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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Preparing For Christmas and Making Memories Along the Way...

Somehow, the idea of gathering the family around the Advent wreath to light the candles every night for four weeks appears easier said than done. It’s even more challenging when you throw an energetic toddler and a disinterested kindergartner into the mix.

For the second time in the last four years, my family and I attempted to partake in the Advent wreath lighting tradition to prepare for Christmas Day.

It is a beautiful custom that many families we know share in and the Catholic Church encourages, as a way of putting aside the hectic days of the season and concentrating on what should be our focus; God and family.

The lighting of the Advent wreath actually began in Germany about five centuries ago but has recently gained popularity and become a staple of Christian preparation for the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  While, there is no set way of doing it, for the most part, it entails gathering the family around the wreath, reading from the Bible, lighting the candles, sharing with one another and praying. It could be as long or as short as the family chooses. Each Sunday, leading up to Christmas, one additional candle is lit, until all four are lit during the week prior to Christmas.

It was never part of my Christmas memories growing up (not that I know any Cuban family that did it during my youth), but I want to make it part of my children’s.

Unfortunately, for a second time, our attempt at establishing the tradition failed miserably and was extinguished, almost as fast as a candle in the breeze, before we got to the third week (Hey, we're making progress.  On our last try, we barely got past the second candle). 

The good news, however, is that despite the failure, the exercise of gathering as a family nightly, actually served, to a greater extent, as an impetus for spending more quality time together in other ways.

Like most parents in today's society, my wife and I work hard, sometimes maybe too hard (and I can say, without reservations, especially my wife). With our busy schedule, the girls' ballet classes, baths, dinner, clean-up (which with a messy three-year-old and two not-so-enthusiastic sisters to help, clean-up can take up a chunk of time) and getting ready for bedtime, there doesn't seem to leave much for family quality time (aside from dinner).

So, starting at the beginning of Advent (the last Sunday in November), I resolved to unite my family (as the spiritual leader God calls me to be) to remember the true meaning of the Christmas (whether they wanted to or not!).

Not everyone was on the same page on this and the excitement of having to stop what they were doing to light the candles and pray started wearing thin by the second week (with the exception of my older daughter, who would read the daily Gospel each night and loved being the center of attention). My wife says I make religion and the faith too serious for the kids. But, as most people that know me understand, I take most things seriously, what would make me turn religion into a comedy routine? (I'm not suggesting that my wife doesn't know me well)

I knew we were in trouble one night, as we tried to light the Advent wreath candles.  My son was thrown on the floor repeatedly singing the few words he knows from the first verse of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” our younger daughter was yawning, making “I’m-so-tired” faces, and trying to talk to mommy in the middle of the Gospel reading, and even my wife appeared distracted, after arriving late from putting away the laundry. 

My own enthusiasm started dwindling somewhere along the many Christmas parties and activities that made it difficult to gather as a family each night (in other words, I let the celebrations leading up “The” celebration weigh me down in fulfilling my primary responsibility; my family).

After coming to the realization that continuing the Advent wreath was not going  to happen, and feeling a bit discouraged, I decided to try a different approach. 

Instead, of gathering my young family in a regimented and, apparently forced way, I decided to take my wife's advice (shhh... let's keep this between us).  We started gathering and preparing more subtly and in a less structured atmosphere.

We pray before every meal we eat together, but we started praying for our hearts to be open to receive the Lord on Christmas Day.  We celebrated St. Nicholas Day, who we chose as my son's patron saint, as I told my kids the story of the real Santa Claus and our son blew out candles on a cake. I took my oldest daughter to the blessing of the baby Jesus, at our parish, where she sang in the children's choir, while we prayed a living Rosary. We watched Christmas movies together like; It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th St., A Christmas Carol and we spend almost every minute in the car listening to and singing Christmas carols (the von Trapp family have nothing on us!). Even my wife and I got to spend some quality time on our own (after the kids went to bed, of course).

So, while we may not be ready for the Advent wreath tradition yet, I hope our efforts this year serve as building blocks for making our own customs and memories the children will cherish throughout their lifetime.  And, who knows, maybe next year, we can make it to the third candle.

Merry Christmas.

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