It’s not like Christmas sneaks up on you. I think my first mince pie sighting this year was in early October. By November I find I can’t resist the urge to buy more gift tags at every single check out display, in case we are gripped by a nation-wide shortage come December. There are so many things to plan and prepare, and so many reminders of them every time I enter the shops, that the logistics of Christmas celebrations can consume my thoughts for months. But how do I go at filling my thoughts with the one whose birth we are celebrating? And as a parent, how do I go at helping fix the thoughts of our children on the wonder of the incarnation? We have tried a variety of things in Decembers past with our five kids aging from toddler to teenager. There have been varying degrees of success, and often I have been either too ambitious or too underprepared. Here are my top five suggestions that you might find helpful in your own family.
1.The advent calendar
This is the mainstay of our Christmas traditions. We use a little wooden Christmas tree with drawers numbered 1-25. I fill each drawer with Bible verses to read and a Smartie for each child. After dinner the kids take turns to be the opener, a great honour as you get to decide who gets which coloured Smartie! We read the passages and ask some basic questions for the little ones and some more challenging ones for the older kids. The passages we presently use span the Bible from Genesis to the Gospels to pick up on the promise of a Messiah all the way from Eden up to Christ’s birth.
There are many variations you can try on this theme. A quick google will give you a huge number of reading plans. Some even link each passage with a different lolly each night (toothpaste for Christmas, anyone?). With younger kids it often works well to just work through a Gospel account of Jesus’ birth a couple of verses at a time. We have loved using The Good Book Company Advent Calendar Packs in the past. Another we have tried is the Jesse Tree. Each passage has a decoration linked to it to make and hang on a bare branch. By Christmas it is filled with visual reminders of the story. I’ve also heard good things about the Advent Table Cards by She Reads Truth and the Names of Jesus Advent Calendar. You can pick up wooden advent boxes with drawers or numbered socks quite easily now. Or make your own!
The reason these are so valuable is they work to each day build anticipation for the birth of Jesus, reminding us of the faithfulness of God in fulfilling his promise to rescue his people. We tend to keep ours simple now as inevitably there will be nights in December when you arrive home after bedtime, having eaten your fifth sausage sizzle for the week and the idea of sitting everyone down to make a decoration is ludicrous. However, reading a verse while they sit in the bath may just be achievable, and perhaps one Smartie won’t send them into a sugar coma!
2. The Christmas book box
We keep all our Christmas picture books in an open box wrapped in Christmas paper. When we set up the tree it comes out and sits under it so each evening they can pick one to read. The fact these books aren’t on the shelves all year seems to somehow give them magical powers, so even our teenager loves pulling them out and re-reading them.
3. Nativity sets
I love the power of a nativity set for cementing the Christmas story! We have a few of these. A plastic version sits on a side table we dedicate to it for December. We “play” the story, with Joseph and Mary journeying all around the living room. We also have a set of nativity tree decorations. Some years I’ll wrap these individually and each night they take turns to open one, build on the story and add it to our Christmas tree. We also have a very breakable nativity that sits up high and stays set up the way I like it! In our dress-up box we have costumes for most of the people in the Christmas story. It may not be historically accurate that Mary wore a polyester white and blue dress adorned with sequin stars, but the kids still love to spend hours rehearsing nativity plays and forcing us to watch them.
4. Gift giving
We try to talk to our children about giving gifts as something we do to remember the greatest gift that God has given us in his Son. In this way we try to excite the kids about giving and not just getting. Some ways we have tried to do this is doing Operation Christmas Child, making gifts for our neighbours and doing a secret Santa among our kids where they are all set loose in Kmart or an op shop with $5 each. Part of their Christmas gift from us is always a gift to others, like the donation cards you can get from CMS or aid organisations.
5. Look to your own heart first
A favourite trick of our kids is to pretend to look at something behind someone else’s shoulder and gasp or point until they turn around to check, only to find nothing is there. It highlights something of our human nature, when we see someone looking intently at something, we want to see what it is too. As parents I think this is key as we seek to bring our children up to know and love the Lord. It is only as we take the time to stop being ‘Marthas’ at Christmas, and sit at our Saviour’s feet, that we will truly be able to point them to the heart of Christmas. We can even be so busy doing advent activities that we forget why we do them. In Deuteronomy 11:19, the Israelites were instructed of God’s words that “You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise”. But I think it very telling that this verse is preceded by another instruction in verse 18, “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul”. As we seek this Christmas, and all year, to raise children who will walk by faith, our first call is always to do so ourselves. So, dear friends, stop this December and fix your thoughts on Christ, love the Lord your God and stare intently at his word. And pray that as your gaze is fixed on him, your children will turn to see what it is you are looking at.