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I love Advent wreaths. Their beauty and simplicity fill me with the awe and wonder of Advent. The flickering lights of the candles awakens my sense of anticipation. The simple wreath of green reminds me that the chilling death of winter won’t last forever. Adding the light of another candle every week seems to lighten my heart, and pausing in the midst of the craziness of parties and expectations to pray and wait renews my spirit for the days to come.
This year, as I have been thinking about Advent wreaths, I decided to make a new one of my own. It’s a custom wreath, so to speak. But, it is also a wreath of the customs of Advent that have become family traditions and meaningful parts of our anticipation and celebration.
Though not all of these things are overtly religious, I have found them to be meaningful nonetheless. It always amazes me that the things we do and the things around us can shape us in meaningful ways, if we stop and take some notice.
This year for Advent, my custom wreath follows the traditional themes – hope, love, joy, and peace – but this wreath doesn’t have candles. Instead, the lights are the brightness of the little things that make Christmas something special in my house. Your wreath will probably look much different from mine, but it would be fun to learn what items you would select to plan your own custom wreath. As I share my own, I hope you will share yours with me, too.
The first week of Advent on my custom wreath begins with an item on my fireplace mantle. It’s a little on the kitschy side, but it captures the sense of hope that begins the journey of Advent. On the mantle, we’ve got a Christmas Countdown. It’s made out of a couple of simple pieces of wood. The back of the countdown is a Santa Claus, in simple clothes with a dollop of snow on his hat. In front of him, a sign reads “Days Until Christmas.” In the very front, there are two wooden cubes with numbers painted on every side. Beginning after Thanksgiving, we rearrange the cubes every day to remind us of how many days are left before Christmas.
The numbers on those cubes used to fill me with anxiety. I did not view them as the number of days to hope and wait and anticipate. Instead, they were a reminder of how much I had left to do, and how little time was left to accomplish it all. My kids would get up every morning and excitedly change the number, and I would think to myself, “I can’t do it. I can’t get all the cookies baked, the presents bought and wrapped, the cards sent out,” and instead of anticipation, the numbers filled me with dread.
All of that changed a couple of years ago when I ended up terribly ill at Christmas time. What I thought was a simple sinus infection was really a hidden strep infection. I fought against the sickness on my own for over a month, and eventually I ended up in the hospital two days after Christmas. I was so sick  I missed Christmas services, I missed concerts, I couldn’t go shopping, and I spent most of my time on the couch wondering if I would ever get better again. What I discovered during that time is that Christmas always arrives – whether we’re ready for it or not. Christmas isn’t something we make, or purchase, or manufacture. And, even though I knew that in my head, I still wasn’t completely sure in my heart.
As the Grinch learned that storybook Christmas morning: “Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!”
As Advent begins, and the season of hope is ushered in, I am choosing to view this Christmas Countdown as an occasion for wonder and excitement. I am choosing to join my children in watching the numbers get lower as the joy of the fast-coming day washes over me. I am choosing to throw off the expectations, the perfectionism, and the desire to control the season of Advent. It isn’t my traditions or customs or best efforts that manufacture the season. The season arrives precisely when and how it is meant to.
It may not be in the lights or the candles or the songs or the parties, but when it arrives in a darkened stable, surrounded by none of the trappings of this world, my heart will receive it – not because my heart is ready, but precisely because it is not.
Hope waits, but it is never prepared. For, how can we truly prepare for the Savior of the world. We wait, we hope, and someday we will find that it had already arrived, not when we were expecting, but precisely when we were not.

Other posts in the Advent Custom Wreath series:
An Advent Custom Wreath – week 2 – Cordial Cherries
An Advent Custom Wreath – week 3 – George the Happy Elf
An Advent Custom Wreath – week 4 – Christmas Eve Pajamas