It is hard for a baby in a manger to compete with eight reindeer and Santa holding a huge pack of gifts. The anticipatory pause of Advent—quiet and dark blue—has a difficult time holding a candle to the glitter and colorful lights of a city’s exuberant holiday decorations. But what if we don’t need to compete? What if we can help our children find the holy in all parts of the holiday season?
The key to a meaningful Advent and Christmas season is establishing family practices and traditions interwoven with the many fun and sparkly secular parts of the season. Yes, go to the mall and see Santa during the day, but that evening light the Advent candles at home and say a prayer together.
For some, simply slowing down can bring meaning to the season. Katie, a mother of three, notes she learned something important last Advent when she was ill. “Due to my health, I decided not to go anywhere at night, so I was home every night during the month of December. I did not need to buy hostess gifts, bake cookies for the cookie exchange, get babysitters, or try to figure out what outfits to wear to different parties,” she says. “Every night at 7 p.m. I got on the couch with my three kids, and we watched Christmas shows in our PJs. There was no running around, no stress. Every mom should try a December like this.”
Cynthia, a mom of two, says that she’s part of a group of parents who gather on Fridays during Advent for an hour-long morning prayer, with a discussion of scripture and one decade of the rosary. For each bead, each parent prays aloud for one intention. “It’s special, and something I never do otherwise,” she says. “It gets me in the right frame of mind for Advent and Christmas.”
Meg, a mother of teens and young adults, says her family sets the tone at Thanksgiving, going around the table and having each person give thanks. “And you’re not allowed to say, ‘ditto,’ or ‘What she says,’ ” Meg says. “You have to make that rule!”
To establish your own family rituals for Christmas and Advent, try some of these traditions.
Can I play with baby Jesus?
While an heirloom-quality crèche is a wonderful investment, families with young children might want to consider a plastic or wooden set that kids can actually play with—brought out only during the Advent and Christmas season each year. Buy this gift ahead of time and present it on one of the first Sundays of Advent so small children can use their imagination to bring the nativity scene to life. Also consider visiting a Catholic or Christian bookstore for books, toys, and stickers that connect with faith.
Fire up that Advent wreath
Especially for families who normally don’t dine by candlelight, the evening ritual of lighting the candles of the Advent wreath is a nightly reminder there is something special and holy about the season. Before your meal, place the Christmas cards you receive that day in the center of the wreath and pray for each person who sent them.
Is that hay comfortable?
Early in Advent, as a family, brainstorm some small, kind actions that members of your family could do—give a compliment, write a kind email, do a family member’s chore for them, don’t complain for one day, say a Hail Mary. Write each on a strip of yellow paper and keep them on the kitchen table. Every morning, each member of the family takes a strip as their gift to Christ for the day. In the evening, the paper is put in the family’s crèche as hay for baby Jesus. At dinner, talk about what each family member was asked to do and how it went.
Sure, we’re busy, but we can help!
We know you mean to volunteer more often, but soccer practice, ballet recitals, and work too often get in the way. Don’t let December slip away from you without making a trip to a local shelter, food program, or other nonprofit to volunteer your family’s time and treasure. Connect the experience with Jesus’ constant direction to serve the poor.
Holy water—it’s not just for church anymore
Get a small bottle of holy water from your church font (most churches will allow you to fill a small container for your home). Use the holy water throughout your decorating season, sprinkling it on your tree before the lights are added, on your holiday knick-knacks, and on each other. As you sprinkle, pray as a family for the guests who will visit your newly decorated home during the holidays, or use the time to thank God for the many blessings of the past year.
Visit Santa and also great-grandma
Few parents miss the December opportunity to have their kids sit on Santa’s lap, but Santa at the mall will never appreciate your children as much as older relatives who are confined to their homes or an assisted-living facility. Make a point this Advent to visit an older relative or neighbor. Bring some of the many holiday craft projects the kids bring home from school to brighten the room.
Cuddle on the couch
Gather the family, choose a meaningful holiday movie, and sit down with a plate of Christmas cookies and a glass of eggnog or punch. Or, even better, show old videos or a slideshow of your family’s Christmas past.
Dash through the snow
Studies show that our memories of events that happen outdoors stay with us longer than memories of indoors. Bundle up the family and go for a flashlight walk to see decorations in the neighborhood; go ice skating or sledding. Top off your evening with hot cocoa in front of a fire or your tree.
Tell me a story
Most children receive religious-themed books for their baptism or first Communion, and too often they sit on a shelf unread. Once a week during Advent, sit with one of these books or a story from a children’s Bible and read aloud together.
Tend to your own spirituality
This is probably most important of all. Whether you have tots or teens, you can’t bring them into the faith aspect of the season if you’re not there yourself. Join a Bible study, a prayer group, or commit to taking time in private prayer this Advent. When you are centered on God, you will bring that focus and energy naturally into your home.
This article also appears in the December 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 12, pages 43–44).