Five Tips for a Joyfully Imperfect Advent


Yesterday marked the first Sunday of Advent. It snuck up on me this year, but I love Advent and since I set my bar quite low, I figured we would jump in and celebrate with nearly no preparation. If you, like me, haven’t made elaborate plans, I assure you there is no need. Just take a breath, relax, and celebrate Advent in a way that brings your family joy.

I shared most of this post a few years ago, and as I read through it again, I realized it still speaks clearly to me of how we embrace Advent as a family. I hope it encourages you.


I love everything about Advent – anticipating the coming of Christ, the candles, scripture readings that tell the story of Jesus, and the children around the table, candlelight glowing on their faces. Jesus came because we need Him – once lost, we can be found in Him, and Advent leads us deeper into that knowledge.

Our Advent traditions are simple, if they weren’t we would never do them. Despite the best intentions, complicated plans don’t go well with our life.

First, I gather five candles. On a good year there will be three purple, one pink, and one white candle. Many years, I have simply used the white candles we usually have on our dinner table. I went in search of candles with little success on Saturday. I managed to find some sort of burgandy/purple candles, and one white, but was not so fortunate with pink. Michaels had two empty boxes of pink candles, and none in stock. So yesterday, we used four purple candles and one white; maybe I’ll find a pink one this week.

Second, I put the candles into candle holders. I’ve never used an actual Advent wreath, but for a long time I had a candelabra that worked perfectly. Two years ago it fell off a cabinet and now only has three arms, so I stick two more candlesticks next to the candelabra and call it good.

Truly, anything will do. Five votives or five pillar candles will also work. In fact, many people use only four candles, but we like a fifth candle that is lit for the first time on Christmas morning.

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Third, I give the table a bit of Christmas look. When possible, I spread a Christmas tablecloth on the table, but I’m also content with any tablecloth that is clean. Today I read an article by Noel Piper who recommends incorporating a small nativity scene with the Advent candles to give children a tangible reminder of what the candles represent.

She writes,

The flame is a symbol of the one who is called “the light of the world.” We who follow him “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

But we need to remember that our very young children will see only candles. No matter how much we explain the symbolism, they need some more years before they can comprehend it. That’s why I usually incorporate a manger scene into our Advent candle arrangement.Tangible is my guiding word. What children can see and touch, they might understand a little more clearly. It’s helpful for us adults as well. These candles are pointing us toward God’s gift of Jesus.

I dug through our Christmas boxes and found a Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus that are part of an incomplete nativity set. I think Russ and I “won” it as a white elephant gift at a Christmas party one year and I packed it with our decorations thinking that I would let the children use it.

Fourth, during dinner we light the Advent candles and read a corresponding scripture reading. Each Sunday an additional candle is lit, so the light grows brighter as we move closer to Christmas day. As the candle is lit, we sing the first verse of O Come, O Come Emmanuel, followed by a short reading from the Bible. For years we have followed a simple reading plan that was published by Focus on the Family and it has served our needs well.

Celebrate Advent

Two years ago I purchased Behold the Lamb of God by Russ Ramsey to add to our readings. It has 25 readings intended, I believe, to be read from Dec. 1st – 25th. Knowing that there would be nights when we were rushed, or missed our readings altogether, it worked just fine. The readings are long, so I read ahead and then shared a short passage with the kids at the table. We love the music that inspired this book and listen to Andrew Peterson’s, Behold the Lamb of God, all through the Christmas season. He also has a children’s Christmas album that is lots of fun. You can find them on Amazon or at his website, The Rabbit Room.

Last year we read from Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room by Nancy Guthrie. We also received The Jesse Tree as a gift which the kids and I enjoyed during our school reading time.  We’re looking forward to beginning with the first story tomorrow. Another book that I don’t own yet, but comes highly recommended is, God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

We end our dinner time by letting the children take turns snuffing the candles with the “special” candle snuffer as we prepare to clear the table.

Fifth, most of all, we want to give our children a sense of anticipation and longing for Jesus – for the way He changes hearts and lives – for the way He has changed our hearts and lives. We are always desiring to move deeper into our faith and into His life for us. As our pastor said this morning, Jesus didn’t come to take our problems away, He came to journey through them with us. I cried at those words – He doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we would hope, the way we think is best, but far better, He is Emmanuel, God with us, and we are desperate for Him.

It’s that simple. In this season of my life, it is best for me to keep everything that way. I can go to multiple stores searching for just the right candles, or use the white ones I have. I love tradition, but it is freeing to say Advent will be good even if it is not perfect.

If you have never celebrated Advent, grab a candle, put it on your table, find a simple Advent reading schedule to follow, and start today.

If you would like to learn more about Advent, there are many good resources online. I searched the Desiring God website and found 144 results for “Advent.”. Here is one to get you started:

“What is Advent?” by Noel Piper

Let’s determine to have a joyfully imperfect Advent season while loving our families and anticipating the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

How do you celebrate Advent? I would love to hear from you.


This post may contain Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Susan
    December 2, 2013

    Beautiful, Lisa. I made my own Josiah tree out of felt and other items that have since fallen off, but it still reminds me of the "wholeness" of the Bible and the increasing anticipation of putting those last few pieces up. It's taken a long time, but I've finally realized that because God looks on the heart, the outward appearances don't have to be perfect.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 2, 2013

      So true, Susan. Last night I read the first reading from Behold the Lamb of God and literally felt a calmness come over me…Advent…Emmanuel, God with us. I love that you made a tree; today I plan to send the kids out to gather a branch that we'll stick in an empty pot with rocks to hold it up. We'll begin putting one ornament on every day – once we dig out the Christmas decorations. Until then, perhaps we'll draw something to hang up.

  2. Chris
    December 2, 2013

    Thanks for adding that it doesn't have to be perfect. Our beginnings last night was FAR from perfect but yet a good time of reflection. We are using goodmorninggirls ebook on their website. It has a study for me and a devotional family lead time. Thanks, Lisa!

    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 2, 2013

      Thanks for the recommendation, Chris! Getting ready to read to my crew right now.

  3. SleepyKnitter
    December 2, 2013

    This year we’re doing an advent calendar of readings using the Jesus Storybible (I think that’s its name) that I just found yesterday through a friend’s FB post. We did the reading last night right after supper, and the kids did just fine with it, but I really love the idea here of the candles and the nativity. Last year we had a homemade advent calendar, just numbers on red, green, and white construction paper, and we took turns taking down the appropriate paper for the date — the kids loved that, but we didn’t make any spiritual connections with the actual countdown, and the Bible readings this year will help us make those connections. We couldn’t do the advent candles “every Sunday” — our Sundays are too unpredictable, but we could potentially do another day of the week. Thanks for sharing this great idea!

  4. Luann Yarrow Doman
    December 3, 2013

    I love how you observe advent. I hope we can add candles in the coming years…right now with a 2-year-old boy it could prove disastrous.

    We started a new advent tradition this year. If you're interested in reading about it, here's a link:

    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 3, 2013

      Thanks for sharing, Luann!

  5. shahi
    December 17, 2013

    Hi Lisa..
    You have done a great job. Fantastic job… I love the way you enjoyed and celebrate advent. This is the most simple and beautiful way to celebrate. Hope this year advent goes the same more beautiful way..
    Thanks for sharing.


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