An LDS Observance of Advent

December 18, 2009 | 20 comments
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Our Advent wreath, lit on Christmas Eve in 2006, with the Christmas tree behind.

Our Advent wreath, lit on Christmas Eve in 2006, with the Christmas tree behind.

A recent spoof on Conan O’Brien that has made the rounds on the Internet highlights how little many outside the Church know about LDS practices. The hilarious skit, ostensibly in honor of a “Mormon Christmas,” points out that we really do not have many LDS-specific holiday traditions, at least not many that anyone can readily point to. There are ward Christmas programs a week or two before Christmas. There is the First Presidency Christmas Devotional at the beginning of December. And, as I wrote yesterday, for those in Utah, or perhaps farther afield thanks to PBS, there is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert. But there is not really anything that I would call an actual LDS worship service focused solely on Christmas.

There are, perhaps, occasional exceptions. My mother recalls attending candlelight Christmas Eve services growing up in her ward in Cedar City, Utah. When I was a bishop we did a special Christmas musical and scriptural fireside one year when Sunday evening fell a couple of days before Christmas. I have heard of other ward families that try to do something more devotional than the usual “ward Christmas party,” one even on Christmas Eve, but I have not heard of any Christmas Day services except on the rare occasion that Christmas falls on a Sunday.

The reality is that the focus in our community is, perhaps rightly, on family and family traditions. The challenge that many of us have, whether single, married, or families with children at home, is to see that these traditions help us focus on the meaning of Christmas in the face of the commercialization and materialism that have come to characterize so much of the season.

For many of us, these traditions are formed, or reformed and revised, when we first marry. Elaine and I spent the second Christmas of our marriage in a little home in west Provo that we had purchased only four and a half months before. Unlike our first married Christmas season, which we had split in succession with both sets of our parents in Tennessee and New Jersey, our first Utah Christmas was spent alone. We had much extended family in the state, to be sure. Nevertheless, Christmas Eve and Christmas morning were spent with just the two of us. Like all new families, this gave us the chance to begin building Christmas traditions of our own—many borrowed heavily from our own families’ practices, but some completely new to us.

On that first Christmas, one of my aunts gave us a spiral-bound booklet that contained scriptures, suggestions for carols, and Christmas stories, one of each for each day of December. From that year on we have had the tradition of preparing for Christmas by taking time each evening in December to read a Christmas story, recite the day’s scripture, and sing a song before our family prayer. When Rachel joined our family, and as she got old enough to sing along and later take turns reading, this became an important part of our family’s Christmas season observance. I took to calling our increasingly worn little book our “Advent Book,” because, like the Christmas calendar of my youth that my sister lovingly recreated for us the first year after Rachel was born, it helped us focus on the meaning of Christmas.

Our earliest ADvent wreath, lit on the first Sunday.

Our earliest ADvent wreath, lit on the first Sunday.

Later we added the practice of observing Advent itself, the tradition in many Christian communities of marking each of the four Sundays before Christmas with special readings and songs, accompanied by the lighting of candles marking the approach of Christmas. We adapted the practice, incorporating LDS scriptures that focused on the traditional Advent themes of the hope, love, joy, and peace that come through the gift of the Christ. The following links are to my Advent Web site, including the latest version of our Christmas Season Book, which includes scriptures chronologically arranged for each day in December, together with carols and stories:

We later added the tradition of setting up our Nativity set on the First Sunday of Advent.  This is often (not always) the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  Since we usually decorate our Christmas tree for our first Family Night in December, this starts our Christmas season very Christ-focused, even before we start doing other traditional decorating.

Rachel at about five years-old with our Nativity creche

Rachel at about five years-old with our Nativity creche

Setting up this year's Nativity on the First Sunday of Advent.

Setting up this year's Nativity on the First Sunday of Advent.

I get varied responses when I tell other saints that we observe Advent. Some wonder whether I am of German extraction or served a German mission, because Advent is particularly prominent there, Martin Luther having continued it because he felt that it served an important pedagogical purpose. Some of you may recall that two years ago in his First Presidency Devotional address, President Uchtdorf spoke of his growing up observing Advent. Others warily observe that it seems “awfully Catholic” or perhaps Anglican or Lutheran.

