Of all the liturgical seasons of the year, our family's favorite is Advent. Few times are so studded with delightful anticipation, and our nightly "Advent Festivities" have been filling our hearts with gladness for as long as I can remember. The lighting of the Advent Wreath and our favorite hymns, prayers, books and treats are all a treasured part of the preparation, but this year, we are planning on a new tradition which we hope will become as indispensible as any of these--Advent Cubes.
The idea for Advent Cubes began by chance in the craft store. I noticed a promising looking set of wooden blocks in a pack of twenty-four and bought them on a whim, thinking the number might lend itself to an Advent activity, perhaps a calendar or game. After some thought, plans, and prayer, an idea began to take shape for using all six sides of each cube to direct our activities as we prepare to welcome the newborn King.
In our house, the children take turns each night snuffing out the Advent candles and leading a merry, song-filled procession round the wreath. This year, the child who snuffs the candle will have the happy task of selecting one of our pre-made Advent cubes. Each wooden block will feature six different additions to our celebration: 1. Jesse tree symbols (including O Antiphons); 2. figures for the creche; 3. a special treat; 4. a prayer or sacrifice; 5. the saint of the day; and 6. a "wild card" (which is explained in detail below).
Side One: Jesse Tree Symbols
Using the 19 symbols suggested at EWTN, plus five more found at Our Father's House, I made a set of 24 Jesse tree symbols. Although these could be put in chronological order (and you may want to add them to the tree this way), I prefer the excitement of choosing randomly, never knowing what will come up next. Here is a photo of the twenty-four symbols we will be using:
[In order from left to right: Row 1--St. Joseph, Jonah and the Whale, Sword of Judith, St. John the Baptist; Row 2--Star of David, Mannah, The Alpha and Omega, The Altar of Holocaust; Row 3--Jacob's Ladder, The Temple, Abraham's Shield of Stars and Isaac's Sticks, Noah's Ark; Row 4--The Ark of the Covenant, The Apple of Adam and Eve (with a bite taken out), The Paschal Lamb, The Pillar of Fire; Row 5--Joseph's Coat of Many Colors, The Law of Moses, The Burning Bush, The Key of David; Row 6--The Root of Jesse, The Sun, The Crown and Sceptre, Bethlehem.]
If you look very closely, you will see that eight of the twenty-four symbols are outlined in a gold square with a tiny golden "O." This denotes the Jesse tree symbols that also represent "O Antiphons," the beautiful prayers we say from December 17th to December 23. There are only seven O Antiphons, but the burning bush and law of Moses are both set apart as symbols of December 18th's "O Lord and Ruler of the House of Israel." Here is a photo of the eight O Antiphon symbols:
[From left to right: Row 1--The Alpha and Omega for "O Wisdom," The Law of Moses and The Burning Bush for "O Ruler"; Row 2--the stable of Bethlehem for "O Emmanuel," the Sun for "O Rising Dawn," the Root of Jesse for "O Root of Jesse"; Row 3--the Crown and Sceptre for "O King of Nations," and the Key of David for "O Key of David." Please take a look at Domestic-Church.com for the full text and explanation of these prayers traditionally said on the seven days before Christmas Eve.]
I used Sharpie slim permanent makers to draw the symbols, but you will note that the ink seeped into the wood in some places. You might want to try Prismacolor pencils or gel pens for a neater effect. Drawing these symbols would be an excellent pre-Advent activity for an older child in the family.
Now for the fun part. Each day, as the symbols are drawn, they are added to your Jesse "tree." Ours is made of canvas and brown poster paper, mostly because we are into canvas these days. You should create a tree using whatever is available and least expensive, including construction paper and paint. A branch from outdoors could be used for this purpose with good effect.
The tree will blossom each day with the addition of optional green leaves, cut out in advance and arranged under the blocks. I like the powerful symbolism of the bare branch becoming more and more verdant as the Birth of Our Lord approaches. We also created green and gold ovals for the O Antiphons from a rubber stamp and cardstock, but any shape you like would work. Large green leaves might be especially appropriate. You will note that the "Root of Jesse" symbol is at the base of the tree, adding to its significance.
These leaves and ovals are optional, but I think they add a great deal to the overall beauty of the project. By the way, the dates are written on the ovals as a reminder of the day each O Antiphon is said during the seven days before Christmas Eve. Unless you decide to use the cubes in a particular order (rather than pulling them out at random), you probably will not add that specific cube to your display on those dates.
Side Two: Creche Figures
Each day, from December 1 to December 24th, the child whose turn it is to select a cube will draw the figure for the family Nativity Scene suggested on the back side of the cube. By Christmas Eve, you will have a picture made by every member of the family old enough to draw (parents included if you like). Just think how precious these loving collaborative efforts will become if you date and collect them each year. If I had only thought of this years ago, I would be able to see how my children's drawing has changed and would no doubt be smiling to note the addition of each of our seven artists.
A list of creche figures for your cubes might include:
9. Wise Man--gold
10. Wise Man--frankincense
11. Wise Man--myrrh
17. Drummer Boy
These words would go on the back side of the cube behind the Jesse tree symbols. Because they are not drawn in any particular order, I have not included the Baby Jesus. He will be drawn on Christmas Eve to complete the project.
And here is Margaret's watercolor wonder, with thatched roof, manger, empty stalls, and poinsettias:
I had originally planned on using my large poster paper version for our family's Nativity, asking Margaret to create a simple painted stable only to show readers of "O Night Divine" how easily this might be done. Upon further reflection, we have decided to use hers. Not only is it more sensitive and pretty than the poster paper model, it is much smaller for easy storage. If we are going to collect these family Nativities, I want to be able to pop them into a binder or scrapbook. There are few things more difficult to store year in and year out than large posters.
