Observing Advent (Literally): Notes from a Watchful Mennonite

This time of year, I always envy my Catholic brothers and sisters a little bit.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my Mennonite heritage. I really do. I warmly and enthusiastically embrace the teachings of my forebears. I feel both affection and reverence for the culture I inherited. I honour my courageous predecessors, who made many great sacrifices — often their lives — for what they believed in. I am so grateful for my faith.

But like all denominations, we have a few areas where we lack.

One notable area: we don’t know how to celebrate.

As many of you know, I grew up in the Old Colony Mennonite Church. Mennonites celebrate everything the EXACT SAME WAY. For births, deaths, marriages, and all holidays, you do the following:

  • Stay home from work/school
  • Gather at the church building (where no decoration of any sort is ever allowed)
  • Sit down in pews, sing some mournful-sounding hymns from the Gesangbuch without instrumental accompaniment, and silently listen to a meditation
  • If it’s a REALLY special occasion, like a wedding or a funeral, you go downstairs after the service to eat some bread and butter and drink some coffee. If the family celebrating/grieving is fancy, there might be jam, soup, Kool-Aid, or even a cake.

In my experience, Mennonites will ALWAYS also get together with the extended family at some point and eat a lot of food. In order to accommodate gatherings with all sides of the family, Mennonites have one or two additional holidays tacked onto the end of each major holiday (Christmas and Easter), just for getting together. Families are always enormous (a gathering of more than 40 men, women and children in one building is not at all unusual), so these are very noisy, crowded affairs.

One cool thing about Old Colony Mennonites is that they (we?) do observe many of the lesser-known holidays of the Christian year, like Three Kings’ Day (a.k.a Epiphany), Pentecost, and Ascension Day. But only in the way described above, which is, to me, less cool.

Most Canadian and American Mennonites, as they become more acculturated, quickly drop these additional holidays, though, until they’re left with only two holy days a year, like the rest of Americanized Christianity: Christmas and Easter.

Two extra days a year on which to go to church and get together with family.


* * *

To my understanding, most contemporary Evangelical churches aren’t all that much better at celebrating holy days. Switch out the mournful hymns for some upbeat worship music featuring electric guitar; switch out the bread-and-butter for canned-cream-soup-based casseroles and sweets.

I happen to live in the covergence between these two subcultures — Mennonite and Evangelical.

When you combine the two, you end up with only two holidays a year. And you’re left with virtually no traditions to live by. No liturgy, no rituals, no special services. (And definitely no dancing.)

I feel an emptiness in my life as a result.

For that reason, I would LOVE to experience a return to the Christian year.

Enter Advent.

For a few years now, I have felt a growing longing to observe the Liturgical Year. I would love to mark the passing of time with feast days, celebrations, special prayers, and other rituals to bring the spiritual back into my everyday life.

I’m particularly interested in observing the season of Advent.

But I’ve never gotten around to it.

I have two major obstacles facing me to observing the Liturgical Year:

(a) I have no community in which to celebrate. It’s hard to celebrate in isolation. The Church Year was meant to be observed in community.

(b) I’m completely new to it, not having grown up with it; and I find the whole thing quite overwhelming. It represents a whole new way of thinking about the passing of time.

I wanted to observe Advent this year. But I just felt so overwhelmed by the whole thing.

We didn’t have a lot of materials needed to make things like a cool Advent calendar, and I didn’t do enough research on things like an Advent wreath. Lydia’s too young to understand or appreciate any holiday festivities, and Ben has absolutely no interest. He has even less experience with traditions, and has read nothing on the subject. He hardly knows what I’m talking about when I try to bring up celebrating Advent. It just isn’t something that’s ever entered his consciousness.

My family had almost no Christmas traditions, beyond decorating a tree and exchanging gifts. I had very little to draw from in my own history.

