Each year we do a few new things, and skip some things that we've done in the past. As I start my planning for Advent 2012, here is the list of non-negotiables for the Hunters, listed in roughly the order they happen during the season:
10. Begin Elizabeth Foss' Tomie de Paola Advent Study
Since Will was born, Tomie de Paola stories have been a beloved part of our Advent tradition. Around the time Will started Kindergarten, Elizabeth Foss posted her family's homeschool unit study based on these books. We have used variations of these plans every year since, as well as her awesome Fudge Recipe. Each year we collected a few more books until we had them all.
9. The Family Advent Wreath
Several years ago, a friend hosted a scrapbooking night for a group of friends to make their own Family Advent Albums. In them, we put the prayers and traditions to guide us through Advent. This ready reference has kept me from scrambling at the last minute to find the prayers and readings for the Advent Wreath. Each Sunday in Advent, one of the children lights a candle, another child reads, and Jeff leads the prayers. Each year, it gets slightly less chaotic . . . we have a ways to go.
8. Visit "The Real Santa Claus"
Nothing compares to the wonder of a visit to "The Real Santa" at the original Merrifield Garden Center. Beginning with Santa kneeling before the Baby Jesus, leading all the children in traditional Christmas carols, through the two-plus-hour wait on line (never stressful--really!), to the mysterious time with Santa himself, this is a not-to-be-missed part of our Advent.
7. Drive Through The Festival of Lights, and eat and play at the Carnival
The Festival of Lights at Bull Run Park is a drive-thru wonderland of moving lights. It's pretty much the same every year, but that just allows everyone to anticipate their favorites as we approach them. We also sing a very bad rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas as we pass each character in that song. It is crucial that a visit to the Festival of Lights be planned for a night when the carnival at the end is open. First stop, the incredible handmade food (think hand-dipped corn dogs and hand-cut french fries). One year, they even had an authentic crepe truck making Nutella crepes to order (there were other types, but I didn't pay much attention beyond the Nutella). This is a fairly pricey tradition for a large family, but we skip some other things so we can do this one. Don't forget mittens and wipes for sticky fingers.
6. The Feast of St. Nicholas
On December 6, St. Nicholas makes a special visit to our home and leaves gifts for the children in their shoes. This feast day is extra special, since this saint is the patron of our own Nicholas. This is also a day that we read our collection of stories about the Bishop of Myra.
Jeff makes this traditional German Christmas "cookie" with these beautiful molds. Springerle dough is slightly thicker than concrete, and was directly responsible for the death of my Kitchen Aid a few years ago (to the mixer's credit, I think Jeff had doubled or tripled the recipe). Once the dough is rolled out, it is then pressed with the mold, cut out, and dried for days. Then you bake the cookies in a VERY low oven, where two degrees can make all the difference, because you never want the cookies to darken. They are a beautiful white color and flavored with anise. A lot of work, but definitely worth it.
4. Buy a BIG, live Christmas Tree
Growing up the daughter of a forester in the Pacific Northwest, I will always prefer a live tree. Jeff will always prefer a BIG tree. The result of this marital union is a very large, live Christmas Tree. We are not the folks who are in line the day after Thanksgiving to buy our tree. We are the ones who go out the weekend before Christmas, hoping that the tree farm hasn't already run out of trees (which has happened more than once). Fortunately, there are usually a few beautiful giants left at the end of the parking lot sales. Once our tree is found, it comes home to wait in the cool garage until the 22nd or 23rd. Then it comes in and we begin the long process of decorating. First Jeff wraps the many strands of lights, and brings up cases of ornaments from the basement. Then the carefully orchestrated decorating begins. Efforts are made to give younger children unbreakable ornaments for the bottom of the tree. Older kids get somewhat fragile ornaments for the area that they can reach. Then, Grandpa Dave and I put the really breakable ones up high. Finally, Jeff climbs the ladder and does the very top, and adds the angel.
3. Welcome Grandpa Dave
Dad usually arrives on the 21st. Since we only see him twice a year, this is a major highlight of the season. For the kids, his arrival kicks off a marathon of Christmas story reading snuggled up with Grandpa Dave.
2. Celebrate Daddy's Birthday
When Jeff and I were engaged, I made the mistake of giving him a combo-birthday/Christmas present. It was a VERY nice sweater (think cashmere Nieman-Marcus). He was gracious in his disappointment, but it was clear that people with birthdays during Christmas week don't appreciate having their birthdays "combo-ed" with Christmas. I have never repeated the mistake. It doesn't have to be a big deal (he usually prefers that it's not), but it has to be its own celebration. Most often, it's the traditional pilgrimage to Red Robin, complete with singing servers. But, it's always special on its own. And, everyone knows that Daddy's birthday celebration signals Christmas is just around the corner.
1. Midnight Mass
The perfect end to the Advent Season, and beginning of the Christmas Season! Every year since Jeff and I were married, save one, we have packed up all of our children and gone to Midnight Mass. I love Midnight Mass. Watching the priest carry the Baby Jesus up the center aisle at precisely 12:00 am is, in my opinion, the very best way to start Christmas Day. We've had many years where children slept through Mass . . . we've had a few years when I've prayed that children would fall asleep . . . but mostly we've had children who have enjoyed the wonder of the lights, the music, and most of all the story of Jesus' birth. We have been blessed by an extra set of arms (Grandpa Dave's) to help hold those sleeping babies throughout the years.
There you have it . . . the Hunter Top Ten. I've probably forgotten something huge, but I've definitely covered the majority of our family traditions. I'd love to hear what your families do!