Admittedly, I'm not a big holiday person. I tend to get a bit annoyed by all the hype of every holiday. Everyone seems to get in such a tizzy... only to get expectations unmet. Now that we have children, we've been forced to rethink how we celebrate and not celebrate holidays. My first thought was to just leave out all the annoying things and leave in the few things we do like. My focus was more to push aspects away then to actually have much of a plan of what we would do.
Thanks to Two Square's posts on Advent, Doug and I started rethinking our vision of the Christmas season back in late November. Looking back, I realize how negative I had been to the whole Christmas thing. While we had a few of our own traditions in place, I mostly wanted it just breeze by. I tend to be the kind of person who enjoys being surprised by the fabulous moments hidden in the ordinary every day ones. That's a good thing I want to hold onto... but I also want to better embrace the special moments that can come amidst the special holidays and seasons throughout the year. I don't want to "throw the baby out with the bath water," so to speak.
Reflecting on this Year's Advent and Christmas
All that to say, as we near the end of our Christmas celebrating, I'm deeply thankful to proclaim that my vision of Christmas has been redeemed. In this post, I want to share some choices we made which, for us, led to so many sweet moments in our family. I also want to start a Christmas scrapbook- idea first gained from this lovely friend- to record all that we're learning and experiencing together as a family! I never before cared about such a thing. We end our time together so refreshed and so thankful!
So I will start here... this might be a bit long. I admit this post might be more for our family than for you or yours. I cherish this blog space as one to reflect and remember. For some reason I'm more apt to write here than in a journal... anyone else like that out there? And at the outset, I want to explain that while I want to write about what we did and why... in no way do I want to preach it as the best way for you or your family. We are absolutely still learning and next year might end up looking a bit differently. Lord, may no self-righteousness fall into these lines. Amen? Amen. Okay, let's get started.
The start of our Advent was much later than we anticipated. A horrible virus befell this home and had us out for the count, one by one, for close to 3 weeks. In some ways, I'm thankful it turned out this way. Ten days of Advent was a good first trial run for us... and it was good to not feel bound by a certain length. Although next year, we hope to try it a bit longer.
Last disclaimer... I came up with none of these ideas alone. Only a few of them are linked, but all of them I stole from somewhere. In that tradition, feel free to steal any of these yourself.
Here are a few things we did:
We were given the Fisher Price Nativity Set which we set up on a low table and let the kids play with. Nathan simply chewed on the characters and clunked them on the floor; Justin enjoyed holding each of them and beginning to play out parts of the Christmas story on his own. It was a big hit with both boys in their own ways.
We bought a second Nativity Set (with which we didn't allow play) to set up in the middle of our dining table. Every morning during Advent, we added another character of the Nativity. Justin really got into the anticipation of who/what would be there each morning. AND it gave us fodder for our Advent time each evening.
Also each morning, we cut a link in a homemade paper chain. Each link had a line to the Christmas story. (Doug wrote the story in ten lines... the same number of days we celebrated Advent.) We read the story to Justin, which usually corresponded somehow to the new character added in the nativity scene. We talked about it briefly and then taped it to a cabinet near our dining table. Each morning, we read the links already opened and then the new one for that day. The theory is that by Christmas, the kids will have the Christmas story learned. Justin didn't have it memorized, but it helped him be more and more aware of the various characters and pieces of the plot. The paper chain added another element of anticipation and was another activity we could participate in together as a family.
At mealtimes, we lit candles to make it feel a bit more special. We told Justin we were lighting candles because of Advent- special time, to help us prepare for Christmas, Jesus' birth day.
At dinnertime, we gathered all the Christmas pictures of friends and family we had received that day and prayed for them briefly. This idea is yet another one that I stole from a family at our church. Adding another anticipation element, we all looked forward to the pictures we would receive from the mailman each day... how many and who they were. It was encouraging to pray together as a family for all those special people. This practice got us praying, blessed the prayed-for ones, helped get our eyes on others during Christmas, and was a little link in the chain to help teach Justin how to pray. We then hung them on a picture hanger on a wall near the dining table.