I am always bemused by this. Most of us Latter-day Saints indulge heartily in a holiday that has some of its roots in Roman practice, takes much of its symbolism from Germanic pagan religions, and often centers on a mythology that revolves around a gift-giving fat man. Yet when we elect to borrow Christian traditions that are helpful in focusing us and our families on the message of God’s gift of his Son, that can seem strange, odd, foreign.

Tomorrow I plan to blog on “Christmas with Autism.” What started as a personally enriching practice for me and Elaine and then came to be a useful teaching device for Rachel has become a central and reassuring ritual for Samuel, helping him prepare for Christmas in more ways that I could ever have expected.

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20 Responses to An LDS Observance of Advent

  1. Stephanie on December 19, 2009 at 2:24 am

    I really like this. It is simple enough to be doable. These are the kinds of things that have made me decide this is the last Christmas we are driving across the country to stay with in-laws. We need to start these kinds of traditions – not spend all of December rushing to get everything done so we can leave as soon as school gets out. My oldest is 9. We don’t have many years left to celebrate Christmas the way we want to.

    Also, I like that our church does not do a big service on Christmas. It would require the Bishopric to be there and other leaders to plan and execute. We all do so much in our callings to serve. I am grateful for a day to just be at home with family. It happens so infrequently these days, and it is deeply spiritual, too.

  2. kik~ on December 19, 2009 at 6:02 am

    I like the idea of Advent. It sounds very nice.

    When I went to Spain, I learned that, traditionally, they celebrated the Nativity on Christmas Eve/day. Then 12 days later (Epiphany) the children left straw in their shoes for the wise men to feed the camels. When they woke, they would receive gifts in return.

    How I wish we did this! To celebrate first the birth of Christ, then the gifts many days later, seems like it would be a nice focus.

    I am also surprised at how few of my LDS friends read the account in 3 Nephi of Nephi’s struggle the day before Jesus is born. We read that first, then Luke 2. I am always touched that the day before His birth, the Savior took time to comfort the prophet.

  3. Alex T. Valencic on December 19, 2009 at 9:02 am

    I never really knew much about Advent, and I’m not really sure why. I heard about your “Mormon Advent” from Jack Meyers, and thought it was a cool idea. Didn’t get to start this year, but maybe I’ll be able to convince my wife observe Advent next year.

    My family has always read the accounts from Luke 2 and 3 Nephi on Christmas Eve. I consider it a highlight of the Christmas season.

  4. Julie M. Smith on December 19, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Thank you for this post.

    My understanding is that Advent is traditionally a solemn, penitential time–I’ve heard friends comment how hard it is to observe a proper Advent when they are supposed to be at Christmas parties, etc. I’m wondering if you incorporate any of these more solemn notes into your celebration.

    And, Stephanie, while I’m sure that the bishopric, et al, is thrilled that there is no Christmas Eve service, the lack of community events close to Christmas can be, I think, very hard on those without families of their own.

  5. Russell Arben Fox on December 19, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Excellent set of reflections, Eric; thanks for sharing them. Traditions exist for a variety of reasons, but one particularly important reason is creating rituals, a more or less scheduled sense of expectations and memories, which enrich our relationships and our daily lives. Borrowing traditions seems a wonderful think to do, especially around the holidays.

    We celebrate several feast days–St. Andrews, St. Nicholas, St. Lucia–as part of our family holiday season, with different traditions that we’ve developed over the years for each day. We also always attend a church service on Christmas Eve; it just seems very important to us to do so. We’ve never done Advent though. I like how you describe your own approach to it. Good for you!

  6. Dave on December 19, 2009 at 11:11 am

    “gift-giving fat man” … well, he was Saint Nicholas, with a bona fide Christian heritage, long before he became the Americanized God of Toys.

  7. Ms. Jack Meyers on December 19, 2009 at 11:17 am

    DH and I are spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day away from either set of in-laws for the first time since we got married in 2003. I recently began the process of transferring my church membership from the Assemblies of God to the Evangelical Covenant Church, a tradition that has close ties to Lutheranism and utilizes more liturgical observances than any of the previous denominations I’ve attended (though it would still be considered a low-church tradition). Our daughter is three this year, old enough that she will probably remember this Christmas, so we decided we needed to finalize the Christmas traditions we want to implement. So we’ve been observing Advent for the first time this year, using Eric’s Advent Scripture selections and readings. As Alex T. Valencic hinted at, I’ve been posting Eric’s Advent homilies to my blog (with his permission).

