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When I was a child, I would spend days on end handcrafting Christmas cards for family and friends. I remember one year my mom let me use the hot glue gun to glue hay onto a construction paper creche. I both burned my fingers and damaged the wooden kitchen table, but I was so proud of my creations. I hand-wrote meaningful messages to each person and addressed them carefully. I have always loved the Advent season — the way everyone is more aware of kindness toward the other, preparing thoughtful gifts for both loved ones and strangers, quality family time and more.

Over the last few years, as I have transitioned from being a single woman in Los Angeles to a newly married couple, and now a family of three (with another on the way), I have carried some meaningful practices to be present to Christ who dwells in me currently and is also to be born in a lowly manger at Christmas.

Mary on the Mantel

Through a prompting that I can only explain as the Holy Spirit, last Advent we came up with the idea of Mary on the Mantel — an activity for families similar to Elf on the Shelf — that focuses on Mary’s preparation for the birth of her Son. Each day Mary is found around the house “nesting.” She might be cleaning the bathroom, baking cookies, folding baby clothes or putting her feet up. In her tote bag she has an act of kindness for the children to do that day, the idea being that we prepare our hearts for Christmas by caring for our families, our neighbors and communities, the earth, those in need and even ourselves. We encourage teaching our children that Mary is not there to tattle on them (like that sneaky elf), but rather to walk alongside them to grow closer to her Child.

You can find the Mary doll on beaheart.com, or use a well-loved doll from home, a Marian painting or icon or the Mary piece from your nativity. There are many random acts of kindness advent calendars that can be downloaded for free online as well.

Throw a Baby Shower for Mary

Two years ago, I was pregnant with my daughter, Frances during Advent. I was so moved by the way that our family and friends showered us with gifts for our new baby: tiny clothes, a stroller, diapers, books, etc. I had the idea one day to have a baby shower for Mary and ask guests to bring baby items for a local pregnancy center. There are so many women who are overwhelmed with the reality of having to provide for their children and I knew our community could help. I designed resources to make it easy for people to throw their own baby showers and they happened all over the country. This year, I updated our resources and it is a beautiful way to gather for a time of prayer and heart preparation for Christmas as well as bless others in need.

Throw your own baby shower for Mary with free downloads at beaheart.com.

Eat dinner by candlelight with your Advent wreath

The Advent wreath is such a beautiful tradition to use in your domestic church. It can be special to eat dinner by candlelight — each week becoming brighter as we get closer to Christ’s birth. On Sundays during Advent, one person can lead the family in prayer with a new intention to focus on each week: hope, peace, joy and love. The change in routine will create excitement and magic in your home.

All make the sign of the cross as the leader says
Our help is in the name of the Lord.

Response (R/.)
Who made heaven and earth.

Isiah 9:1,2,5,6 or Isaiah 63:16,17,19 or Isaiah 64:2-8

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

With hands joined, the leaders says
Lord our God, we praise you for
your Son, Jesus Christ:

he is Emmanuel, the hope of the people,

he is the wisdom that teaches and guides us,

he is the Savior of every nation.

Lord God, let your blessing come upon us
as we light the candles of this wreath.

May the wreath and its light be a sign of Christ’s
promise to bring us salvation.

May be come quickly and not delay.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Ten years ago, I was living in Brazil, celebrating my first Christmas away from my own family.We celebrated Christmas Eve with the people in the village, watching a little children’s play and waking up early for Mass. At the end of Mass, we drew the name of someone else in our community out of a basket and we were instructed to do little nice things for them until the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. No gifts were exchanged on Christmas, there were no Christmas trees, and there was no Santa.

Instead on the feast of the Three Kings, three men who lived with us showed up dressed as kings and carrying big bags of presents for the children. We feasted and got to reveal ourselves as the secret gifter to the person we chose on Christmas day. It was the first time in my life that I really understood the fullness of the tradition in our Church — Christmas is not just one day, but a full season to celebrate. There is no reason to feel the post-Christmas slump on December 26th because the full story is still being revealed. The 12 days of Christmas are to be celebrated from Christmas through the new year, not the 12 days leading up to Christmas like so many believe.

Celebrate the 12 days of Christmas

One fun thing to do is to include a present under the tree that is to be opened by the family that has an envelope for each of the 12 days. Inside the envelope varies from day to day with an activity to do as a family that day. One envelope could have tickets to the zoo and another could have directions to bake cookies to bring to your neighbors or someone who lives alone and might be feeling lonely. Other ideas might include: getting to go to the bookstore to pick out a new book, volunteering at a food pantry if your children are old enough, making sandwiches to hand out downtown to people who are displaced, building forts in the living room for a movie night or a new museum membership.

Along with the activity card in the envelope, the day’s Mass readings can also be included and read aloud over breakfast with a little prayer to the Holy Family to sanctify your own family!

Pick names for secret acts of kindness

Borrow from the tradition we had in my Brazilian community. Near your nativity set where Jesus has just arrived, have a tiny bowl with pieces of paper with each family member’s name on it. As each person approaches the manger to pick a name, they pray to grow to be more like Jesus in the coming year — one who sees the other and finds small ways to bless their life.

During Christmastide, the family member pays special attention to the needs of the person they picked. Maybe secretly doing their chore, setting out a piece of candy on their pillowcase to find before bed, leaving a card with all of your favorite things about them, letting them go first or spending extra quality time together. One bigger gift is to be planned and given on Epiphany! As some added fun, you can guess who had your name before they are revealed!

The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

We celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on New Year’s Day, which is a holy day of obligation. We always go to the vespers Mass on New Year’s Eve before going to any parties. But more fun than anything is to tie the feast day into New Year Eve celebrations. Lots of gold and lots of stars! The title “Mother of God” is a western derivation from the Greek Theotokos, which means “God-bearer”.

During the party, you can have a basket of saints for each guest to choose a Saint of the Year. Then you can have correlating prayer cards or coloring sheets for the saints to be used in a craft to make a little shrine to have in their room or home throughout the year. Each person can share.

You can make fun star crowns and make star garlands (there are lots of tutorials online).

Then together you can pray a rosary to invite Mary into your new year and discuss how you hope to be God-bearers in the world.

Celebrate the Epiphany

In many cultures around the world, Epiphany is a bigger holiday than Christmas. There are so many beautiful traditions to look to. In Mexico there is a Rosca de Reyes cake. Inside the cake is a tiny baby Jesus figurine. Whoever has the figurine in their piece of cake has to bring the tamales for the party at Candlemas, February 2nd.

Bless the doorway of your home with holy water and scrawl in chalk C+M+B (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) — plus the year. The “C, M, B” also stands for the Latin blessing Christus mansionem benedicat which means “Christ bless this house.”