For Advent time each evening, we sat on the couch together (just before bedtime, pj's on, blankies in hand-- which helped everyone settle) and BRIEFLY talked about the new thing on the table. We asked Justin what was new, then we talked about one simple fact about that thing. For instance, when we added Mary, we talked about how she was thankful to God for having her carry His Son Jesus in her belly. We then read a few pages of a children's Christmas book to highlight Mary. We then prayed very briefly about that. I made a very simple ornament of each night's focus... just copied a simple drawing I found in a book... and then we helped Justin hang it on the tree. (Note: The bulk of our other Christmas decorations and ornaments were already hung on our tree, which we bought, set up, and decorated at the beginning of December.)Just before Christmas day, I had Justin do some simple "art projects," chalk and markers on paper, that I made into simple Christmas cards for neighbors. Justin and I delivered them... it was a fun and simple (no baking required!) way to connect with our neighbors, for Justin to be involved in caring for others, etc.
So to recap a typical Advent day... in the morning we put out a new piece of the nativity scene we had on the table. We cut a link in the Christmas story paper chain, read all the opened chain links, and then taped the newest link to a cabinet for visibility. At dinnertime, we prayed for the people for whom we received Christmas pictures that day. In the evening, we talked again about the new element of the nativity scene on the table, read a few pages from a Christmas story that related to the other parts of the day, and hung the newest ornament onto the tree... and we talked and prayed briefly about all of that.
Evaluation of our Advent Time
Advent time became a very special time for our family. It helped Doug and I by helping us reread and think through the Christmas story. We enjoyed the chance to talk and relearn the story and its truths. It was helpful to our own faith to be forced to explain these truths in simple ways. It was precious to see Justin get so excited about that time... as simple as it was.
Another thing I was struck by was how kid-friendly the Christmas story actually is. I know that might sound silly, but think about it... the star, all the animals, the long travelling everyone did, the presents, a Baby, etc. There really are many things kids can connect with and enjoy in this Story. Seeing anew through Justin's eyes helped Doug and me realize once again how special It is. And because of all these elements interesting to kids, it is really not hard to peak their interest.
Are there other Advent practices you especially enjoyed incorporating into your family? What did you do and how did it benefit your family?
Christmas Eve/ Day
Christmas Eve, we read some Scripture from the Christmas story... which was special and also ended up being hilarious. Doug and I exchanged the bulk of our presents Christmas Eve after the boys were in bed so that we could have our own little intimate time. We sipped on homemade apple cider- a previously held tradition of ours and had quiet time for Doug and me.
On Christmas morning, we presented Justin with the full nativity scene, which he was so stoked about. We cut the last link in the paper chain and read all our links. We made a chocolate pie (I used that recipe except I used real whipped cream- of course!), added candles to it, and sang Happy Birthday to Jesus. We were all pretty excited to eat chocolate pie for dessert after breakfast. We then made Christmas cards for each other (another previously held tradition in our family)... very simple but fun. Then, we proceeded to the den where we opened the gifts and the stockings.
We had downplayed the whole present-thing through all of Advent, so Justin didn't wake up Christmas morning knowing we would open presents... that's why we were able to some other things before present-opening. However, I know as he gets older he will certainly pick up on this sooner. I'm not sure if we'll do this part differently or not in the future.
We limited ourselves to buying 3 smallish presents for the boys (+ a few small stocking stuffers)... in the tradition of the wise men's bringing 3 presents to Jesus. Another tradition that we stole, this was definitely more of an accountability for us. If I had the money, I would be tempted to buy the world for the boys. I don't have the money, but I would probably find a way to spend more than would be good for them or for our wallet. This limit was good for us... on Christmas morning, I had totally forgotten the other gifts I wanted to buy for them. And the boys of course were so content with their $7 car carrier and other small presents... and oh, all that wrapping paper. We talked about how we give gifts both because that was the wise men's response to Jesus's birth and also because God gave us the best gift of all by sending Jesus.
So Brett, to answer your question about how we balanced the Santa part of Christmas with the real Christmas story... the answer is that we didn't. We aren't crazy about a lot of the traditions surrounding Santa, so we just skipped them. It seemed too hard to us to have 2 different things going on that seemed to us so opposing. However, many people I respect practice the Santa traditions, so I would welcome them to comment on how they've been able to maintain that balance during their Christmas celebrations. This book might touch on this topic... but I haven't read it so I'm not sure.
Family Christmas Time
Advent time spilled into "Family Christmas Time," which started on Christmas day... where we continued to talk about Jesus, now focusing on celebrating, thanking God for the Gospel, and talking about the implications in our daily life- for instance, being thankful to God now for sending Jesus because He loves us, loving our neighbor, etc. We kept all our Christmas decorations up for a week after Christmas to help us all remember that we were still celebrating Christmas... drawing from the tradition of the "Twelve Days of Christmas."
