Treasuring Christ in Christmas Traditions
When it comes to redeeming holidays with our children – treasuring Christ first in our family traditions at holidays and ultimately in all things – Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year! In seeking to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and with all our souls and with all our strength and in impressing God’s commandments on the hearts of our children, talking about them in every situation (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), Christmas is an obvious holiday to get excited about Christ! After all, Christ came as a baby, the incarnate God who became a man, and everyone loves babies and can relate to them!
Our Christmas traditions have thus focused on keeping Jesus as the reason for the season! We do not pretend there is a Santa, for why distract from a holiday that is about Christ? Why focus all the anticipation on Santa’s coming rather than on Christ’s coming? Why should the best gifts come from Santa and not from us, the loving parents who know our children best? Also, while we love stories and playing pretend, we do not want to confuse our children with focusing on a make-believe character at the same time we are intending to honor the One True God. Since Santa is often portrayed as an all-knowing omnipresent God-like figure, pretending Santa is real for a time may hinder children’s understanding of God’s true character. Sending mixed messages is not something we want to do in intentional parenting.
After we had established Christ-centered Christmas customs, our children became aware of the story of Santa and the original St. Nicholas. It is valuable to reflect on the historical person of St. Nicholas, who had a generous spirit, but unfortunately, today’s Santa is portrayed as either a commercial figure upon whom businesses depend to get sales or a behavioral motivator (think Elf on the Shelf and the line from Santa Claus is coming to town: “he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake!”) Knowing Santa is just a story based on a generous bishop named Nicholas, our children never experienced the devastating loss of believing in something that wasn’t real. Instead, the focus has always been on a God who does not change and who is very real. Yet, we have also been respectful of those who do enjoy the Santa tradition, asking our children not to talk about Santa with other young children.
In expectation of Christ’s coming at Christmas rather than Santa’s, our main Christmas tradition is a family devotion time using a Christ-focused Advent Calendar. (Advent is from the Latin word for “coming” and is an expectant waiting.) Our children love this tradition and have enjoyed as much excitement in anticipating Christ’s birth over the years as any child who waits for Santa. When our children were toddlers, I looked around for an Advent Calendar with a Christian focus, but all I could find were the Santa-themed prepackaged boxes with doors opening to compartments filled with cheap chocolate to count down the days until Santa came. Having read Noel Piper’s Treasuring God in Our Traditions, I wanted to find an Advent Calendar like the one she made. But she no longer sold hers, so I had to make one.
In our Advent Calendar, we have a short devotion each day focused around the symbols or story of Christ’s birth and sing a song related to it as well. Then we open a wrapped box in which is a felt figure which represents the lesson for the day. (We put all of the wrapped boxes of Advent Calendar figures under the tree as soon as we put it up.) We hang the figure on a large background, and as the days fill up, we create a full picture of Christ in the manger between Mary and Joseph, surrounded by the shepherds, the wise men and their gifts, and the angels. Other witnesses are there too, like Herod, Anna and Simeon, and the symbols are a light, the sun, a gift, a star, a sword, doves, and a heart, which represents our hearts that we give to Jesus. My pattern and devotion are available. If you feel overwhelmed about creating your own Advent calendar, realize that you just have to stay a day or two ahead in making the figures for the calendar, which is how I made it when my oldest was three. Then you have it for years to come. We also did not wrap the figures the first year but collected boxes after the first year. The unwrapping of the figures is also not necessary, but my children enjoy the excitement of opening gifts.
The advantages of doing an Advent Calendar devotion have been seeing our children get excited about Christmas in anticipation of Christ, not a pretend character and that our children really know the Christmas story. It also helps with establishing family devotions and having our children fall in love with God’s Word in devotions, as well as keeps us consistent in family devotions during the busy holiday season – the kids do not want to miss a day! Even though it was a tradition we began with toddlers, the devotions and discussions can grow deeper as they get older. Over the years, we have been able to memorize several Christmas hymns and songs, and we plan on memorizing some the Scripture passages as they grow older also.
Aside from the Advent Calendar, to keep Christ at the center of Christmas, we have asked ourselves and our children, “Why do we do what we do?” For example, “Why do we put up a Christmas tree?” Though maybe not a historical answer, we taught our children that we put up a Christmas tree because it points to God. (I think we may have gotten this from Angela Elwell Hunt’s beautiful story The Tale of Three Trees.) “Why do we put up lights?” Because Jesus is the light! “Why do we give and receive presents?” Because the wise men brought gifts to Jesus, and more importantly, because Jesus is God’s gift to us. Even candy canes tell the story of the gospel! We also wrap up a child’s toy nativity set (like this one by Fisher Price or Playmobil) which our children get to open on December 1. It is a special toy only for the Christmas season, so it is fresh and exciting every year. Some of our Christmas traditions also include listening to quality music (like Christmas hymns and carols, Handel’s Messiah, and Amahl and the Night Visitors), reading thought-provoking stories (like The Legend of the Candy Cane, The Candle in the Window (from Lamplighter), and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever) and watching uplifting movies (like A Charlie Brown Christmas). For some of our Christ-focused recommendations, see below.
There are some customs that we may not have a biblical answer for – it is okay to just have fun and make memories together too – but if we can point something to Christ or turn the activity into a ministry to others, we do! Making Christmas cookies with Grandma’s special sugar cookie recipe, which is just a memory-making experience, can be used to bless others when we choose to give the delicious cookies away to neighbors, friends, and family. Since children love making crafts, we take time to make cards to send to the home-bound or elderly in our church or make crafts for gifts. Our crafty cards can also serve as thank you notes to send after we receive Christmas gifts. Shopping can be exhilarating, but we try not to focus on what we want as much as blessing others and getting gifts for others. We save up a little money each year so we can fill a shoebox with gifts for Operation Christmas Child or participate in Angel Tree or some other gift-giving ministry. Even in the fun activities, we want to teach our children how to give.
Through our Christmas traditions, we also want our children to learn how to be content. Our Advent Calendar devotions emphasize that Jesus is the greatest gift we can receive, and so we really don’t need any of the other gifts we may receive. In fact, if we got nothing for Christmas, we should be content that we have Christ! That being said, we do allow our children to write up a wish list, and we do buy them some things they want, for Jesus did say, “Ask and it will be given to you… Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11) But we do not give them everything they want and do say “no” to many things, for it is a lie that giving a child everything he or she wants is showing love. How much better to teach a child contentment and thankfulness for the things we do have!
These are some of the ways we seek to be intentional in our parenting and in treasuring Christ during the Christmas season. May God bless you as you also pursue to honor Christ in your Christmas celebrations and how to talk of Christ, his commands, and his love in all holidays of the year! “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)
All Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®, Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan.
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