we are encouraged to give thanks and persevere in the midst of our fasting and penance. Putting up the tree at this point reminds us that Christ is coming soon even as we continue to wait in hopeful expectation for the joy of Christmas.
The O’ Antiphons begin around this time, on December 17th. These are the prayers that priests and religious and even many Catholic lay people pray during evening prayer (known as Vespers) before reciting the Magnificat. From December 17-23rd a different name for Jesus is emphasized each day. If you’ve ever heard all of the verses to the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” then you have heard the O’ Antiphons. In the past, we have opened special family gifts or had special family foods to represent each name. Recently, I purchased ornaments that symbolize each antiphon and we put a new ornament on the tree for the duration of the seven days.
Perhaps one of our favorite Advent traditions is adopting a family in need. We head to the store together as a family, grab a couple of carts and fill them with necessities and fun gifts. The kids love finding items for the other children and we always try to choose a family with children similar in age to ours. It is a great reminder to them of just how blessed we are and that Christmas is about receiving Christ and sharing His love with the world. One of my favorite memories of our annual shopping trip was the last year we shopped with Evie. She had just injured her toe a few days earlier, requiring stitches. We convinced her to use one of the store’s motorized carts for a faster and more comfortable shopping experience. She was a bit embarrassed, but reluctantly agreed and I am so grateful that we captured the moment on video.
Of course, Advent culminates in the great feast of Christmas. We attend Mass together as a family on Christmas Eve. The kids open up a package which they always know will be pajamas. Then they go on a search to find all of the Baby Jesus’ hidden around the house and place them in their respective mangers. We begin Christmas morning reading the story of Christ’s birth and kneeling before the crèche in thanksgiving and adoration before opening presents. Each of our kids receives three gifts to represent the three gifts presented to our Lord.
And the day after Christmas, when the rest of the culture is throwing their tree to the curb, purchasing gym memberships to burn off the excess weight gained from eating too many cookies, and making New Year’s resolutions, we are just beginning to celebrate the season of Christmas beginning on December 25th and culminating in the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th (or later but we won’t get into that here). This is when we bake our cookies, listen to Christmas music, and watch Christmas movies. We’ve spent Advent waiting, fasting, and preparing our hearts for Jesus and now it’s time to rejoice with the Church.
Last Advent, we were still in utter shock over Evie’s sudden death and my ordeal surrounding Gabriel’s birth. Splitting our time between home and the NICU during Advent and our complete mental fog left no time or capacity for observing the seasons. If it weren’t for family and friends, there would have been little to no celebration. This year, the shock has worn off a bit and our circumstances are more stable. However, it seems we feel our loss more acutely at times and the reality that Evie will never be here again to join in these traditions is more obvious than ever. I often still feel paralyzed by grief and unable to make Advent as rich as I would like.
But I’m grateful that we’ve established these traditions in our family and that we have fought to make our Faith the central focus of Advent and Christmas. I can’t imagine how impossible it would be start new traditions in the midst of the sorrow that still envelops my heart. Even traditions that focus on what’s most important are painful in practice when it is obvious that a very important person is missing. On the other hand, I can’t imagine how devastating the seasons would be if our focus had always been on shopping, Santa, and elves. What a disappointment when one of the greatest feasts of the Church is denigrated to spoiling our children and trying to make them happy!
Because it is in kneeling at the crèche that we are most intimately connected to Evie. As a family, we identify more with the longing of Advent than the façade of happiness and empty promises that the world offers. In the depth of our souls, we wait not only for Christmas and the birth of our Savior, but for the day when He comes again to make all things new and we are reunited with our precious daughter and sister in the New Jerusalem.
May you be filled with awe and wonder this Advent and Christmas and may you draw near to Him in thanksgiving for what He has accomplished and eager expectation for what He will do in the future. Merry Christmas from our family to yours!