Part 3: Advent

Part 3d: Advent

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Thoughts for Advent

If you are planning a special service for the Christmas season, you might want to include something like the following alternative:

The Gospel

"Santa Claus is coming to town!" This is the Advent - the coming - that our children are aware of, for six weeks, morning, noon, and night. Our small children know more about Santa Claus than they know of Jesus Christ. The "good news" of Santa Claus is proclaimed from fire places, store windows, and the mass-media. In the name of Santa Claus, celebrations are held, cities are decorated, songs are composed, the gross national product is raised, and children are motivated and disciplined.

The Santa Claus Myth had its source in the St. Nicholas celebrations. St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor; he died about 350 CE. Indeed, Santa Claus got his name from the Saint.

The Gospel of Christ

"Report to John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, dead are raised to life and the poor have the Good News preached to them" (Matthew 11:4-5).

John the Baptist, the Herald of Christ, proclaimed the Advent theme of repentance (Mark 1:4).

"If anyone wants to come with me, they must forget [themselves], carry [their] cross, and follow me" (Mark 8:34).

John the Baptist said, "Let the [one] with two coats give to [one] who has none. The one who has food should do the same" (Luke 3:11).

Blessed are the poor in spirit...
Blessed are the meek...
Blessed are the sorrowful...
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice...
Love your neighbor...
Love your enemies...
Befriend the hungry,
the naked,
the sick,
the homeless,
the prisoners,
the strangers.

"I have come that they may have life...more abundantly" (John 10:10).

Through the years in North America, the Santa Claus Myth has been almost completely reduced to an advertising gimmick. The Myth has so deteriorated that it is no longer a "cute" tradition; it is harmful to children. It is easier to teach the Gospel of Santa Claus than it is to teach the Gospel of Christ.

Santa Claus plays right into the hands of human weakness and desire: the tendency toward greed. Children are no exception to this weakness. The Santa Claus indoctrination in its present form is a powerful attitude influencer that works contrary to the meaning of Christ's coming. The comparison below is a serious effort at highlighting the differences in the two Advent-Christmas Gospels:

Gospel of Santa Claus

The good news of Santa Claus is for the affluent.
Santa's mission is mainly to the healthy and successful.
The Heralds of Santa Claus proclaim self-satisfaction.
Pleasure is a dominant theme of Santa Claus.
There is no room for self-denial and the cross.
To stimulate business, "Let him who has a coat, get another."
Blessed are the wealthy...
Blessed are the powerful...
Blessed are the comfortable...
Blessed are the satisfied...
Love your own...
Love your friends...
Befriend the full,
the well-dressed,
the healthy,
the well-housed,
the respectable,
He comes that they may have things more abundantly.


- Reprinted from Alternative Celebrations Catalogue, 4th Edition

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International Christmas

As part of our attempt to decrease our children's awareness of the American consumer Christmas, we collect ideas of seasonal celebrations from other countries. This emphasizes "people everywhere" as the common denominator of all celebrations, and increases their (and our) awareness that Sears didn't invent the whole thing - the story of Christmas has continued in people's hearts by love. Simple and varied expressions have all contributed to the traditions we enjoy.

We especially enjoy St. Nicholas, Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico), St. Lucia Christmas Eve (when our children proceed through the house and lay Jesus in the manger), English Boxer Day, January 1 (with the English tradition of celebrating Godparent's Day), and Epiphany. We have also learned about Hanukkah.

Perhaps some of these will help you.

- Judy and Pat Perillo, San Antonio, Texas

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Christmas catalogue

The Olmstead Community Church in Ohio prepared a Christmas catalogue which offered a variety of gifts that members might select. They ranged from certificates and weeks of camp for handicapped children to meals for the elderly and books for the church. The catalogue came complete with an order form, which included volunteer services that might be offered as a gift to the church. The following letter spells out the success of the project:

Our church Christmas catalogue was sparked by a brochure put out by the Lutheran churches in the Cleveland area several years ago to encourage persons to celebrate Christmas in alternate ways. Money redirected by our members through this catalog totaled $1,294.84 and was well-distributed throughout the various categories by persons placing "orders." Gift certificates were available in quantity to church members all during the weeks preceding Christmas.

