Waiting for Jesus
Advent is a time for waiting. It is the long, night watch, as we hope and long for the coming of our Lord.

We adults may have to work to create Advent in our hearts. Children, however, have no such difficulty. Are there any people more capable of experiencing and exuding joyful anticipation than preschoolers? Perhaps there is no other time in our lives when we await Christmas with as much glee and excitement as when we are very young.

Children’s joy is enviable but it makes them especially susceptible to the onslaught of commercialism surrounding Christmas. It is very difficult to shield them entirely, but we can offer them a way to focus on what Advent is really about. This can be done through play, children’s work that comes so naturally to them and opens up their minds and hearts to new knowledge and experiences.


Waiting for Jesus through play:
1) Provide props for dramatic play of the Nativity story:
  • A ‘manger’—a box or doll cradle
  • A doll and swaddling clothes
  • Clothing for Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men (capes, adult tee shirts, towels, etc. 
  • Stuffed animals to be sheep
If your classroom has a climber or a dramatic play corner, arrange this area to look as much like a stable or cave as possible. Lengths of burlap cloth draped over the climber for a roof, wooden boxes, blankets, buckets—use anything that creates the sense of a stable. Items that reflect modern times more than biblical times won’t bother the children as long as they can ‘feel’ that it is a barn or cave where animals were kept. Consider bringing in hay if you don’t have any children who are allergic to it. It will be messy but it is only for four weeks! And besides, Jesus wasn’t born in an antiseptic hospital!  

2) If possible, get a child’s nativity set, one that is made for play. With their Fair Trade program , Catholic Relief Services offers colorful ones made by artisans in several countries. (See www.crs.fairtrade.org/crafts.)
  • Doll house dolls can be adapted for this with simple clothing cut from felt.
  • Add small toy animals such as horses, cows, sheep and dogs.
  • Provide building blocks or small boxes for a stable, the inn, and other buildings.
3) For children who love to draw, put a large piece of paper on a wall. Over the four weeks of Advent, have them first draw shepherds and sheep. Each time you meet, suggest figures and details to add, such as:
  • Stars in the sky
  • The inn and other buildings
  • The stable or cave
  • Donkeys (more than one child will want to draw these!)
  • Cows
  • Hay
  • Water for the animals
  • Angels
  • Camels
  • Wise men (only the mention of three gifts in scripture limits us to three magi. There may have been more or less than three!)
To keep the sense of waiting for Jesus’ birth, don’t add figures of Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus during Advent. Before the children return after December 25th, add these figures you or a child has made.


Hope
Advent is our season of hope. Preschoolers tend to be hopeful people and are also at an age when they are very open to spirituality. However, they may not be able to speak about hope, for it is a feeling more than a concept. Also, with all the attention gift-buying gets, it may be difficult for children to differentiate between hope for Immanuel and hope for a specific toy.

A short and simple ritual you can share will give young children the beginnings of an understanding of Advent and hope for things outside of themselves.

You will need a green cloth and a candle in a holder, and matches.

Explain that the color green is often used to show hope. Hold up the green cloth, then lay it on a table. Place the candle on this and explain that we see candle light as a sign of hope. You need not explain this further.

Teach them this song, sung to the tune of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
We live in hope of Jesus,
we live in hope of Jesus,
we live in hope of Jesus,
because we know he is near!
Then talk about things you as a class can hope for, such as:
  • That hungry children get more food
  • That homeless people find warm places to sleep
  • That a sick person (name) gets well
  • That travelers get home safely
Light the candle. Lead the children in naming things to hope for, allowing them to repeat your ideas. After each idea is stated, lead them in singing the song.

Several times during Advent, repeat this little ritual about hope.

Joyful Gift Giving
During Advent, many people despair over the commercialism of Christmas. But long before television began blasting news of pre-Christmas sales, people have given gifts to each other at Christmas time. We love to give gifts. We love to be surprised and to surprise. Perhaps gift giving at Christmas persists not because of commercialism but in spite of it. Gift-giving can be a joy-filled experience that reflects Christianity, not commodity.

Preschoolers will naturally be anticipating the joys of receiving gifts at this time of year, but they are equally capable of finding joy in giving gifts. This Advent, help little ones to become the gift-givers.

Start with a Story
St. Nicholas, whose feast day is December 6th, is beloved for his gift-giving. The element of surprise is part of his legacy too. Tell children about St. Nicholas and his gift-giving ways, as well as his other attributes. For a wealth of stories, see www.stnicholascenter.org. You will most likely be inspired to create a St. Nicholas celebration once you have found this website!

The rest of Advent can be spent helping children become gift-givers in the spirit of Saint Nicholas. Remind them of Nicholas’ secret ways of surprising people. Then provide ideas and materials. You will find you have also provided the joy of giving!