I would love to hear ways you and/or your family celebrated Christmas together that were especially meaningful.
Regular Family Worship Time
We had not previously been doing any "family worship" or prayer time together, mostly because we really didn't know how to do that or if it was really necessary. Knowing our children are growing up in a ministry-as-vocation family, we wanted to be sensitive to the fact that they are around ministry a lot. We didn't want to stuff spiritual stuff down their throats. However, now we are realizing that it's our students who are involved in ministry, our children aren't directly a part of that... and aren't benefiting except by having fun at gatherings with our students occasionally. We now have vision for the importance of living out our spiritual lives as a family, not just as individuals. And there are ways to do that without stuffing it down their throats. We're excited to share with them really good news about who God is and what He has done/is doing for us. Practicing Advent and "Family Christmas Time" gave us a framework of how that time can look on a regular basis. Having to practice looking at one story in Scripture gave us the confidence and vision to look at others with our family. And it gave us fodder to draw from throughout the day when other things came up that reminded us of the Story. If you do some sort of "Family Worship" on a regular basis, we would love to hear what you do and how you do it.
Children's Christmas Books
We also invested in some children's Christmas books for the kids at the outset of the season.
One Shining Star: A Christmas Counting Book is a simple, fun book that focuses on all the characters of the Christmas story through counting... we recommend it for the youngest members of your bunch.
My First Story of Christmas was our favorite... a great simple story with all the important elements of the Christmas story, and well illustrated.
This is the Stable is a sing-songy well-written depiction of the Christmas. We appreciated that the characters were all nonwhite. It was a little lacking the emphasis on Jesus... so while we recommend it, we would also recommend having others to balance it.
Away in a Manger is a tiny board book with the famous song... a fun way to sing together. It's very cheap and we recommend it.
Both Missy and Two Square have recommended The Advent Book that we'll likely invest in next Christmas.
We would love to invest in more children's' Christmas books... do you have any recommendations?
Adult/Family Advent/Christmas Books
These are Advent/Christmas books we invested in for us:
Before and After Christmas has a Scripture verse, reflection, and family activity for each day of Advent and Christmas. While we didn't use this book verbatim, It helped us think of various ways to break up the Christmas story, symbols to focus on, etc. Many of the reflections were secular in nature and seemed a bit irrelevant to us to the Christmas story. Also, many of the family activities were for older children. However, we're thankful we invested in this book as it's full of ideas from which we can draw for years.
Jesse Tree Devotions This is another family Advent activity book. On the order of the "Jesse Tree" tradition (newly learned by us this year), each day has a reflection of an Old Testament person in the line of Jesse who was David's father - and therefore in the line of Jesus, or another significant story in the Old Testament that leads to the coming of the Messiah. The last few entries have people from the New Testament that relate to the Christmas story. Each day has a paper ornament of various symbols for kids to color and a paper "Jesse Tree" to glue it on. It seemed like a great way to pull all of Scripture together and a great family activity to do, another year. All the prophecy seemed a bit too complicated to translate to a toddler, so we saved it for another year. If anyone has used the Jesse Tree tradition with preschoolers, we'd love to hear how you kept it simple.
Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas includes lots of essays from various theologians and writers... some were amazing and some were very average. Does anyone have any adult reflection-type book on the Nativity they would recommend?
Thoughts for next year
I think we'll likely do the same things- focusing on different aspects of the nativity each day in various ways... maybe starting a little sooner- assuming we don't come down with awful viruses again next year! I found a very cheap and small Christmas wreathe at an after-Christmas sale. I think I'll use that for an Advent wreath either on our dining table or on the counter nearby. Two Square has a paragraph about this tradition here. If I get inspired with the creative bug, I also might make an Advent calendar like this really cool one. I also would like to include more Christmas songs/hymns into our preparations. Does anyone have any suggestions for Christmas song books or websites and how to include them in our Advent/Christmas practices? This post on Marshall's blog and the string of comments that accompanies it has a great list of Christmas Cd's. We'll use this to enlarge our Christmas CD collection next year.
Okay, I need to end this horrendously long post. Free blogger will probably send me a bill. Feel free to comment with further thoughts, answers to the above embedded questions, or further questions of your own.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!