After final tallies were made, checks were sent along with a copy of the catalogue to each organization by our church treasurer. Included with words of thanks from each organization were also comments on the idea behind the catalogue:"what a lovely way to celebrate Christmas!" "I'm tremendously impressed!"

What a delightful way in which to share with your members the choice of outreach services. Many of our church members were happy to have an alternative to the traditional idea of Christmas shopping. We have been asked by them to make it a yearly project - and we will!

- Mary Miller, Olmstead Falls, Ohio

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Gifts of Love

The Milwaukee Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women publishes a small catalogue entitled "Gifts of Love." It sells for 25 cents, and lists alternative gift items such as books and records, shops which support outreach projects, and groups who need donations for continued support. Suitable organizations that sell memberships are listed. We also include general ideas for "alternative Christmases."

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Christmas cards

The tradition of card-giving poses problems for most of us. The cost, the time, the list, the notes that should be written all make this a chore. If you feel the need to send cards, look at this alternative.

The sending of greeting cards, whether for anniversary, birthday, Christmas or what-have-you constitutes a good example of a wide-spread practice in our society that wastes a lot of trees and paper products. I am not suggesting that you abandon your "card-sending habits" - just consider these ecological alternatives:

Remember: if you must send cards - be sure they are recycled.

- Ron Ritz, Brokkville Ohio

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New tradition

Here's another "new" tradition in card-giving. Members are asked to bring a homemade greeting (card or ornament) to hang on a tree in the hallway of the church instead of mailing individual cards to all their friends in the congregation. Then they are asked to give the money they would have spent on cards and postage to a specified project, such as the Heifer Project (an interfaith, nonprofit organization dedicated to alleviating hunger by helping low-income families around the world to produce food for themselves and for their communities). Most of the people give far more than the amount asked, and our church has had over $100 to send. And everyone loves to look at the greetings on the tree. It has contributed greatly to the fellowship before and after services.

- Karen Lull, Claremont, California

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Our alternate Christmas celebration

Looking back, it seems as though our Christmases have changed little by little, but I realize now that we have taken some rather big steps in just a few years. Christmas is no longer as self-centered as it once was for us, but has expanded to let in more of the world and allow us to give more of ourselves.

We have made our changes gradually. Each new experience that has "crept in" to our observance of Christmas has become a cherished part of our Family Tradition (the children always say it with capital letters!) until we feel we really have an alternate celebration.

The first year we eliminated one (of many) of our gifts to each other and substituted in its place a promise to that person. These promises have become a very important and much-talked-about part of our Christmas. So much so that we now have a special time set apart from gift giving and everything else for a special "ceremony" when we exchange our promises. In these years we have learned from experience that it is better to make a limited promise that you can carry out (such as doing the dishes for one week, or giving three coupons for doing specific chores) than to make a more expansive promise (such as "I'll help you any time you want me to for a month") that is easy to write at the last minute but hard to keep.

In our neighborhood, Christmas brings many gifts of cookies and other goodies from the kitchen. Since cooking is not "our thing," we make tree ornaments instead. Around Thanksgiving we have a family work session when we create about 30 of these decorations for our neighbors and good friends. We usually put our name and the year somewhere on it, and we hope that each year as they bring out and examine anew their Christmas decorations, our friends will treasure, as we do, this bit of "history" from our lives.

Although we try to make sharing with others an important and continuing part of our lives, at Christmas we plan at least one specific act of sharing that we carry out as a family. One year we visited a nursing home on Christmas Day. In other years we have visited a shut-in member of our church, making a little party of the visit, and this has developed into a year-round friendship. For two years we have been fortunate to have the opportunity to share our Christmas Day with people from other countries.

