We've celebrated Advent with an Advent wreath nearly every Christmas since we married, but last year we began a new tradition: an Advent Tree!
It came about like this: We usually wait till just before Christmas Eve to get the Christmas tree and for some reason the kids always panic -- they always think we're not going to be able to find one this year. It almost happened once, ten or twelve years ago -- there had been a drought out west so there were fewer trees available than usual, and nearly all of them were sold out by the time we went shopping. We ended up with a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
Well, five years ago when we first moved here to Virginia, we went to a church that put a Christmas tree up in the Parish house right after Thanksgiving, and had the children make ornaments on the first Sunday of Advent to put on it. Each ornament was decorated with, or made in the shape of, a traditional symbol that represents Christ -- a lamb, a cross, the Chi Rho, Alpha and Omega, and so forth. This style of ornament is called a "Chrismon," which means "Christ Monogram." I thought it was a neat idea and tried to figure out how to do it at home -- I mean, really, where would I put a second tree?
Finally, last year I figured it out -- we didn't need two trees. All we had to do was put up the Christmas tree at the beginning of Advent, call it an Advent tree, and then decorate it with Chrismons. On Christmas Eve we could remove the Chrismons (or not) and add our usual Christmas ornaments. It worked out so well we're going to do it again this year. We made the ornaments yesterday and will decorate them on Friday.
Here are the specifics (sorry I don't have any pictures -- I'll see if I can get some this year and add them later).
Here's where you can find an explanation of Chrismons and a PDF file of patterns you can print out [link corrected].
Here is the recipe we used to make the ornaments. [Note added 21 November 2011: That link is dead now, but this one has the recipe and a clear explanation of the technique.] I used the first recipe at that link, cut them out with a 3" biscuit cutter. Last year we decorated them with white fabric paint but this year I'm going to try Wilton's fondant icing writer, but I have fabric paints on hand in case that doesn't work out. The plan is to hang them outside after Christmas for the birds.
The designs I used last year were fairly simple -- Celtic cross, shepherd's crook, crown of thorns, cross and crown, eternity cross, IXΘYΣ, and several others that didn't require much detail.
Thanksgiving weekend we put up the tree, with its lights and the star topper, a brass Moravian star, pierced, with a light inside. Saturday night before evening prayers, we turned on the lights (but not the star) and let the kids each pick one Chrismon to put on the tree, and talked a bit about the symbol and what it meant. On Sunday we had the lights on all day, and that night we let them add a Chrismon, or one purple or silver ornament from our collection (purple being the color of Advent). The next week we added one Chrismon a day, but we left the lights off until the next Saturday night. Then we did the whole thing over again so that the tree grew more and more festive as Christmas approached.
On the 24th, we removed some of the purple and silver ornaments (because we have a LOT of Chrismas ornaments) and added the rest of our Christmas stuff. That night we turned on the star as well as the lights, and left them on through Epiphany (except for while we were sleeping or away from home, of course). We take the tree down a day or so after Epiphany, and we generally start back to school on the next Monday, known traditionally as Plough Monday.
The kids love crafty stuff and I normally don't do much of that kind of thing with them, so it makes a nice change, and adding the ornaments day by day builds excitement in a way that's just perfect for this season of anticipation.