advent,  Catholic Spirituality,  Family Life,  feast days,  liturgical living

An Advent bucket list for busy (tired) Catholic families

We try to communicate the “not-yet-ness” of Advent to our kids without totally squelching the pleasant, anticipatory joy of Christmas on the near horizon, and I think we’ve achieved a moderately sane balance, though I’m sure we come across as too grinch for some and gluttonously liturgically abusive to others. Which is why the Church doesn’t actually mandate “how to Advent,” apart from encouraging voluntary penance and reflection and continued adherence to meatless Fridays (or some alternative penitential act of the believer’s own choosing). So that’s good news if you’re Elf incarnate and had your tree up on Black Friday, and it’s good news if you’re St. Benedicta of the Barren Pine Branch and no morsel of Christmas fudge shall passeth your lips until midnight on December 24th. 

It’s a big Church.

Here are a few ways we’re trying to keep the both/and of the season at hand. Maybe some ideas will jump out as possibly useful in your own little domestic church.

  1. Celebrating major December feast days and solemnities (Nicholas, Guadalupe, Immaculate Conception, Lucy, Juan Diego, etc.) by driving  around looking at Christmas lights, blasting Christmas music, drinking hot chocolate, and generally abandoning ourselves entirely to the wildly premature indulgence of secular “advent.” We try to really go all out for feast days, and this is a cheap thrill that we can probably manage to do once or twice during this year’s highly abbreviated Advent.

  2. Making blessing bags for our local homeless. We drive into Denver proper to take our kids to school, and we generally pass at least a panhandler or two going each way. Our oldest is particularly concerned when he sees anyone standing in the median with a sign, so at his urging we’ve started keeping gallon-sized ziplock bags in the trunk stocked with beef jerky, granola bars, chapstick, deodorant, gum, socks, gloves, vaseline, canned soup, (all of which are available at the Dollar Tree) and maybe a McDonald’s gift card, etc. Sometimes people are super receptive and sometimes they’d really rather not be handed anything other than cash, but we like to be able to offer something along with our prayers. Our kids get that *this* is St. Nicholas’ main gig, and it helps them connect with the historical person of the saint and not get totally bogged down in the more, ah, magical details of his life. 

  3. Go to confession as a family at least once during Advent. So far this only applies to adults in our crew, and we’re spoiled with great confession times at our parish, so we trade kids and allow each other to switch off going on subsequent Sundays – or sometimes both get in on the same day. 

  4. Bake something for the neighbors. I actually hate baking, so this is an act of penance for me. Maybe it’s a celebratory thing for you? Whatever the case, the kids get a kick out of ringing doorbells and passing out loaves of “homemade” Trader Joe’s gf pumpkin bread from a box mix. Win/win.

  5. Buy an extra toy or bag of groceries for a toy or food drive and take the cost of it out of your family’s budget for either groceries or Christmas. In years past we’ve adopted a whole family through our parish’s giving tree program, but this year, being a little tighter, we’re scaling back a bit. (Bonus: this is a really good way to cut off the “I wants” when entering any retail establishment with children this time of year, redirecting their attention and energy towards blessing someone else.)

  6. Watch a favorite Christmas movie (the original Grinch, Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life, Nicholas: the Boy who Became Santa) with the fireplace turned on and hot cocoa or cider in hand. We try to save this as a treat for either feast days or Sundays, but I’m super pregnant and Netflix is actually mothering my children as I sit and type this list, so maybe we’ll have a few more Advent movie nights than we would typically accrue. 

  7. Slowly deck the halls. Our fake tree is already up and lit, loud and proud, but is otherwise naked. We’ll probably let them start throwing some ornaments on the branches this Sunday or next, kind of drawing out the expectant longing of Advent. We used to be super hardcore and leave the lights turned off until the week of Christmas, but then we had a seven year old whose actual nickname is Kringle, and I got too big and too tired to fight him on it. Blaze on, Christmas lights. Blaze on.

  8. Light the Advent candle every night at dinner, and singing one verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (0r forcing your family to listen to the Pentatonix version over and over and over…)

  9. Buy a coffee (or a sandwich, or an order of fries, or…) for someone in line behind you. Even more surprising when it’s just a random day in December and not actually the 24th or 25th. 

  10. Pray for the Lord to reveal a concrete and specific need of someone in your immediate (or virtual) community, and then act on it. One year I was sure that God was nudging me to send a moderate sum of money to a friend across the country and so we consulted our budget, pulled a few strings, and fired off an Amazon gift card in the determined amount. Not only was it gratefully received, but it was also apparently the exact amount this family was in need of for something. It’s fun to be involved in God’s generosity.

  11. Make a construction paper Advent chain with one link for each day of the season (and it’s fine to jump in now, just count how many days are left!) and write a fun treat/sacrifice/good deed on each link. Let kids take turns tearing one off each day and also point to its when they ask “how many more days till Christmas?” (cut up purple and pink strips of construction paper, tape together in a chain, write stuff on) <— #shescrafty 

  12. Go visit Santa/St. Nick. Be sure your kids tell him they’re praying for him when they finish the visit, and he might just shock you by bowing his head and praying a quick prayer with them before they hop down. (Local peeps: Southglenn Santa is the real deal).

  13. Bring your pastor a six pack of fancy beer/bottle of scotch/a nice red wine. They get a lot of sugar during the season, but maybe what they could really use after back to back to back liturgies and tons of hospital visits and hours in the confessional is a stiff drink. 

  14. Inquire whether there might be an elderly member at your church who is far from family and will be spending Christmas alone. Consider inviting them to go to church with you this year, or to come for a meal or dessert. Christmas can be hard for the elderly and the lonely.

  15. Pray a rosary – either alone or as a family – for someone who has lost a loved one this past year. Christmas can be a complicated time for someone who is grieving. 

  16. Make a meal – or order some takeout – for a family with a new baby. It can be tough to have a new baby during the season when everyone else is gearing up for a big party about … a new baby. Maybe offer to help the mom wrap presents, or offer to have her ship her Amazon orders straight to your house and offer your elf-ing services, complete with drop off.

  17. Pick something quiet and simple to fast from, either for all of Advent or each week. Maybe one week it’s Christmas music in the car, maybe the second week it’s chocolate. Do something that helps you internally recollect your heart even when the rest of the world is already deep into party mode.

  18. Remember that even if you don’t finish the shopping, don’t get the cards out, don’t plan the perfect menu and can’t afford the big toy, you’ve got 12 whole days – including December 25th – to celebrate Christmas. And that it’s really all about a teeny little baby, His Mother’s magnificent “yes,” and the unfathomable gift of our salvation.


  • Steven Perry

    Hi Jenny,

    My wife Jessica and I really appreciate your post. These are wonderful ideas. We have three young boys, 2,4,6 who keep us on our toes =), good boys who love this time of year. A few years ago, we decided to write our own Christmas book. We wanted to bring St. Nicholas back to the forefront of Christmas. So below is a link to our book. My father-in-law is the illustrator. We hope someday that it gets picked up by a publisher and can become a hard cover book. It also has some ideas in there for ways to prepare during Advent and celebrate Christmas.

    God Bless,

    Steven Perry

  • Diana

    Oh my goodness, this is so helpful! We just got our first Advent wreath (on our 12th married Christmas…) but haven’t had any real idea of what to do beyond that. Thank you!

  • Marie

    Thanks for your wonderful Advent advice, we always used to take all our kids along to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, no matter their age. They then got to realise that this was important in our lives, Father would have a chat with them and give them a blessing and when they were old enough to receive the Sacrament it was a normal part of their lives.

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