The land we own has a large stand of evergreen trees which we enjoy sharing with our church, with a local children's home, and with many of our friends. It is a special time for us when families come to pick out and cut their tree, then stay for a visit in our home.

The biggest step we took came the year we decided to make our gifts to each other. We all agreed that was the best Christmas we ever had. We said we would each make one gift for every other member of the family and that we would pay no more than five dollars for the materials in each gift. (We were pleasantly surprised that the children made no objections when my husband and I said we would buy only one additional gift for each child.) The planning for these gifts starts early in the year. Trying to get them made in those frantic weeks before Christmas can be very burdensome, but the rewards are very great.

The greatest reward of all came this past Christmas. Our eight-year-old daughter had been struggling to finish the gifts she was making. When she finally had them all completed she said, "Now I really can't wait for Christmas." Then she added, "Not because of what I'm going to get, but because I can't wait to see if people are going to like what I've made for them."

- Khuki Woolever, Oneonta, New York

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"Baby" tree ornaments

We don't buy costly ornaments for our Christmas tree. Since the time our children were born we saved their tiny baby rattles and small toys. They are the "decorations" on the tree, together with many small craft items the children made when they were little.

Now that our "children" are in their 20s and 30s, the tree is a great reminder of the care and love in our family.

- Rose Lucey, Oakland, California

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More alternative rituals shared by families


1. Travel. We leave the familiar environment. Sturbridge, Massachusetts celebrates Christmas as the settlers celebrated it - simply, non-commercially. A trip [there] at Christmas can be a helpful way to change a routine and gain perspective.

2. Cards. No one is allowed to give a commercial card. Each must make their own and compose their own verse.

3. Eating tree. Holiday cookies and other baking are made and decorated for use as tree decoration. On the afternoon of Christmas or some other holiday, open house is held for neighbors and friends to drop in and enjoy the fruits of the eating tree.

4. Visits. During supper on some particular day during the holiday season (such as Christmas Eve) we think about older people who have no families or whose families are away, or who might be a little happier at just the sight of us. (At this point we can't stand the sight of each other.) We let the dishes go, wrap up a few packages of cookies and go!

5. Christmas Diorama. A kind of diorama which replaces the crêche has been developed. It includes the panorama of Jesus' life story and tries to convey the basic impression of Jesus as a teacher with some of his teaching evident.

6. Drama. Christmas can be celebrated with father (or mother) and children planning a drama of the birth of Jesus while mother (or father) prepares Christmas breakfast or Christmas dinner.

7. Memory tree. A tiny permanent tree, originally started by husband and wife on their first Christmas together, is decorated with mementos and hobbies, interests, etc. and added to each year. Each Christmas Eve, all lights are extinguished except two candles beside the little tree. The events represented by the "ornaments" are recalled.

8. Good to the last... When the tree is taken down, it is cut into lengths and used for a special wiener roast in the fireplace or it may be chipped for spring compost.

9. Twelve Days of Christmas.

10. Advent candles and wreath. Light one of the four advent candles on each Sunday before Christmas. Accompany with carols, poems, and stories.

11. A gift for someone in need of a gift. The family (or two families) gathers to make a gift for someone who might not have one at this season.

12. Holiday blessings. On Christmas night, all branches of the family get together with a covered-dish supper and a little service. Each member tells what he or she feels was her or his special blessing of the year.

13. Doctor's prescription. "Take one every four hours" is the prescription one doctor's family receives on Christmas. Beginning on the day before Christmas each member of the family opens a gift every four hours. This is done so that every gift may be cherished.

14. Gift hunt. Gifts are hidden and persons must follow a treasure map to find them. Pictures of where to look for the next clue are used for those too young to read.

15. Preparing dinner.

16. Festive breakfast. Instead of dinner.

17. Piñata. Make a piñata with the children. Fill it with sugarfree candy, nuts, fruits, little bags of popcorn, toasted soybeans, fancy crackers, etc. Invite the neighborhood (children) in on Christmas Eve to break the piñata. (Your library will have instructions for creating your version of this Spanish custom.)