After doing some research, asking around, and scrolling through some favourite blogs, though, I did sit down one evening and try to come up with a list of holiday-related activities to do this December.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Watch the town’s Santa Claus parade
  • string popcorn garland to decorate the house with
  • watch The Nativity Story
  • watch cheesy claymation Christmas specials (can you believe I have NEVER watched a single one of these films?)
  • bake bread and deliver it personally to all my neighbours, whom I have never met
  • Keep an empty manger under the Christmas tree. Then put a baby Jesus in it on Christmas Eve, so that he’s there for the kid(s) to find on Christmas morning — the best gift of all!
  • On December first, plant some grass or wheat. Nurture it throughout the Advent season. Then, on Christmas Eve, cut the grass it and lay it out in the manger for the baby Jesus to sleep on (who will appear Christmas morning).

I was kind of disappointed with my list when all was said and done.

First off, most of the items I came up with aren’t particularly spiritual. And the whole manger/grass/baby Jesus thing has yet to happen . . . I didn’t get around to building a manger, finding grass seed, or finding a place/container to plant the grass into.

I was very interested in doing a Jesse Tree, but failed to muster the energy needed to put it together and put it into practice since Lydia’s still too young to understand.

I still intend to bake bread for the neighbours . . . I’m starting to believe it’s SO IMPORTANT to know your neighbours. I’ve never known any of my neighbours, so it’s going to be a stretch for me, but I want to make it happen.

But for the most part, I have a feeling that this will be the year that I will be observing Advent in the most literal sense: I’ll be watching.

I’m paying attention to how other families do it.

My excellent friend Molly from Molly Makes Do is hosting a Blog Hop this Advent season, where bloggers are invited to share their holiday practices. You can bet I’m all over that, reading and absorbing and taking notes.

Most of the contributors are Catholic, naturally. I think that’s fantastic. I am excited to learn from them, to be inspired by them. They have some wonderful things to teach us Mennonites and evangelicals about celebrating holy days.

I may try to incorporate some of their ideas this year, but most will probably go onto a list for next year.

So that’s my Advent this year. What about you? What are you planning? Do you observe the Liturgical Year? Do you wish you did things differently?


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  1. Eeek! This is our first year celebrating Advent, with our own twist (obviously). I have two Advent calendars, one with Bible verses and treats for each day (like, a skittle each lol). The other one, I put in an activity the night before, depending on our known schedule. Being pregnant, having a wedding coming up and guests for another country, I have to watch what I get myself into, because I can get into a lot. I have 25 different ideas. So far, the kids have made their own calendars so that they can cross off each day until Christmas. This was very important to Stephen, for whatever reason. I got to fulfill my “educational self” by having him write out all the numbers. Pretty sweet. We went to the parade one day, went to a crazy light show at this awesome house in town, made cookies, and today watched a Curious George Christmas. I know tomorrow I will be tired because Sim and I are going out late, so I am going to sneak in the Advent calendar that we will be reading few Christmas books I’ve been hiding and have some popcorn. To finish it off, a huge birthday par-tay for Jesus on the 25th. I am having waaaay too much fun. I think the best idea for me was to plan the night before what we will do: that way it doesn’t become a “have to” on a very busy day, and I can make sure I have everything I need prepared. Anyways, write down all the things you think you’ll want to do, because YOU WILL FORGET. I love excuses to celebrate, in the everyday.

  2. LOVE your blog, Kathleen!
    As I was reading this post, it made me think of the St.Andrew Christmas Novena that my family would pray every Advent (well, technically it starts on November 30th, the feast of St.Andrew and is said every day 15 times until Christmas Day), and that I still try to keep up with today every Advent.
    Since you mentioned you would like to “mark the passing of time” with some”special prayers” I thought I would include the prayer here: http://catholicism.about.com/od/prayers/qt/Andrew_Novena.htm.
    And another link: http://www.twoheartsdesign.com/prayers/standrew.html.
    Sometimes as kids, we as a family would forget to say the prayer until the day was almost ending and by that point we were sooo tiiiired and the last thing we wanted to do was say a prayer 15 times.. But even then, it was still a very comforting prayer as you meditated about that first Christmas’ cold winter night and the Baby Jesus being born. And by Christmas, it was SUCH a feeling of accomplishment to have said the prayer for 26 straight days..you really did feel like celebrating on Christmas Day!
    Anyway, I know it’s a few days past the 30th, but just thought I’d share. I am still very fond of this tradition! :)

    • Thanks, Cynthia! I didn’t know you were Catholic. Cool! The prayer is beautiful, thanks for passing it along. [Anything with the word “vouchsafe” in it gets a special stamp of approval! :)]. 15 times a day?! I might go with *once* a day . . .