    It’s been a wonderful experience for our family. Our three year-old daughter just loves climbing onto the table with the Advent wreath and gazing at the candles, and I can’t wait to let her light them when she gets older. Using readings from both the Bible and the Book of Mormon gives it some weight from both of our traditions, so it’s just perfect for us. I highly recommend it to any couples out there in Mormon-Catholic or Mormon-Protestant interfaith marriages.

  8. Keri Brooks on December 19, 2009 at 11:33 am

    I love this idea! When I see other churches with a rich liturgical calendar, I get a touch of holy envy.

  9. Stephanie on December 19, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Julie M Smith, granted, my experience is limited, but I’ll share what I know about my small community. We have a lot of churches around here. It is a fairly strong Baptist area. A few churches hold live nativities on one weekend of the month (love that!) and then advertise 5 or 6 services on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. The impression I get from that (and from some of my friends of other faiths) is that Christmas is a big day to go to church on, but not so much the rest of the year (when they hold fewer services). Or, more likely, the churches are holding services for people who don’t regularly attend any church but want to on Christmas (which is a nice service for the community).

    In our ward, we’ve had a Relief Society Christmas party, a stake Christmas concert, a ward Christmas party, a book club Christmas party, and will have a Christmas-themed sacrament meeting tomorrow. That’s quite a few events, and I have an adult single woman friend who was just baptized a couple of months ago who attended all of them. Granted, if she needs somewhere to go on Christmas Eve itself, church will not provide that. BUT, we as members can. We should look around and find who will be lonely on Christmas and invite them to share in our reading of the Christ story on Christmas eve or whatever else we do. It’s not too hard to make your own family friends and invite someone along. We have a charge to comfort those in need of comfort.

    So, I still don’t think that a Christmas Eve or Christmas morning service is necessary if we actually do that. I will be the first to admit that I have never invited someone to our home at Christmas (as I mentioned earlier, we’ve spent very few Christmases at home). But, now that I plan to start doing it at home, and with this reminder from you, I will seek to find people to invite.

  10. Stephanie on December 19, 2009 at 11:39 am

    that previous comment should have read, “make your own family *plans*”

  11. Jones on December 19, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    For years it bothered me that the church did not meet on Christmas Day. It seemed all Christian churches did. But after years of worrying, contemplating, even praying about it, I realized that there has never been any revelation to the church about Christmas Day church services. And we are a church based on modern revelation. The realization for me was that our consistent Sabbath Day observance is more important than a one day — it isn’t even the correct time of year — meeting observing the birth of Christ. It isn’t that Christmas isn’t important — but it is the SABBATH that is important. While I am sure the First Presidency has had revelatory confirmation that a Christmas Devotional is appropriate and good for the Church, Christmas Day services has not been included in the divine guidance on what His church should do.

    Because I’m single and live far from family my tradition is to invite other individuals without family to my home for Christmas Eve. We always do a potluck meal and then sing carols and talk Christmas memories. It has always been a wonderful experience. I’ve also chosen to attend Christmas Eve services at a variety of different churches over the years — I especially like the candlelight services. I highly recommend this to those who think they might enjoy it.

    I appreciate Eric’s Christ-centered activities and scriptures to help me/us develop traditions that help keep Christ in Christmas. Thanks Eric!

  12. Velska on December 19, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    Well, the Advent has a more “religious” ring to it than Santa Claus. That’s why people react differently.

    For me, the Advent is just a part of the false traditions of my fathers that I decided to let go of. We told our kids, when they asked about Santa, that he’s a fairy tale like Sleeping Beauty, and we just haven’t thought we needed to “observe” that tradition.

    We dumped most of our parents’ traditions, like the drunken brawls that I had in my home growing up. We just didn’t want to be reminded of childhood… Our kids seem fairly balanced despite all the baggage.

  13. Velska on December 19, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    About meeting on Christmas day: do we need to look like other churches?

  14. kik~ on December 20, 2009 at 5:43 am

    Eric,
    I also remember your first Christmas in your first house as a married couple…and the Christmas tradition advice you gave to Robb and Maria ;0 Do you?

  15. Alex T. Valencic on December 20, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Just thought I’d share that I used some of the passages from the Fourth Sunday of Advent in my spiritual thought in Bishopric meeting this morning, and it was quite well received. Definitely going to push to adopt this tradition next year.

