Christmas is magical.
Regardless of age, it transports us back to our childhood: tinsel on the tree, stockings hung by the fireplace, colorful packages needing to be shaken, and traditional celebrations with faithful friends and relatives. For our children, this holiday is still being written upon their future memories. This is why we as parents need to make sure that what they remember is packaged in precious truths about how God's love reached out to a dying world, one silent night in a town called Bethlehem.
How shepherds watching their flocks received a surprise visit from heavenly creatures, showing that God is for everyone, regardless of their social stature. How angels announced peace for mankind, on whom God's favor rests, proving that our Intelligent Designer isn't the kind to create things and then walk away. How good news about our savior spread throughout the world, explaining why we still celebrate today.
So this Christmas, as you reveal the greatest love story ever told, try these fun-filled age-appropriate activities that will direct children, and adults, back to the true meaning of the holiday, when we celebrate Emmanuel, God who is with us.
Three weeks and two days before Christmas and the heated discussion among my four children is not about which video games they want for Christmas but whose turn it is to light the candle at family Advent. It's the first week of Advent season, the observance of the four weeks preceding Christmas, a tradition started in the Middle Ages. My kids want to make sure they each have a part in the celebration.
The length of the Advent season depends on which day of the week Christmas falls on. This schedule includes all possible 28 days of Advent. For shorter seasons adjust this schedule by doubling up on some readings or eliminating the final two readings, which record events after Christ's birth.
Sun. Is. 40:1-5Mon. Is. 52:7-10Tue. Is. 40:9-11Wed. Gen. 3:8-15Thu. Gen. 15:1-6Fri. Deut. 18:15-19Sat. Ps. 89:1-4
Sun. Is. 11:1-10Mon. Zech. 6:12-13Tue. Mic. 5:2-4Wed. Mal. 3:1-6Thu. John 1:1-8Fri. John 1:9-18Sat. Mark 1:1-3
Sun. Luke 1:5-13Mon. Luke 1:14-17Tue. Luke 1:18-25Wed. Luke 1:39-45Thu. Luke 1:46-56Fri. Luke 1:57-66Sat. Luke 1:67-80
Sun. Is. 7:10-14Mon. Luke 1:26-35Tue. Is. 9:2-7Wed. Mt. 1:18-25Thu. Luke 2:1-20Fri. Mt. 2:1-2Sat. Luke 2:21-35
More than any other activity, Advent can restore Jesus to the center of the Christmas celebration, because on each Advent day the birth of Jesus is read, sung and talked about. The whole family can participate and find the observance meaningful. The props are simple and inexpensive. The memories and training will last a lifetime. Although the common tenets of observing Advent are shared by many churches, each family can add its own flavor. Following is a basic primer on how to start celebrating Advent this year.
When: Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Because Christmas falls on different days each year, Advent can last 22 to 28 days.
Prepare your family: Let your family or household know that this year you are going to start a new tradition to celebrate Jesus' birthday. Whenever you can with children, refer to Christmas as Jesus' birthday. Decide which time of the day will work best for your Advent time.
What you need:
Beginning the celebration: On the first day begin with either a prayer or a Christmas carol. Light the first purple candle, known as the prophecy candle. The liturgical color purple is a sign of penance and longing as we wait for the birth of Jesus. With the lighting, talk about Jesus being the light of the world. Read the Advent Scripture of the day. Conclude by singing or praying. Have one child blow out the candle.
Light the same candle each day of the first week. Follow with the reading, Christmas carols or other meaningful activities. On the second Sunday light two purple candles, both of which are relit each night. The second candle is known as the Bethlehem candle.
The third week light the two purple candles and then a rose candle, or shepherd candle. Rose is a sign of joy and hope that He is coming.
Light the last candle, known as the angel candle, on the fourth Sunday. All four candles are lit each night that week to symbolize the growing brightness of Jesus' coming.
Advent activities for Christmas Eve: Conclude the Advent season by lighting all four candles and placing an additional white candle in the center in its own holder. Have a birthday party for Jesus complete with cake, the Happy Birthday song, candles and presents of nonmaterial gifts such as singing, readings, a play and prayers that each family member brings to share with others. Consider doing a nativity play with simple costumes. As you prepare to open gifts explain how we give gifts as a reminder of how much God gave us in Jesus.
Long after the new toys are banished to the back of the closet and the decorations stored away for another year, the memories of the four weeks of Advent will remain. Don't be surprised if it turns out to be your favorite tradition!
