I didn’t grow up Orthodox. I converted over ten years ago, and am now married to a priest. You’d think I’d be deeply immersed in the seasonal traditions that come along with being Orthodox. Nope. As a convert, I learn something new each year and try to incorporate more knowledge of the church calendar, practices, and history into our family’s activities and traditions.
But there is one vivid Nativity season practice I pull from my Protestant childhood, and that’s the tradition of the Advent wreath. The wreath is essentially a calendar made of candles. The composition of the wreath and number of candles in the wreath itself can vary, but the essential element is a physical marking of time approaching the feast of Christmas.
I inherited my woven five-candle Advent wreath from my mother just a few years ago, when we finally moved to a place large enough for it to stay on display during the holiday season. In the past, my family would gather in the evening of each Sunday in Advent (what we call Nativity), light one of the candles (one for first Sunday, two if it was the second Sunday, and so on), read a part of the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospels, and sing a few carols and hymns (with my father on guitar or plinking out a melody on the piano). Each of us children took turns in the candle-lighting, reading aloud, and choosing our favorite songs.
I don’t have a clear memory of exactly how long it took to complete the ritual. I do have memories of loving it, and other memories of dragging my feet. I have memories of it going smoothly, and memories of fighting with my siblings in the middle of it. In spite of all that, my heart returns to it every year, and something feels wrong if I can’t honor the season in this extra-curricular way.
As an adult, I have reflected on how this ritual was a great way to reinforce the teachings we heard in church school, weekly sermons, and in our daily lives. It had elements of the liturgy and practice we Orthodox use regularly–candles, prayer, communal singing, and scripture readings. It folded neatly and smoothly into other Orthodox traditions.
I’ve made adjustments to better suit our family’s schedule (Wednesday evenings, rather than Sundays), and developmental stage (on the shorter side of things, for young children). The content of a practice like this is important, of course, but the fact of its existence is just as (if not more) important. If you show up every day to build something, it eventually gets built. If you put one foot in front of the other, you find yourself in a new place. If you show up regularly to pray, read scripture, and do the work of worship, it takes you closer to God. The Advent wreath helps our family do just that.