  3. This is our first year to celebrate Advent. We go to a a non-denominational church (in Texas) that celebrates Advent, so we’ve been able to observe them doing it, & want to do it with our kids to make sure the focus all month is on Jesus, not what commercials & people at the grocery store are emphasizing. We are using the Jesus Storybook Advent reading plan (http://homewiththeboys.net/advent-with-the-jesus-storybook-bible/) & these Bible readings for a bit of prophecy (http://www.scriptureunion.org/journey%20to%20bethlehem). We read our Jesus Storybook story first, then the scripture that we receive from Scripture Union, then we pray together. On Sundays, we do our Advent Wreath & light the appropriate candle(s) & talk about their meanings. We’ll do some fun activities throughout the month, & we’ll ask our kids to choose a toy to give away to someone who doesn’t have much. That’s what we have so far… I’m sure it will evolve through the years (we have a 2 yr old & a 2 mo old).

  4. I am not Catholic, and I did not grow up with any concept of Advent or the liturgical year. Yet I have found myself drawn to it for the better part of my adult life. It certainly has been a process, but a process that I am thoroughly enjoying.

    Advent blessings to you!
    juanita recently posted..Advent PlaylistMy Profile

  5. I had big plans for Advent this year…and we still haven’t done anything. But I was going to do something similar to grass in the manger, only instead of growing the grass, you get a bag of hay. Anytime during the Advent season that the kid(s) do something kind or praiseworthy, they get to put a piece of hay in the manger. The goal is to make sure Baby Jesus has a very soft bed by Christmas morning.

  6. Hi…I’m visiting from the blog hop. My husband is Mennonite (a pastor, in fact), but his church is one of the more enculturated ones (Mennonite Church USA). They actually observe Advent and Lent, but it’s so new that some people still hate it. I am Catholic, and I love having so many chances in the year to celebrate. Really, those days belong to all Christians, Catholic or not…I say reclaim them if you have a mind to! It’s okay not to do everything perfectly (or even do everything, for that matter)- just do something to mark the time. You can always change it next year. :-)
    Abbey recently posted..Why I need Advent.My Profile

    • Hi, Abbey! Yes, I agree — those holidays are for every Christian, and I intend to reclaim them! Thanks for your encouragement.

      Also, I can see some Mennonites having a hard time embracing some of these things…

  7. Hey Kathleen! I’ve been thinking about the same things this week! It could be our daughters’ similar stage of development (like “Oh, hey, little person, you are going to need some family traditions soon…I should get on that…”) Perhaps your friend’s little blog hop will be the impetus to get me writing about my meagre attempts. They have been neither especially sustainable or local or non-consumerist, but they have been affordable and simple and cheerful.

    1) We moved in July and I’ve been burnt out since then, so I’m taking some time to finish things around the house. Put things in the storage crates/boxes I purchased months ago, put up curtains, reorganize tiny closets, declutter, put up pictures on the walls. I feel this is an advent-y thing to do. It’s almost like nesting along with Mary (I’m so not preggo, but I do feel nest-y). Making room for Jesus.
    2) I made an impromptu advent wreath and Jesse tree from a $5 bunch of cedar from Superstore and some stuff I had around my house. Texted my husband from the store: “What colour are advent candles?” Day 2 my wreath was a little… flat, so I bought a roll of red ribbon, two boxes of red bead string, advent candles (purple), and splurged on a fake plastic wreath and 5 candle holders (all IKEA, shame on me). Maybe $25 in the end. And too much “made in China.” :o/ But it’s made me reflect on the symbols and colours and loveliness of the season. The cedar smelled so good. And winter sure needs evergreens and bold reds. Purple candles for penitence. A pink one for Christmas week’s joy. A white one for Christ. I grew up spending Christmas in Wisconsin at my Grandparents and there all the farm houses put (electric) candles in the windows. So I put some tea lights in mason jars and put up some red beads. Light in the darkness. Plus the theological themes of waiting for a child to be born. I think I’ve been struck by just how the physical act of decorating can be a creative participation in the waiting and longing for the joy of Christmas. And if there is anything worth celebrating it is surely God come down. :)

    I also love your bread idea… I might steal that one. I need to know my neighbors.