  16. Raymond Takashi Swenson on December 21, 2009 at 11:43 am

    I am reminded of the Thirteenth Article of Faith. Clearly, for Bro. Huntsman, the Advent tradition they have adopted and adapted in his family has been virtuous and praiseworthy. I know of all sorts of LDS families who have adopted various family Christmas traditions that they feel bring them closer to the Savior and teach their children to focus more on righteous living and faith in the fulfillment of God’s promises.

    One family we knew in the Air Force made a point of acting as a “Secret Santa” for some family with special needs. We learned about it because they bought our portable dishwasher from us and enlisted me to help them secretly deliver it to the doorstep of the family they learned had need of it.

    There are a lot of independent musical groups that Church members participate in and which perform special programs during the Christmas season.

    One year I participated in the Messiah concert at the Oakland Regional Center next to the temple. When I was there (early 1990s) the Messiah concert alternated with a pageant about the life of Christ, and both involved a lot of people in production and thousands more as audience members.

    When our kids were in high school, band and choir and handbell performances were frequent in December, including one where our daughter’s handbell choir performed with the Tabernacle Choir at the Christmas concert. Somehow the courts have decided to allow public school music programs to continue to embrace the tradition of Christmas music, even as they have been doggedly secularizing graduation ceremonies and everything else.

    In my Japanese family, we observe the New Year’s feast whenever my Mom is feeling up to it, eating Japanese foods like mochi (rice cakes that start out like hockey pucks and turn into a gluey mass when cooked).

    Because of the Tabernacle Choir’s weekly broadcasts, and the special Christmas concerts on PBS, millions of families across the US have made it part of their Christmas celebrations. Do you think any of them hesitate to turn on the program, thinking that it’s “Sort of Mormon”?

    Obviously, the Christmas season is one of those opportunities for us to “put our money where our mouth is” and act like the Christians we claim to be. Our ward here in eastern Washington gathers food for a Salvation Army center at Christmas. Other wards I have been in have helped serve Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners at community centers alongside people of other faiths.

  17. James on December 24, 2009 at 11:13 am

    As this is my first post I am slightly tentative- especially as I am going to disagree with some of what has been said. I live in England and have been a member of the Church since I was 15 (over 20 years ago) and have always attended a 45 minute carol service at Church on Christmas morning. As a teenager, adult and father I always this opportunity to bring Christ into our Christmas. As a Bishop it was never onerous to organise it- I think there would be a big hoo ha if anybody tried to do away with our Christmas Day Service- it is also the best attended meeting of the year- we usually get between 80-100 at sacrament but upto 130 at Christmas. It will then hopefully lead on to these people attending on a Sunday.

    It’s not that we want to look like other Churches- just take the opportunity to worship the Saviour communally on Christmas. If you hear my singing you would understand why my family prefer to sing carols at Church with others than at home with me (though they have to do that on Christmas Eve before they go to bed).

  18. Julie M. Smith on December 24, 2009 at 11:33 am

    James, thanks for sharing that. It sounds like a lovely tradition that meets everyone’s needs, including the need of the bishopric not to have to plan something major. As a parent of youngish children, the idea of singing at church would be pleasant–45 minutes of talks geared to adults, maybe not so much!

  19. James on December 24, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Thank you Julie- Happy Christmas! Carols and scriptures are all we manage. But they’re enough.

    Happy Christmas

  20. Eric Huntsman on December 24, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    James, a good and happy Christmas to you too! I concur with Julie that what you are doing is wonderful. I understand those who do not want to do things outside of the family also, but my inclination is to SOME kind of community worship.

    One of my favorite Christmases occurred a few years ago when Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday. We have, in years past, over-scheduled Christmas Eve Day. There was an extended family gathering to watch the Nutcracker in SLC followed by lunch after the ballet. Then rushed home for all of our immediate family’s Christmas Eve traditions. Lots of prep and work in between those activities.

    When Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday, all the prep “work” needed to be done by Saturday. We went to ballet early. On Sunday, we only had sacrament meeting, and it was a wonderful Christmas program. We came home and spent the entire day as the Sabbath, but a Sabbath that was characterized by family warmth, Sunday-style Christmas music, and ad hoc visits from and to friends. That evening Christmas Eve was more focused on Christ than ever.

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