Keeping Christ in Christmas doesn’t need to be one more “to do” on a family’s already packed December calendar. Jesus was born to bring peace, not stress. The word Emmanuel means God-with-us, and the antiphon of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” that defines Advent can help us draw out the God-with-us moments from our regular traditions.
Write Christmas cards
Although some people dread the annual stack of cards, envelopes, and stamps, for Elizabeth and Franc the cards provide time for Advent reflection.
“We wait until the kids are tucked in, then put on some quiet Christmas music, pour a hot drink, and light a candle,” says Elizabeth. “We each take about five or 10 cards a night with a spirit of thankfulness for the family and friends God has given us.”
The couple says that because of social media, their friends and relatives keep up with the activities of their family, so the annual card doesn’t need to be a news update.
“Too often, we do not get around to telling others how much they mean to us. We’re busy posting our own story,” Elizabeth says.
In the quiet candlelight, the couple talks about who has stood out this year—maybe a family struggling with a difficulty or someone who has become closer to the family. “Each night, we pick a handful of people we are especially thankful for and tell them why we appreciate them,” Franc says. “We try not to worry that we’re not being ‘fair’ by not writing such notes to everyone. Different people receive a note from us another year.”
Watch the calendar
“When our children were in grade school, my kids and I made a point to never walk down a Christmas aisle before December,” says Carol, whose children are now young adults. “Doing this made the kids feel ‘in the know’ about when our church seasons actually are. It also gave us the chance to talk about Advent and separate ourselves from what’s being done commercially for Christmas.”
Decorate the tree
Before Jannell and Craig start untangling their lights, they gather their three kids around the bare tree and read a story from scripture. “We choose the John the Baptist story or the annunciation or an infancy narrative,” Craig says. “It reminds us why we’re doing this decorating in the first place and orientates the kids to what Christmas is all about.”
Sidney and Dave, parents of two young boys, have a bottle of holy water and bless their tree before they trim it. “The bottle has a little spout on it and our 5-year-old loves the idea of squirting holy water on the tree,” Sidney says. “We say a quick prayer for our Christmas season. I like the idea that the boys can see that we keep holy water in the house and we use it.”
For Celeste, mother of two teens, decorating the tree provides her family with an opportunity to give thanks for moments they may have otherwise forgotten. “We have ornaments that the girls made when they were tiny, or which my mother, who has passed, gave them,” she says. “We open up our box of ornaments, and we each choose one, go around, and tell why it’s meaningful and what we’re thankful for. It starts our season right.”
Light the Advent wreath
Santiago and Sofia keep an Advent wreath on their kitchen table with a book of reflections in the middle of the wreath. “Even if we don’t get to lighting the candles every night of Advent, we do so whenever we can,” Sofia says. “As we light the candle, one of the kids reads a reflection. It’s a good reminder to the kids and to us that there is something different and important about this time.”
Join an Advent prayer group
Many parishes offer opportunities to join small groups for prayer and reflection during Advent. For Samantha and Luis, the weekly hour and a half is time well spent. “We call it our date night,” Samantha says. “There’s something about spending time with my husband in a setting where we can talk about faith that brings us closer. It costs us a little money, because we need to get a sitter, but it’s our gift to each other every Christmas season.”
Tonia’s parish doesn’t offer a small group, so she pulls together friends on her own. “Twice each Advent, I host a prayer evening with friends,” she says. “It’s part prayer, part group therapy, but everyone leaves feeling better.”
Pay attention to the nativity set
“Our crèche is the focal point of our Christmas decorations,” Joanna says. “It’s a change of pace for our before-bed prayers. Rather than praying with the kids in their rooms, we take them down to the crèche to pray. Whether we say the Hail Mary or Lord’s Prayer, read scripture, or have the kids pray spontaneously, we love the idea that we are praying with Jesus and his family.”
Denise and Arthur’s children are now teens, but when they were young there was a lot of creative play around the family crèche. “During Advent, I put out our unbreakable crèche and let the kids play with it,” says Denise. “They would have the angels babysit the animals and Jesus while Mary and Joseph go out. I resisted bringing more structure or meaning to their play in fear it would kill the joy of their imagination. But it secretly focused me on the preparation of all those people who were brought to the manger.”
Many families find that Advent provides opportunities to teach children about gospel values. Whether it’s a secular toy drive in the mall or a giving tree in the back of church, choosing gifts for the needy can coax kids out of the “gimmies” and into generosity.
“I’m not sure my kids really understood what need looked like until we went to serve at a meal program with our church,” says Josh, father of two grade schoolers. “I served the mashed potatoes and they were in charge of salad and bread. The people in line were so filled with gratitude, and my children could see from their clothes how little they had. We had an important discussion in the car on the way home about how much we take for granted.”
“We put a small, empty bassinet under our Christmas tree, next to the presents,” says Regina, mother of five. “On Christmas, before we open the presents, we place a baby doll in it. The empty bassinet reminds the kids what we are waiting for.”
Image: Unsplash cc via Jeremy McKnight