    • “Oh, hey, little person, you are going to need some family traditions soon…” — YES! Exactly!

      I wouldn’t have made the connection myself, but you’re so right — nesting and Advent seem to go perfectly together. As Mary anticipated Jesus’ birth and prepared her home for him, so do we! I love your observation that “the physical act of decorating can be a creative participation in the waiting and longing for the joy of Christmas.” Beautifully said!

      I can so relate to the tension inherent in using mass-produced materials for such spiritual symbols, but sometimes we just have to use what we’ve got, don’t we? Thanks for sharing, Laura!

  8. I loved reading your post. I can relate on so many levels. I grew up Evangelical and I don’t think Advent was ever mentioned. I didn’t know what Advent was until I was in my twenties. I do envy the traditions involved in the Catholic faith. I think it is beautiful.

    I told my husband I wanted to celebrate Advent this year and he didn’t even know what it was. I started doing a little research but quickly became overwhelmed which then crushes my motivation. I am observing Advent through the eyes of others this year in hopes of having something in place for my family to celebrate next year.

    My children look forward to Christmas for the presents obviously, but they also get excited when I pull out the Little People’s Nativity. They enjoy playing with “baby God”. This is good, but I just don’t feel like it is enough. Christ’s birth was magical and I desire a more magical Christmas/Advent tradition for my children.

  9. Hello!

    I just went out and got my Advent wreath candles today… a little late but oh well. They’re white and pink because it seems no one sells purple tapers this time of year. I feel like I’m breaking the rules!

    We always had a manger growing up too. In the beginning of Advent we had the Mary and Joseph figurines across the room from the stable, and every day we moved them a little bit closer. We had a lot of Advent traditions growing up now that I think about it. Each tradition comes with a story and makes me feel close to my extended family.

    I’m Catholic and my husband is a non-denominational Evangelical Christian. He doesn’t mind the wreath and other things, but Advent traditions don’t really do much for him. Although I wonder if part of it is that it just may not be a guy thing? I grew up in a family with pretty strong egalitarian values, but it was still usually the aunts and mothers that put everything together come Christmas. Someone commented earlier about the nesting element of Advent and I think there is some truth to that.

    Anyways, love your blog- been following for awhile now :)

    • Thanks, Eileen! I like the idea of putting Joseph and Mary a little closer to the stable every day. Cute!

      I also wonder if it’s a guy thing or an Evangelical thing, or maybe a little bit of both. My husband is the same way.

    • We did red & white candles for the wreath – like you, I couldn’t find purple, so I decided to throw out the traditional candles all together & go with what matched my decorations. Oh well! :)

  10. I love the idea of growing grass and using it to fill a manager under the tree! I am so doing that next year. I’ve definitely been compiling a list of things I want to incorporate into our family traditions, but it seems nothing is getting done this year being pregnant and that’s ok because Malachi still doesn’t really understand what’s going on. I think he thinks we gave him a little nativity with a baby in it to play with because mommy has a baby in her tummy. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t connected the ‘baby Jesus’ he plays with to the stories we’ve been reading about Jesus’ birth and life. Oh, well. There’s always next year.
    I grew up evangelical and had never heard of Advent until a few years ago. We didn’t do much of anything ‘religious’ around Christmas (or Easter for that matter) except go to church, which we did even if it wasn’t a holiday. My parents sheltered us from the commercialism of the holiday, but they also didn’t add any extra spirituality to it. I’d like to do that for my kids though.
    I’m actually working on a post that is eerily similar to yours, maybe I’ll have some new ideas for you?
    This is my newest find. I want to eventually have our family make a set for each child we have (when they are old enough to help). http://25daysofchrist.com/
    Bekah recently posted..30 weeks with placenta previa.My Profile

    • Ooooh . . . I just looked into the kit you linked to, and I SO want one someday, too! Hopefully by the time our kids are old enough to understand, we’ll both have a good handle on this family tradition thing. :)