Ideas and Materials
The following is a list of ideas of gifts young children can give to surprise someone. The materials you will need to provide are listed. The preparations range from simple to involved. Suggest:
  • Sneak into the kitchen early in the morning and put the spoons and cereal on the table.
  • Make a gift-certificate for five kisses and hugs. Save it till Christmas and give it to someone you love. (Provide: paper, markers, stickers)
  • If your family members leave their shoes near the door, line them up neatly when no one is watching.
  • Make a paper chain to give to someone for a Christmas tree decoration.  (Provide: construction paper cut into strips, and tape.)
  • Draw a picture of the Nativity and give it to someone on Christmas Eve.  (Provide: drawing paper, pencils, markers)
  • Give someone a nativity set.  (Provide: wooden figures cut with a jigsaw which can look like figures from the nativity story, markers, paint, and shoe boxes for stables.)
  • Make ‘bags of gold’ and with an adult, secretly leave these gifts for siblings, neighbors, relatives, etc. as St. Nicholas did. (Provide: yellow tissue paper, yellow ribbon, candy or cookie treats. Cut the tissue paper into 12” squares; place treats in the center of the tissue paper; gather the paper into a ‘bag’ and tie with ribbon.)
  • Feed the birds. (****MAKE CERTAIN NO CHILD IN YOUR CLASS HAS A PEANUT ALLERGY BEFORE CONSIDERING THIS PROJECT***) (Provide pine cones, bird seed, peanut butter, table knives, sandwich bags, a plate for the bird seed, and a wash cloth. Help children slather peanut butter onto pinecones with the table knives, then roll in birdseed; place in sandwich bags to take home; wash hands.
  • At home, if you have a pet, give it fresh water without being asked to do so. Only your pet will know this secret!
  • See if you have any treasures in your closet, toy box, etc. that someone in your family would like, such as a small toy, a colorful pen, or a hair barrette. Put it into that person’s shoe and hide and watch for him or her to find it.

Intergenerational Advent retreat: The Jesse Tree
The Jesse Tree is a tradition that introduces Jesus’ ancestors. Stories from the Old Testament are told, and participants create symbols to hang on Jesus’ ‘family tree.’ As this is an involved project, it works best at a gathering that lasts several hours and includes numerous adults.

One large tree can be created by the group and brought into the church as part of the Advent decorations, or individual families can make a tree to take home.

You will need:
  • A Bible written for very young children: find adults willing to read stories from this bible during the session. Suggested stories are Creation, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Ruth, Samuel, David, Elijah, Daniel, Jonah, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Joseph, and Mary.
  • Materials for creating the symbols: colored felt, tissue paper, craft sticks, pipe cleaners, self-hardening clay, colored tag board, glitter, paper punch, glue, markers, scissors, paper to protect work surfaces, ample table space, etc.
  • Tree or trees: these can be branches off a deciduous tree, a small, artificial Christmas tree, an evergreen wreath, or an outline of a pine tree painted onto sturdy cardboard (symbols must be pinned on).
Begin with a short explanation of the Jesse Tree
Making a Jesse Tree helps us understand that many people lived before Jesus was born. (
(The Jesse Tree is named for Jesse, the father of King David.) They waited for him, just as we wait for his birthday now. These people were good, holy people and have interesting stories! We will read a story and think of a symbol to make, something that will remind of the person. Then we will hang that symbol on the tree, and read another story.

Adaptation of the Jesse Tree for classroom use:
Create simple symbols on paper, making copies for each child. Over the course of Advent days, tell the stories and have children decorate the appropriate symbols. Have children put the symbols on the tree as they are finished. Slowly the Jesse Tree will be decorated—a symbol in itself of the days of Advent waiting.
For symbol suggestions, see http://www.osv.com/Portals/0/images/pdf/JesseTree.pdf

Young Evangelists
Over the course of the Advent days, have children illustrate the Christmas story. Below is the text for a four-page book. Copy the text onto four papers and make enough copies for each child. In class, read the nativity story, then provide each child with a page. Allow time for each child to complete an illustration (anywhere from 20 seconds to 20 minutes!). Add pages as time permits. You may have to reread the nativity story each time the children are about to draw. When the books are complete, have children create covers with stiff paper. Fasten the pages together and have children gift wrap their books to take home and give to someone they love.
  • Page 1: Long ago, a young woman named Mary was traveling to Bethlehem with her husband, Joseph. Mary was going to have a baby very soon. This baby was a very special child—he was Jesus, God’s son!
  • Page 2: Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. There were so many people in Bethlehem that there was no place for them to stay. They had to sleep in a barn!  It was here that Baby Jesus was born.
  • Page 3: God sent angels to celebrate Jesus’ birth. The angels visited shepherds and their sheep. The angels sang and told the shepherds about the new baby. The shepherds went to see the baby and Mary and Joseph. Page 4: There were other visitors too. Very wise men traveled a long way to meet Jesus. Mary held little Jesus. She loved him very much!