Advent_wreath_02 (1)If you’re like many of us, you will occasionally experience moments during Advent when you’d gladly abandon frenzied Christmas preparations in favor of holing up in a cave, hermit-like, to reflect on the “true meaning of Christmas.”

But there’s no need to switch out your reindeer sweater for a cowl in order to nab a bit of serenity. Instead, turn each one of your pre-Christmas tasks into an opportunity for spiritual refreshment.

Christmas Baking

St. Catherine of Siena, who was one of 22 children, would see her mother pause and throw her apron over her head when the household chaos became too much for her. (Imagine how smeary with cookie batter that apron was.) It seems that even mothers of saints can get overwhelmed sometimes.

So naturally, when our own Advent tasks are stacked like layers in a Christmas stollen, it’s easy for us less virtuous folk to get weighed down by temporal demands – like baking a zillion cookies for the cookie swap - and end up neglecting our spiritual needs. We may spend hours on end “doing things,” and giving to God only our remaining tidbits of time. That’s like inviting the Christ Child to your Christmas table and serving Him those funny-shaped “cookies” that you make from dough scraps, while laying out the real cookies for everyone else.

We’ve all been there. But if you’d like to avoid going back there, try these tips:

Bake like a lass by modifying an Irish cooking custom.

It’s said that, for every potato she would peel, an Irish mother would pray for someone. As you are cutting out a Christmas cookie, why not pray for a certain person, and for that person’s intentions? Make a point of praying for those with whom you have had differences during the year, and for people you know who do not celebrate Christmas.

Bake like a sponge.

While working in your Advent kitchen, soak up spiritual nourishment by listening to an EWTN podcast or (my favorite) an mp3 recording of Bishop Fulton Sheen.

Bake like a warrior - a prayer warrior, that is.

Integrate the spiritual with the material by linking each of the four kinds of prayer to one of the steps in cookie-making, i.e. say prayers of praise while mixing the ingredients, prayers of petition while rolling out the dough, prayers of intercession while cutting out the cookies, and prayers of thanksgiving while the cookies are baking.

Bake like a good neighbor.

Besides making cookies for family, friends, teachers, and community helpers, mix up a couple of batches for neighbors you haven’t met. Some of them may be lonely or hurting. Some may even be in need, even though their names are not known to public aid providers. Wrap the cookies as prettily as you would for your city cousin who is used to the very best. Then, deliver the cookies a day or two before Christmas, along with a promise to visit again in the New Year. What better way to prepare interiorly for Christ’s birth than to give as He gave: freely, generously, and with great love?

Christmas Decorating

Our family’s custom is to refrain from putting up Christmas lights until Christmas Eve, but that doesn‘t mean we don’t enjoy the light displays that start appearing just after Thanksgiving.

Each Sunday evening in Advent we go for a drive around the neighborhood, taking time to notice the illuminated homes, lawns, and doorways. During these drives we’ll sometimes say the rosary; at other times, we’ll talk as we cruise along, all the while keeping an eye out for a nativity scene, an outdoor Advent wreath, or some other display with a religious theme. When we spot a qualifying display, we acknowledge it with a cheer and a hearty honk of the car horn.

Whether you’re seeking a manger scene in a sea of Santas or simply trying to pray amidst a torrent of to-do lists, it’s tough to find the sacred among the secular. At this time of year, when Christmas is already in full swing all around us, it takes real focus to properly prepare for Christ’s coming. How can we center our hearts while decorating our domestic churches? Try the following:

Take a relaxing walk outdoors, being mindful of all that God has put there for our enjoyment.

Gather natural materials to use as decorations: evergreens, twigs with non-poisonous berries, pinecones. Back home, use simple trim like ribbon to bring out the beauty of even the most ordinary materials. Decorating in this manner can be an ongoing project, to be taken up each time you feel the need to ground yourself in the spirit of Advent. It also eliminates the need for stressful trips to the store to pick up mass-produced decorations, and it honors the Christ Child with a simplicity and purity that the inflatable lawn Snoopys in Santa suits just don’t have.

Set up a crèche as the focal point of your home, and encourage family members to beautify it during the weeks prior to Christmas.

Bits of real moss, carved soap figurines, a shallow dish “pond,” cotton ball shrubbery: all can be used to enhance the scene. Suggest that anyone adding to the crèche take something away in the form of a meditation slip to be used for reflection. Meditation slips can be made by printing brief prayers or Scripture passages on small pieces of paper and leaving them in a basket near the crèche. Snipping apart the daily Scripture windows from a worn Advent calendar will give you 24 seasonally appropriate passages.

Christmas Gift-Giving

Keeping Advent means that, during the weeks prior to Christmas, we strive to preserve the sacred and guard against the secular. One could say that we were stewards of the Advent season, and as such, we may use as our Christmas “gift guide” the Catholic bishops’ model of stewardship, which calls for the sharing of time, talent, and treasure.

Here are some gift suggestions that promote good stewardship:

Gifts of time

There is no outdoing the generosity of the Father, who gave His Son to us. But we can imitate His generosity by giving the gift that isn’t available at any mall: the precious “gift of time.” Take your kids fishing. Read to your grandchildren. Walk patiently with the crippled woman who moves so slowly. Be attentive to the old gentleman who loves to talk about his glory days. Help someone to master a skill that he finds challenging. You may tell your gift recipients what's in store for them, then let them choose the "date of delivery.".

Gifts of talent

Giving material gifts requires you to draw from your bank account, but giving of your talent compels you to draw from your inner well of goodwill. Handmade gifts are “gifts of talent,” and I can attest to their charm, as over the years I’ve received many handmade gifts from my nine children. My collection includes a “stained glass” holy water bottle, a hand-drawn family portrait, a hammered metal icon, an extra-long scarf, and several origami ornaments. Priceless!

Gifts of treasure

Some things you just gotta buy. Treat someone to a good book or a magazine subscription. If the recipient has an iPhone or an iPod, gift him with an app that’s suited to his interest. (Check out to see what’s available in the way of “Catholic App Awesomeness.”) Wrap your gifts conscientiously by swathing them in giftwrap from the eco-friendly Snail’s Pace line, printed by the monks at St. Meinrad’s Abbey, Indiana. Snail’s Pace also produces Christmas cards and gift tags.

Finally, in the words of St. Paul:

“Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4: 6-8)

A blessed Advent season to you and yours!

Copyright 2014, Celeste Behe