Sally Lloyd-Jones, author of The Jesus Storybook Bible, encourages parents to allow their children to help decorate for the celebration of Christ's birth.
"I love to involve children in the excitement of Jesus' coming," Sally says. "God's people waited for Him, and in Advent we're waiting, too. We're getting ready for Him; we’re preparing our homes and our hearts for Him."
Consider relating biblical symbolism and stories to items you use while decorating the tree. As you string the lights, you might remind your kids that Jesus is the Light of the World. The star on the top of the tree represents the star that led the wise men to where Jesus was born. Here are a few additional insights to share while decorating together:
Christmas treeEvergreens don't lose their greenery. These trees can be symbolic of something that doesn't end and compared to eternal life.
Angel ornamentsGod sent His choir of angels to proclaim the Good News to the shepherds.
GiftsThe greatest gift of all is Jesus Christ. God sent His only Son to pay the price for our sins.
— Andrea Gutierrez
To teach their daughters about the value of giving gifts, Molly and Brad helped their 9-year-old, Reilly, create a surprise for her younger sister.
Reilly often read books to 7-year-old Calley, sometimes subbing for Mom or Dad at bedtime. So the idea of making an audio book for her story-loving sister seemed perfect. After selecting seven stories from among Calley’s favorites, Reilly read them out loud into a recording device, using different voices for each character.
Christmas morning, she barely contained her excitement as Calley opened the gift and shrieked with delight.
— Cathy Elliott
"Who do people say the Son of Man is?" Jesus asked His disciples in Matthew 16:13. Then, more pointedly, He asked, "Who do you say I am?" (16:15). It's a question everyone must answer.
Who do your teenagers say Jesus is? Do they fully comprehend the meaning and significance of the Incarnation? Use the following questions to open a conversation with your teens.
— Jeremy V. Jones
As I stitched an angel design on a Christmas stocking for our newborn daughter, she slept peacefully in the bassinet. I wondered, "Would this stocking, filled with toys and goodies, diminish the meaning of Christmas?"
I prayed for guidance. My husband and I wanted to instill faith in our five children. We did not want our children to get caught up in material things. I grabbed my Bible, flipped the pages and started reading about Elizabeth and Zechariah. I read where Elizabeth's unborn baby leapt in her womb as she greeted Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and my own heart leapt with an idea.
If I wanted God's Holy Spirit to fill us, why not compare the filled stockings to how God fills our lives with good gifts? Months later, as Christmas approached, we prepared for a new tradition.
During Advent, we read about Elizabeth's joy at the upcoming birth of Jesus. We shared with our children how we wanted them to be filled with joy and that we had a new surprise in store for that year.
On Christmas Day, holding our stockings filled with fruits and treasures, we gathered around the tree. We asked everyone to share how the surprises we had carefully chosen reminded them of God's love and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Becky held up a watch and said, "Look, my watch tells time. God loves me all the time!"
James pulled a toy car out of his stocking and said, "God goes with me in our car."
Sometimes we puzzled over how an item could help us think of God — especially when each child received the same gift. I remember laughing after the fourth banana was pulled from a stocking. Our creativity was definitely stretched on those! Yet the moments of laughter and sharing helped us keep God in our celebration.
Over the years, we kept the tradition, and as the children grew, the comments changed, adding more depth. Last Christmas we received a gift in return. Our daughter Darlene's fiancée joined in our Christmas stocking tradition. Darlene exclaimed, "I can hardly wait until we have children and celebrate this custom with our own family."
A walk through the Moyers' home in December reveals a variety of Nativitysets, both large and small, but not one contains a baby Jesus figure. Four-year-old Lydia Grace Moyer can tell you why. "Jesus is born on Christmas."
Not until the morning of Dec. 25 do the baby figures appear in their beds of straw. Lydia jumps out of bed and races downstairs to rush from one manger to another. As the preschooler hugs baby Jesus, welcoming Him to their home, her mother smiles. What better way to begin the day, focused on God's gift to the world?
We say we celebrate our Savior's birth on Christmas, but in our dash to make it the perfect holiday, we often lose sight of Jesus. The following simple, sometimes unusual suggestions will help you and your family focus your thoughts on Christ during this special time of year.
Create a Jesse tree. It's hard for children to wait for Christmas and harder still not to think about the presents they will get. Use an Advent Jesse tree and companion book to help them prepare their hearts for the true meaning of the season. These small evergreen trees are decorated with ornaments that symbolize stories from the Bible. Look online for a detailed description of ornaments that are often used.
