When my first husband, Brent, and I began to explore the secrets and dreams of our hearts through the burgeoning of our relationship, we discovered, young as we were, we’d both given a lot of thought to the sort of marriage we desired to enjoy and the way we intended to rear our children. From our courtship to homebirthing to homeschooling, most of what we wanted cut sharp against the grain of American culture and tradition, and we were aware that the pursuit of our cross-current ideas would require the forging of a new culture and the crafting of new traditions.
Among our thoughts was the desire to keep our celebration of the Christian holidays about Jesus and, at Christmastime, we felt a revival of the ancient observation of Advent would be a wonderful way to do that.
But all we really knew about observing Advent was that a set of purple candles were lit on the four Sundays that lead to Christmas day in a remembrance of Jesus’ Coming.
When a search (without the aid of the yet-to-exist internet) for a deeper understanding of the tradition proved unfruitful, we set aside some time to think and pray about how to breathe life into what appeared to have become an antiquated ritual.
As we thought and prayed, we began to realize the act of lighting those candles was far more than remembering the birth of baby Jesus.
We realized it’s an illustration of the entirety of our faith—a summation of the story of God’s relationship with mankind and a picture of its future. It’s a living, breathing moment for us come near and enter into that incredible story—the story of our God coming near us, of entering into life with us.
And a way for us to usher our children into and through the story began to emerge.
We spent some time searching the scriptures for the foretelling of Jesus’s first coming. The account of the creation and fall of Adam and Eve, the story of Noah and the flood and the ark, the record of Abraham stretching Isaac out upon the altar and the provision of the ram, the tale of Moses leading the Hebrews through the Passover and out of slavery, and portions of Isaiah and John and Philippians rose to the surface. We looked for something that forecast His second coming, and a section of Revelation showed itself to us.
Out of these passages we crafted five readings.
We then fashioned five candles. Four purple and one white.
In those days Brent still worked afternoons and evenings at the police department and on one of his two weekly nights off he led our church’s youth group, so we decided to combine all five of the readings and lightings of the candles into an single event at the close of Christmas Eve.
We weren’t sure what to expect from our first go. Neither children were yet able to read and they each were about as squirrely as littles generally are, but even as we began making our preparations a sense of the holy began to steal into our souls. We set our handmade candles on the table with the readings and elements for communion. We plugged the Christmas tree in and lit all the candle but those on the table. We put a rendition of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” on the stereo. We turned off the lights.
We drew our children onto our laps and we read the first reading and lit the first candle.
We read the second reading and lit the second candle.
We read the third reading and lit the third candle.
We read the fourth reading and lit the fourth candle.
And that sensation of holiness grew with each reading and each lighting, and the look of awe on Hannah and Paul’s faces in the flickerings of the candle light was a wonder that made the hairs along the backs of our necks prickle and the tears sting our eyes.
We read the fifth reading and lit the fifth candle.
And we took communion.
And we allowed the candles to burn right down till their swirls of melted wax snuffed them out.
We went to bed washed in that holy hush, and the children slept until ten o’clock the next morning. I was busy in the kitchen with some of what would become our other Christmas traditions. The kids woke their daddy and set the table while Brent and I wondered in whispers to one another how long it would take before they inquired after their gifts.
We spent breakfast reliving the special evening we’d passed and had the dishes washed and put away before they thought to ask after the presents.
Year after year we’ve observed our Christmases thus, and with every passing year that sense of holiness grows and grows and grows. In 2006 we observed our last Christmas with Brent and in 2007 we observed our first without him. In 2011 we observed it with our two exchange students and a foundling. In 2013 my Steven and Hannah’s Jesse joined us, Paul’s Megan followed in 2016, and now the grandchildren are beginning to trickle in.
When Steven joined us it went to my heart to discover that one his most treasured Christmas traditions was similar to ours—setting out and lighting the luminary—a walkway laid out under the stars of frosty night to welcome Jesus into our midst. We mingled our traditions with joy.
Here are the versions of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” I love best.
We play them on a loop as we come with gratitude and reverence before our Lord.
Merry Christmas, Friends, from my heart and hearth to yours ♥
Kim Woodard Osterholzer