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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