The following is a compilation of information and resources I have come across over the years concerning the Nativity Fast. The Nativity Fast, or Advent as it is often called, is one of the two great fasts of the year. The difference between it and great Lent, is of course, that during the Nativity fast we are anticipating a birth, so the atmosphere of this fast is one of happy anticipation. It can also be a difficult fast for the Orthodox, as the rest of the world is caught up in Christmas parties and celebrations full of the food and drink from which we fast. The following ideas are a collection of ways to commemorate the days of the fast without pre-celebrating the feast.
Make the 15th an event – Advent is different from Lent, where the beginning is hard to miss, often the 15th comes and goes with little notice taken. Make the 15th a special day by starting family traditions to begin the fast.
Ideas: set your Christmas tree up the night before after the kids have gone to bed. Then spend the rest of the week slowly decorating it. Begin one of the many activities outlined below to mark the days of Advent - a Jesse tree, Advent calendar, prayer chain, or Advent wreath
Reserve special items that only come out during the fast - (in our house, all Nativity related books, toys, music and movies are stored away until Nov 15th, then pulled out to enjoy during the season and packed up again on Jan 7th )
Below is a list of activities that can be done daily to help mark the fast – select from among these the ones that appeal to you and your family without becoming overwhelming.
Establish a family time and altar If you do not already have one, this is a great time to start the habit of evening family prayers together – prayers, readings, lighting candles etc – these become the focal point of the fast. When you receive Christmas cards – place those on your altar and pray for those people that evening. If you have a table or piece of furniture available or even just a shelf, drape with a red cloth and place icons, candles
Jesse Tree – a series of ornaments or symbols that begin with creation and track the story of our salvation through the Old Testament, ending with the birth of Christ. There are many versions of this, and it may take time to create your own, but it can be a wonderful way to see the importance of the Incarnation in the scope of history. There is also a lovely coloring page version of the Jesse Tree as an alternative (or to go along with) ornaments.
Advent Calendar – hung in a prominent place where the children can see it on a daily basis – there are paper ones that can be purchased, or you can make your own. It can be very simple – of felt with items pinned on or elaborate with sewn pockets
Christmas Storybooks – in our house all of the books related to Christmas are wrapped up in inexpensive paper and placed under the tree on the 15th of November. Each evening, the children select a book to open and we read it together. A basket is placed by the tree to contain the opened books, which are then revisited throughout the season. We don’t attempt to have 40 books, 20 or so have been more than enough to keep us busy, and the children get very excited each year when they open old favorites they haven’t seen since last Christmas! It’s like getting a whole new library of books each year.
Prayer chain – this can be used for one of several activities. Cut strips and staple into a chain. Can track alms giving during Advent, use it as a prayer list of people to pray for each day (add someone new each day) or use it to count your blessings, writing something you are thankful for each day of the fast. Hang your chain somewhere visible in the house and watch it grow through the fast.
Almgiving – in the spirit of St. Nicholas, try to find some way to involve your children in activities of giving – visit one of the shut ins in the church, let them send notes and Christmas cards to the shut ins of the region,
Christmas tree – Traditionally – Christmas eve (not very practical for most. My family decorates the tree on the 15th as our way of marking the start of the season (artificial of course) – if you use a live tree, St. Nicholas day (Dec 6) or St. Herman’s feast day (Dec. 13th) are great days to mark with decorating the tree.
Wooden set children can handle and play with
Family set - one idea is to not place out all figures – make a star path with 40 stars from the manger across a table or shelf. Mary moves one star closer each day – as she passes each star, it can be moved up onto a blue backdrop behind the nativity set until you have a full sky. Alternative to using stars is to make a stone path (shown above).
The week before Christmas, place a new figure each day, let your kids come home from the Christmas liturgy to find the baby Jesus in the manger.
3. Mark the milestones of the fast –
Participate in the liturgies and activities offered by the church.
One way to mark these days, print off paper icons (from the internet) and put them into picture frame Christmas ornaments, hang each saint on the tree on his or her feast day
St. Katherine – Nov 25th
St. Andrew – Nov 30th
St. Stephen – Dec 27th
Read the lives of the saints (can be a bedtime activity or a part of the family altar time) we should spend at least as much time sharing these stories with our kids as we do sharing fairy tales and other books
4. Celebrate Christmas!
Place Jesus in the manger, ready to be found when the children come
home from liturgy
One of the wonderful things about being Orthodox is avoiding the post holiday blues – do you remember the feeling you had as a child on the 26th of December, or even as an adult? Everything is over, the presents are opened and there seems to be nothing left to look forward to but a long dreary winter.
12 days of Christmas – stockings with 12 small gifts to be opened each day of Christmas
Theophany table – change cloth drape to gold, remove wreath, set out 11 votives and Christ candle
Theophany – special bottles
for them to bring for the service to be filled with Holy Water , I bought a cheap bottle painting kit from Target/Hobby Lobby
House Blessing – a good motivation to get the house cleaned and ready to start the year!