18. Christmas Day. Plan alternate activities so that the center of the day is not gift-giving. (A skit, hike, visiting friends, having friends in, cooking.)

19. Gift-giving party. Invite children to wrap one of their own toys to give to another child. Or have them bring them wrapped to take to a family without many gifts.

20. Send New Year's letters (instead of holiday cards). If you are too busy during Advent, relax! Write out-of-town friends in the New Year.

21. Family worship. Write out songs, scripture, and poems for the holiday season on 25 pieces of paper. Each day, beginning December 1, a member of the family draws a slip from a bowl and reads it as a reminder of the forthcoming holiday.

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Kids and Christmas

We have the kids go and pick out a new outfit of clothes to be given away. They enjoy it and realize that it's a season for giving. Maybe next year we'll be able to make the clothes instead of buy them. We also buy food to be given away, and give money to several organizations instead of buying gifts. For my parents one year, we all (10 children) wrote remembrances of growing up at home, and presented the booklet to them. Last year, we also cooked dinner for three neighbors plus another older woman who couldn't come to share a meal with us.

Last year for Christmas, the kids made napkins to give to their grandparents. We used the fabric crayons and ironed the kid's own drawings on the material. This way "Papps" and "Nanny" could see some art work and get a really personal gift that's ecologically friendly.

- Jeann Schaller, Midland, Michigan

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Give gifts for self-reliance

Give a member of your family a beehive or a pair of breeding rabbits. In a good year, the hive can produce 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of honey and they are fascinating to work with. A doe rabbit can produce 30 bunnies a year, which is quite a bit of low-fat protein when they are two months old. And the manure is great for your garden or for growing worms. Your county agent should be able to help you find a source of bees and rabbits.

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The Shalom celebration

I'm writing now to tell you of our Shalom Community way of celebrating Christmas. I'll write it as a single event though we've used the basic process in a couple of ways. We call it "Going to Find Jesus" and it's a recapitulation of the Magi theme. We set up about half a dozen stations, separated visually (can be rooms in a house). At each station we have a character from the Old Testament (Moses, David, Elijah, etc.), a first century character (Essenes, Pharisee, Sadducee, etc.), or a contemporary character (Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, etc.). As pilgrims, we stop and talk with each character and ask directions. As we proceed, the characters join us. Finally we reach a manger scene and usually have some of our children play Mary and Joseph. A key part of the process is in scripting the characters. This comes out of a study direction we have been pursuing. Another key part is offering the gifts to Jesus - there's a lot of room for creativity. The basic process is simple and easily adaptable.

- Patrick Conover, Shalom Community, Browns Summit, North Carolina

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God's idea of Christmas

If we Christians celebrate Christmas by consumptively spending more than we can afford on non-essential items, on non-nutritive foods - by, in other words, wasting our substance like prodigal sons - we can be sure that others, who can far less afford to do so, will imitate us. Christ warned us, after all, that we are to be the light of the world. How did God celebrate Christmas? God gave the gift of self. God came as a very small and precious baby. This idea of Christmas was simple, unexpected, and, paradoxically, also lavish. Can we begin to do likewise?

- Patti Sprinkle, St. Petersburg, Florida

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People's theatre

Albany, Texas, gives as its Christmas gift to the world a production called The Nativity in which nearly every inhabitant of this small town takes part. They also do a summer extravaganza called The Fort Griffin Fandangle, written, performed, choreographed, and directed by local people.

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Christmas open houses

In Flint, Michigan, members of the Unitarian Church annually hold a series of open houses during the Christmas season. Individuals agree to open their homes to the church community for an afternoon or evening, beginning a day or so before Christmas. The final open house is held on New Year's Day.

The people hosting open houses are asked to provide coffee or tea for their guests, and possibly some Christmas cookies or munchies. They might also feature an activity: ornament-making, caroling, games. But the hosts are cautioned to avoid elaborate preparations, for the strength of this custom is its simplicity. The open houses provide occasions in which to relax with friends in an atmosphere of informality. For many people, these open houses constitute islands of calm and fellowship during an otherwise hectic season.

