Every year on November 15, the Orthodox Church begins to observe the Nativity Fast (called Advent in the West). This fast helps us prepare for the joyous Feast of the birth of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. Enduring the rigor of the fast is difficult enough as a single person; add a spouse and children into the mix and it can seem almost impossible. In this post, we’ll share some tips to help you make it through the next forty days together as a family.
Often the Nativity Fast gets forgotten in the swirl of autumn activities and preparations for Thanksgiving (if you live in America). So before all else, we must make a deliberate effort to mark the start of the Fast in our homes and see it through to the end, with joyful anticipation! After all, we are preparing for the arrival of God’s greatest gift to mankind!
1. Plan your meals and leverage leftovers
While it may seem like just one more thing to add to your already hectic schedule, meal planning ends up saving you both time and money. Sit down for a half hour together as a family to plan out the different dinners you’d like to have throughout the week. There is no shortage of “fast-friendly “vegan” recipes out there. Collect the family’s favorites in a binder or folder, and recycle them every so often. Change up the spices, or try experimenting with a few different fast-friendly ingredients – like seafood (fish on weekends is okay) – to make the dish unique the next time around. You don’t need a different recipe for every single day of the fast to make it through this!
When cooking, double your recipes and plan a leftover night or two during the week. This can be quite convenient on nights when you may need to attend church services (remember not to eat before the service if you are planning to partake of the Eucharist).
2. Bake fast-friendly desserts occasionally as a reward
Baking is one of the best ways to feel the joy of the Christmas season. It is also a nice respite from the hustle and bustle around us. Find a fun and easy recipe for cookies or some other dessert that you can enjoy as a family every once in a while. Try not to over-indulge here. Remember that the purpose of fasting is to abstain from foods, so that we can focus on the things of God. Don’t allow some other food category – like desserts – become your idol during this season.
Related: 5 Lessons We Can Learn From Fasting
Every other week, perhaps on the weekends, choose a dessert that you will make as a family and enjoy together. Maybe you can even bake something to take to church for coffee hour after the Sunday liturgy. There are thousands of non-dairy cookies and desserts you can try. Here are just a couple options to get you started:
3. Focus on gratitude
From November 15th through Thanksgiving Day (the first third of the Fast), focus on gratitude. During your family prayer time, add an extra prayer or two of Thanksgiving. Or chant the Akathist Hymn of Thanksgiving: Glory To God For All Things. You can alternate among the family members, so everyone has a chance to chant or read. Additionally, you can have your children write down things they are thankful for each day and discuss them at dinner together. Using the Lexicon at the back of your Orthodox Study Bible, locate passages about gratitude and Thanksgiving. Each day, choose a verse/passage to read and reflect upon together.
Whatever you do, try to find concrete ways your children (and you) that will help your children find reasons to thank God each day. The Akathist is great for this, because it draws attention to things that often fall into the background, like the beauty of the clouds or the different taste of every berry and fruit.
4. Serve others as St. Nicholas did
Spend the second third of the Fast – the Friday after Thanksgiving to December 6th (the Feast of St. Nicholas) – focusing on service to others. Saint Nicholas of Myra dedicated his life to love of God through love of his neighbor. In anticipation of his feast day, read about his life and let him inspire you and your children. Brainstorm some ways that your family can increase your service toward others.
If you have older children, it may work best to allow each of them to find their own way in which they would like to serve others. And have the family participate in all of them over the course of these couple weeks, if possible. Perhaps one of your children wants to volunteer with a soup kitchen, while another wants to collect and donate old clothing, blankets, and coats. There are so many ways we can give of ourselves to help others, especially during the coldest months of the year.
5. Practice patience
During the final third of the Nativity Fast (from December 7 until Christmas Eve), focus specifically on the waiting aspect. On the anticipation. And teach your children (and yourself) some patience as they eagerly anticipate the birth of Christ. Waiting – patience rooted in expectations and anticipation – is difficult, even for us as adults. But it is an integral part of the Christian life.
Set aside some “quiet time” at home for each child. They can spend it in prayer, or reading the lives of the Saints, Scriptures, or stories about the Nativity. They could even spend it simply “being”, experiencing God’s presence without all the noise.
Anticipation is beautiful. We should not kill it, and with it, our children’s joy. Instead we should foster it, and think of ways that we, as parents, can help them live in that waiting. It will be an invaluable skill they’ll carry with them the rest of their lives!
6. Use or create an Advent calendar/wreath
Using a calendar or festal wreath to mark the passing of time during the Fast is a great way to keep your family involved. We found a beautiful Orthodox Advent calendar online, along with Advent cards to go inside the calendar.
You can also create your own calendar and your own cards for each day. If you do make your own, consider putting a different “task” on the card for each day, like “do something nice for Dad” or “make someone smile today”. Alternatively, each day as you progress through the calendar, you could read from a Nativity Fast devotional, such as this one from Ancient Faith Publishing.
Advent wreaths are beautiful as well, but they mark time a bit differently. Orthodox festal wreaths have candle holders embedded into the brass or wood base, in a circle, one candle for each Sunday of a particular period of the year (Nativity Fast, Great Lent, Paschal season, etc.). In the center is another candle holder, for the day of the Feast. Each Sunday, you light one of the candles until on Christmas Eve, all the candles (including the center one) are lit. Some families light the candle(s) every day during evening prayer, while others only light them on Sundays. Do what works best for you and your children, and don’t be afraid to experiment a little. Ultimately, you want your children to feel involved, so that this time of fasting is a joy and not a burden.
Here is a great guide for building your own Advent wreath, should you choose that option.
Other helpful ideas and resources
Draw Near Designs has a great online Christmas shop with many different items – from coloring books to fabric learning sets – that you can use to help involve your children in the Fast and help all of you make it through these 40 days rejuvenated and joyful, rather than burnt out. The Antiochian Archdiocese also has a great page of resources here.
The internet is a vast place! Take a look around, explore Orthodox blogs and Pinterest boards for inspiration.
Are there any ideas or resources you would like to share? Let us know in the comments! And have a joyous and peaceful Nativity fast this year!