  11. Hi! I just found your blog and this post thru Molly’s link up.
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article (I currently live in an area that has a local Mennonite Church; lovely people)
    I personally did not grow up with Advent being something that we took part in or recognized–grew up Southern Baptist. As an adult I’ve long to take part in some of the feast days…but haven’t been encouraged through any church or pastoring.
    This year I took it upon myself to celebrate with candle lighting…and I read scripture. This is my first. I’ve found it joyful and peaceful at the same time.
    I wish I had done this soon, before all my own children left home. This is a worth while tradition.
    So nice to meet you and read your blog.
    Pat recently posted..Advent:: A Call to Remembrance, Honor and PreparationMy Profile

  12. I grew up Anglican (UK) so we celebrated Advent every year – lighting the candles in church, an advent calendar at home (and some years candles at home too if my mum got around to it).

    My first reaction as a teenager was to veer away from anything “traditional” but as an adult I’ve returned to it with enthusiasm. I love liturgy, we make an advent wreath every year for our home and exchange small gifts each Advent Sunday. Here in Luxembourg, St Nicholas’ day is HUGE and I have loved learning about him and the traditions here. And on Thursday, I’ll celebrate St Lucia’s day as a nod to my Scandinavian husband. I even try to celebrate the Winter Solstice in my own way.

    But like you said above, the hardest part about trying to following the Christian calendar is doing it alone. My husband is open to me doing things but not over enthusiastic himself. And our church here doesn’t follow it too closely (advent and lent loosely). Maybe there’s a way to find other Christians locally who have the same desire, and somehow journey together?
    fiona lynne recently posted..when advent feels emptyMy Profile

  13. I love this post! I really love how the church celebrates the passage of time with changing traditions. I may be going out on a limb here, but it reminds me of how we do different things in the seasons in terms of food preparation and harvesting, so it only makes sense that we should use each change in season (liturgically) to renew our faith as well, right? I grew up Lutheran and we did an Advent wreath while my (Catholic) husband’s family didn’t have any Advent traditions! So I guess it can go both ways! I say try as many things as you like and see what sticks. Is there a specific reason Mennonites celebrate the same way (like, celebration = bad?) or is it just a lack of creativity? One of the exciting things about finally starting a little family of our own (I know, I know, Mike and I were always a family…but our families didn’t always recognize that…) is that now we get to start our own traditions for things! What a fun way to teach our children about the gospel and their faith as well as to create lifelong memories :)
    Alison recently posted..Letters to my unbornMy Profile

    • Thanks, ALison! To answer your question: I think Mennonites celebrate everything the same way for fear that certain rituals or symbols might become an idol. (That’s a big issue for Mennonites). Mennonites also treat all spiritual matters with utmost solemnity, so having fun in church would be considered inappropriate. Then there’s also the poverty issue (Mennonites have been poor for most of their history); the fact that they emphasize humility (so they generally forbid decorations, which might beget the sin of of pride); and the fact that their families are so huge. Just the logistics of getting everybody fed is enough effort, without all the hoopla! :) These are just my guesses, anyway — no one has ever told me explicitly. It’s also just tradition.

      Interesting that your Lutheran family did more Advent stuff than your husband’s Catholic family! All families are different, I guess, regardless of denomination.

  14. Hello there,
    I’m German, and I’ve just now realized how blessed I am: Advent is a big issue in Germany, although of course less and less in a Christian way…
    … but still, it was great growing up, and even now:
    * Almost every family has an Advent wreath: four candles, usually red (I had no idea the colour of the candles means something??), and actually, I saw a pack of 4 candles on sale, in different sizes, you start with the tallest on the 1st Sunday of advent, so that they burn down equally^^
    * and everyone has an Advent calendar, filled with sweets, usually one that can be filled as you wish, but there are also a lot of already-sweet-filled calenders available
    *** actually, Advent wreath and Advent calendar are both “made in Germany” (and it makes me proud!)
    * lots of families have a family manger, and Mary and Joseph wander nearer to the stable every day, while Jesus is placed inside on Christmas day
    * some celebrate St Barbara on the 4th of December: we cut branches of trees (like cherry), put them inside in a vase, for them to bloom on Christmas day
    * we celebrate St Nicholas, who comes at night and fills your shoes (boots, actually, and only if they are clean^^) on the 6th of December
    * Germans, in general, don’t like to sing, but Advent is so different: there are lots of concerts, and also sing-along concerts…
    * lots of houses and streets are lit up, but most are very un-American, with white lights only, which do not blink^^
    * there are quite a lot of special cakes, cookies and other sweets – only eaten during Advent and Christmas
    * I remember celebrating St Lucia once in my childhood, a Scandinavian tradition