At one open house, only two or three people may visit during an afternoon or evening. At another, 15 or 20 assorted adults and children may squeeze into a small living room. But numbers aren't crucial. More to the point is the concrete message of openness, the presence of one or two or a few human beings with whom to share both the joys and the sadnesses of the season. For Christmas can be a hard time. Tucked among the messages of joy, people often discover feelings of sadness and loneliness.

The open houses of the Flint Unitarian Church are organized within an ongoing religious community. Yet the idea could be adapted by many groups: singles, social clubs, large extended families, neighborhoods, informal associations of friends. All it takes is a signup sheet with a list of available dates and a few people willing to offer the message of Christmas in a very personal form.

- Bruce Marshall, Flint, Michigan

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The cooperative alternative

For the hundreds of thousands of people in North America who are members of cooperatives, the month of December is one of special meaning. It was December 21, 1844, that the first cooperative store opened in Rochdale, England. On that cold winter's night during a period called by historians the "hungry 40s," the poor and mostly-unemployed weavers of the town began their cooperative as a means to solving their suffering. They had in mind a cooperative system which would end poverty, hunger, and unemployment. Their vision was of a world of plenty, where machines produced for use, and where they could build communities which would represent the fulfillment of humanity.

Since that time, cooperatives have sprung up wherever people have needed to serve their aspirations for better living conditions. The growth of cooperatives in North America signifies the spiritual, social, and economic search for communal meaning.

At Co-Opportunity in Santa Monica, we celebrate "Rochdale Night" in early December. (Although we would love to celebrate on December 21, we have found that it is too late to sell crafts, and conflicts with too many other events.) We use it as a means of gathering co-op members together in a special evening of sharing and joy. When we first began three years ago there were 50 people. Last year there were 150. We suspect it will grow each year as the effect circulates among the membership. We plan for the evening to be one of entertainment with the members' own music-makers supplemented by inviting groups such as the Los Angeles Farm Workers' Choir to sing for us. The events are free, the co-op pays for the hall, etc., and we usually have a large, inviting potluck dinner.

In the December newsletter publicizing the event, we ask people to consider buying Christmas gifts from non-commercial sources, and to especially search for crafts from cooperatives in America and throughout the world. We also encourage our own members who make crafts to sell them in a parking lot holiday sale on the same day we have the party. The co-op itself sells many gifts from crafts people, displaying them throughout the co-op and bringing much beauty to our store. Because we have 1,300 families in our co-op and do $1,000,000 in business a year, we have much potential for local impact.

As we develop the tradition of "Rochdale Night" and the crafts fair, we hope to guide our members' money into support for a more human and just lifestyle. We have the light of the Rochdale Pioneers of 1844 to keep us to the path. Our cooperatives can unite in this celebration to bring change, development, and liberation.

- David Thompson, Santa Monica, California

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It's hard to be merry, sometimes

Lately, more and more people are admitting that the Christmas season, with all its jolliness blasted at us for weeks and weeks, makes us feel more, not less, miserable. Many of us grew up with the notion that if we weren't smiling all the time, we weren't acceptable. Now churches are recognizing this fact. At Scarboro United Church in Calgary, an annual candlelight "Hard to be Merry Christmas" service takes place one Sunday evening early in Advent.

Unemployment, death of a loved one, divorce, loneliness, and illness can all make us feel isolated and alone. In this service, the pain people experience is validated and people can remember that they are not alone.

The service is simple, quiet, non-denominational. It is advertised throughout the city. It is a gentle time to hear some reassuring scripture from both testaments, to hear brief words of assurance and acceptance from the minister, to hear some meditative music. At one point during the service, the congregation is invited to come forward and light a candle. They may speak the name of someone, or of an event that makes them feel sad - or they may simply light a candle and return to their seats in silence.