Each day in December leading up to Christmas, your children can make or unwrap an ornament to hang on the tree while you read one of the 25 devotionals that trace God's redemptive plan from the beginning, long before Jesus was born. The readings culminate on Christmas with the birth of the new "shoot . . . from the stump of Jesse," as foretold in Isaiah 11:1.
Watch a Christmas play. Whether it's the Nativity story or an allegory such as "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," a stage performance brings a story to life like no movie can. Children thrill to a real baby's cry or to Aslan's roar. If no live play is available, perform one. The children in my family always put on a rendition of Christ's birth as told in Luke 2.
Imitate the wise men. Buy only three presents for each child in remembrance of the Magi's gifts to the Christ child. These presents don't need to be expensive in order to be meaningful. To keep Christmas Day focused on Jesus, some families postpone their gift exchange to Epiphany on Jan. 6. By tradition, Epiphany recalls the arrival of the wise men to worship Jesus and so reveal Him to the world as Lord and King.
Share Christmas joy. Spread Jesus' love by helping others and by lifting the spirits of those who might not see a reason to celebrate. Together as a family, visit a nursing home, serve meals at a mission or church, or pack and deliver Christmas baskets for food pantries. Make sure your children know you do this not to earn God's favor but to love Him by loving others.
These are just a few ideas to help you start your own family traditions. Use them to create times when you shut out the hustle and bustle of the holiday and focus on the "holy day" when love came down from heaven as a tiny baby to dwell among us.
As we opened boxes of Christmas decorations, the excitement was building. This year would be different. Instead of pain, sickness and uncertainty, we would enjoy assurance, peace and joy. I expected a Christmas that resembled blissful holiday commercials. Due to several years of high-risk pregnancies and babies in the hospital, finances were strained. So we had been overjoyed the previous year to receive a large, artificial tree from my husband's parents, which replaced our "Charlie Brown" tree. I had been counting the days until we could decorate the new tree; this season symbolized a new beginning.
As my husband, Kevin, sat on the floor and unpacked the Christmas boxes, a look of worry came over his face. I peeked into the living room after placing a sheet of cookies in the oven and asked, "Is everything OK, Hon?"
He rubbed his nose and replied, "Oh yes, everything is great, Pumpkin Duck."
My husband does two things when he's in trouble: He rubs his nose and starts calling me sappy names.
I walked over to where he was sitting and asked again, "Is everything OK here?"
He looked up and said, "Well, it seems we have half of two different trees." Somehow during spring-cleaning, he must have thrown away half of the new tree and half of the Charlie Brown tree, which was even more pitiful without its other part.
I looked around the living room as our three little boys tied themselves up in Christmas lights. I noticed a few broken bulbs at the bottom of the box. Then I smelled the cookies burning in the oven.How did other families manage to pull off the picture-perfect holiday? It seemed to be an elusive dream.
My husband was determined to make things right, and since he is a gifted craftsman, he turned to his tools. In fact, he had visions of making a tree better than anything we could buy at the store — it would even rotate on a custom tree stand! In a matter of minutes, tools covered the living room floor. Kevin turned up the music and got to work.
Nighttime came, and our floor was still covered with branches, tools and sawdust. I kissed my husband and said, "Let's go to bed, Honey. You've worked so hard, but we can let it go. We don't need a tree this year."
I went to bed thinking he would soon follow. But when I rolled over in the middle of the night, he was not there. I walked into the living room to see him on the floor holding the control to the lights like a boy with a remote control car. He stared up at his creation with wonder. I crawled into his lap and shared his amazement. Standing proudly in front of us was a mediumsized, full, beautiful Christmas tree.
My husband wrapped his arms around me, and we chuckled as we recalled the day's events. Then we recounted all that was going right in our life. We had three precious babes sleeping down the hall. We had a roof over our heads. Most of all, we had access to joy whenever we had the faith to lay hold of it.
Isn't it amazing how much stock we put into "the season"? In other words, if we have a year when work is too busy, finances too tight or health too frail, we say things like, "I don't have much Christmas spirit this year." Our focus shifts too easily to what is going on with us. How fragile we've become!
As a result, our emphasis on Jesus and the indescribable gift He provides for every season fades. Even if all our presents don't line up in a row, we have a reason for joy. Christ came to give us a glimpse of glory, to bring peace and to save our souls.
Next year will bring new circumstances that threaten to interrupt our hope and steal our joy. Whether we are in a season of comfort or one of struggle, we must remember: Peace came to earth and, as a result, joy came to reside in our hearts forever. That's much better than putting our hopes in half a Christmas tree.