Side Three: Saints of the Season
Written on the top of each cube is the name of a seasonal saint. Every evening, we will honor the special saint of the day, occasionally reading his or her life story or perhaps making a sweet little spoon doll as a keepsake. The most important thing is that we offer our prayers to that saint and ask that he or she bless us and help us to prepare room in our hearts for the little Savior. Here is a list of saints, all of whom either have feasts in November or December or a special association with Christmas. I purposely selected 12 masculine and 12 feminine saints, so all the children will be happy. Families might also want to consider choosing name saints or other special patrons to use in their lists:
1. St. Andrew
2. St. Stephen
3. St. Nicholas
4. St. Francis Xavier
5. St. Zechariah
6. St. John the Baptist
7. St. Juan Diego
8. The Holy Innocents
9. St. Wenceslaus
10. St. Francis of Assisi
11. St. Joseph
12. St. Joachim
13. St. Lucy
14. Our Lady of Guadalupe
15. St. Alice (feast Dec. 16!)
16. St. Elizabeth (cousin of Mary)
17. St. Elizabeth of Hungary
18. St. Cecilia
19. St. Gertrude (be sure to say the St. Gertrude Prayer when your draw this one)
20. St. Catherine Laboure
21. St. Anne
22. St. Barbara
23. Mary, Mother of God
24. St. Therese of the Child Jesus
There are many other possibilities, including St. Ambrose, St. Stanislaus Kostka, St. Christopher, Simeon and Anna, St. John Damascus, St. John the Apostle, and more.
Side Four (panel to the right of the Jesse tree symbol): Treats
The beautiful thing about children is that it takes so little to give joy to their hearts and form a lifelong happy association with our blessed Faith. A piece of gum or a cup of hot chocolate go a long way. Here is a list of possible treats to have on hand, ready to give at a moment's notice when the right cube is chosen. Needless to say, each family will need to create a workable list:
1. hot chocolate
4. chocolate milk
7. religious medals
8. holy cards
9. hot cider
11. "extra special"
14. family game of Boggle
16. family game of Charades
17. chocolate kiss
18. Mom tells a story
20. Dover paper doll
21. tootsie roll
22. 15 minutes extra time before bed
23. religious figurine
24. Christmas ornament
This list is just a sample. To keep it more economical, I might repeat treats (for example, a bag of tootsie rolls would provide enough treats for about six nights if I repeated them) or emphasize more "free" treats ("Mom tells a story," "family game of Boggle," "extra reading time," and others). All that matters is that the children are happy and memories are made.
Side Five (panel to the left of the Jesse tree symbol): Prayer and Sacrifice
With the warmth and cheer of December, it is easy to forget that Advent is a penitential season. Our purple candles remind us we must prepare to receive worthily the great gift of the Christ Child. Here is a list of possible sacrifices and special prayers for the entire family:
1. no computer
2. no television
3. no drinks other than water
4. extra Rosary
5. extra Prayer of St. Gertrude
6. no sweets
7. no nagging
8. everyone does one good deed for Mom
9. everyone does one good deed for Dad
10. everyone does one good deed for Agnes
11. everyone does one good deed for Theresa
12. everyone does one good deed for Margaret
13. everyone does one good deed for Marie
14. everyone does one good deed for Patrick
15. everyone does one good deed for Catherine
16. everyone does one good deed for Eileen
17. extra Divine Mercy chaplet
18. all readers read at least one book to the little ones
19. no dessert
20. no salt
21. no snack
22. extra time spent reading the Bible
23. extra time memorizing the Catechism
24. extra time tidying
Again this is just a sample list. Children are so loving and generous that I predict they look forward to the sacrifice and prayer every bit as much as the treat! Assuming you light the Advent Wreath and celebrate at night, the sacrifice chosen would probably be carried out the next day.
Side Six: Wild Card (bottom panel under Jesse tree symbol)
I have so many more suggestions for panels that I thought perhaps a "wild card" might be in order, with each family deciding for itself. Here are some possibilities:
--Advent books for storytime
--Bible verses for memorization (give chapter and verse on the cube)
--Special hymns to sing each night
--Holy Souls (names of departed relatives, friends, and soldiers who need prayers)
--Soldiers or branches of the army (army, navy, marines) or places in the world where our troops are stationed (Iraq, Afghanistan, USA)
--Prayer intentions (for family, friends and neighbors)
--Names of priests or religious for special prayers
--Families in your homeschooling group for prayers
A combination of several of these "wild card" ideas might work too and would add interest for the children.
Whew! This may seem like a great deal to think about, but the cubes are truly inexpensive and simple, and they may be adapted to suit each individual family. A few blocks, a bit of paper and pens, and you are long way toward being ready for Advent!
May God bless you and your families during this Blessed Season!
Note: You should be able to find the 3/4 inch blocks at the craft store, but for information on where to purchase the them online, please visit my web log, Cottage Blessings.
Oh, and please be aware that 3/4 inch blocks might be a choking hazard for young ones. My two year old is fascinated by them, so we have been storing them well out of reach. (Sometimes even older children could put a block in their mouths without thinking, so please treat these with care.)
December 2, 2007: Edited to direct you to Blessed Advent, the O Night Divine post sharing the biblical passages to go with these Jesse tree symbols.