In addition to the service, and a time for visiting afterwards, there are resource tables with books and information about bereavement, loss, divorce, and beginning again, and brochures and information from local self-help and counseling groups.

- Scarboro United Church, Calgary, Alberta

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Advent promises

For your family's Advent celebration, make a Promise Tree. Put a branch in a sand-filled pot. Each day in Advent, write a promise to a family member and hang it on the tree. On Christmas Eve, decorate your Promise Tree with hand-made symbols of Christ's birth.

- Christmas Alternative Catalogue, Our Saviour's Lutheran Church, Tucson, Arizona

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Peace notes at Advent

As a part of our Advent celebration, we send international Christmas cards. On Christmas stationery we write a short note wishing peace and justice for our world. Then we invite friends to sign their names. The cards are mailed to national and world leaders to let them know our concerns as we anticipate the coming of the Prince of Peace. It is moving to receive notes from all over the world acknowledging our greetings.

- Anne Broyles and Larry Peacock, Norwalk, California

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Advent workshop

In an effort to allow our small town of 2,000 to realize there are alternatives to Christmas gift-giving other than "shooting a wad" at K-Mart, we had an Advent workshop to encourage people to make some of their gifts.

We collected materials for making grape vine and pine cone wreaths, wooden candle holders, cutting boards, tree decorations, and for decorating Christmas gift-wrapping paper. We tried to plan something for everyone, young and old. With volunteer supervisors to help with the rudiments of structure and design, we were able to charge just enough to cover the cost of materials.

As the price of admission, participants brought a can of food to be used in food baskets distributed within our community at Christmas.

- Sandra Ellingsen, Ellendale, North Dakota

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St. Nicholas Day

We give all our immediate family gifts on St. Nicholas Day. On St. Nicholas Eve we hang simple, homemade muslin stockings, to which we add an embroidered symbol each year. We remember the story of St. Nicholas and his gift of dowries to three young maidens. Then we play St. Nicholas for each other. We hang the stockings before bed, and everyone sneaks in to put gifts in each other's stockings. On St. Nicholas morning, my two-year-old was so excited about what he had wrapped to give to me that he walked right past the rocking horse we had set out for him to get my gifts and put them in my lap.

When possible, we share a common meal with others who also celebrate this way, followed by a visit from St. Nicholas himself.

Complete with festive (borrowed) bishop's garb, St. Nicholas talks to the children, particularly emphasizing that he and God and their parents love them whether they "cry" or "pout," whether they're "good" or "bad." He then gives each of them a gold coin chocolate.

In the remaining weeks before Christmas, we try to emphasize how nice it was to receive gifts. Now we do the same for others, for this is what God does at Christmas. So we bake, sew, glue, and paste for grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends.

- Ed, Andrea, Nathanael and Rebekah Wills, Memphis, Tennessee

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Stuffed ornaments

Find scraps of colorful material around the house. Cut two pieces in the same design (stars, circles, diamonds, etc.), turn inside out and sew around the edges, leaving an opening for stuffing. Stuff with cotton or suitable scrap materials and sew opening together carefully. This is a project the entire family can make for decorating or as gifts.

- Jo Fleming, Orlando, Florida

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Greetings from the heart

For the past few years, we have printed our Christmas cards. Two families share a small silk screen along with a supply of colored inks.

Each family makes paper patterns and then we come together for an evening of designing cards. We use inexpensive colored paper for the cards and mail them in budget envelopes. Inside each card we write a personal message to family and friends. Our favorite designs are outlines of the three wise men and the dove of peace.

- Mary and Bill Merrill, Columbus, Ohio

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Advent wreath

Braid a bread dough Advent wreath. Braid three rolled strands of dough and impress candle-sized holes before baking.

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Family cup celebrations

For family cup celebrations, make or use a special wine-type cup as a family cup. Use it in celebrations, holidays, and to welcome guests in your home. Fill with wine and pass around as a sign of fellowship.

- Judy and Pat Perillo, San Antonio, Texas

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