    So I grew up with all those great traditions. No other liturgical time is so woven into German culture as Advent and Christmas, and I feel blessed that I grew up with these.

    Just wanted to tell you my “story”. Have a blessed time of Advent, everyone!

  15. As a confessional Lutheran, Advent is a big part of our celebration every year. In fact, while most people start decorating and preparing for Christmas after Halloween or at least by Thanksgiving, we don’t start until the day before the first Sunday in Advent. At least in Lutheranism, Advent is looking forward to and preparing for two things simultaneously. We look forward to the celebration of Christ’s birth, His first coming, as well as to look forward to His second coming. Advent is a time of joyful reflection and penitence (while Lent tends to be more somber). I teach 3rd & 4th grade confirmation at my church and in the past we have made paper Advent wreaths so the kids can “light” their own candles (glue construction paper flames to construction paper wicks on construction paper candles attached to construction paper wreaths). Maybe I’ll try to post my templates and instructions on my blog this year or next.

    Glad you’re getting a chance to learn more about Advent and the liturgical calendar! I really love the liturgical church year and how much it draws us into the whole of Salvation History.
    Michele recently posted..Motherhood Reality – Life In GeneralMy Profile

  16. Canadian Darlene says:

    Hi Kathleeen,
    I know it’s May and we are way past the time of this topic, but I understand your being overwhelmed. I am Catholic and I am often overwhelmed. I found an awesome book (that I actually bought as a teaching resource, since I teach elementary students) that I think would be great. I am putting the link from Amazon so you can explore the book and see what you think. http://www.amazon.com/The-Catholic-Home-Celebrations-Traditions/dp/0385519079/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1368190043&sr=8-1&keywords=Catholic+home
    It’s simple activities you can do at home all year long to celebrate or pay attention to “Ordinary Time” and Advent, Lent, etc. I think it is also so great because the woman who wrote it converted to Catholicism fromJudaism, so she brings a inquest perspective and explains things. I learned so much! Anyway just thought I’d share.

  17. I am a Catholic who lives a very Mennonite lifestyle. I love the Mennonites and their work, I’ve read all the Yoder I can find. I’m thoroughly pacifist, believe in simplicity, and live quite simply to you- I go barefoot, live minimalist, and am mostly media-free. However, the thing that keeps me in the Holy Catholic faith is the liturgy, the beautiful stability of the church year and the beautiful traditions and mystery surrounding the Eucharist. There are movements that have embraced views like mine such as the Catholic Worker and other groups, who introduced me to Catholicism from Anabaptism and caused my conversion.

    If you’d ever like to talk about this aspect of Catholicism, I’d be glad to. I find that my minimalist life follows the Church, and together we become beautifully liturgical :-)

  18. I can’t describe the Catholic faith any better than the above comments, but suffice to say that I wholeheartedly agree. As I’m reading this now we are about to enter Lent, followed by Triduum, Good Friday and Easter, all amazing Holy days filled with deep tradition, spiritual reflection and observance, and I’m very excited. We Catholics absolutely love observances filled with reverence and meaning, including feast days for Saints all throughout the liturgical year. We love to party, to laugh and spread merriment, we love joy and togetherness! We’re intellectual, creative and academic, yet deeply rooted in spirituality. I could not be any more proud to be Catholic,especially in our secular society; I love when people are surprised by the fact that you can have conviction and be relevant! I share much the same position that you do concerning your faith in the “regular” world, and I thank you for noticing how super cool Catholic observances are. :)

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