I really want my kids to associate Christmas primarily with Christ...it's very important to me, but I think I have been a bit obsessive about accomplishing it. The reality is...they're going to get presents at Christmas time. And kids like presents. We have very generous (and abundant) family, so they're going to get lots of presents. And I like presents too, so why am I fighting?
I think I'm beginning to find a nice balance, and a kind of rhythm that feels comfortable to me for Christmas... I thought I'd share what we've found that works for us as a family.
For starters, we have Santa Claus decorations, and I'm not anti-Santa, but our kids know that the gifts under the tree on Christmas morning are from us. Luke actually had a conversation with friends this week in the van, talking about St. Nicholas, how Santa was a real guy at one time who gave gifts, but he just dropped them down the chimneys, he wasn't magic, and "he doesn't live forever, come on!" I did a little happy dance inside. :)
(For those of you who are worried we're wrecking it for other kids, the kids he was talking to don't believe in Santa either. Luke is very responsible about honoring other people's thoughts about Santa, that's actually what the conversation was about, how they're careful at school not to talk about it because some of their friends still believe in Santa...)
I know this is controversial, and I certainly don't mind other people using Santa (I don't think it's wrong) - we'll be pretending our little hearts out this Christmas, since we'll be waking up on Christmas morning with my sister's kids, who believe in Santa. But for our family, it has really helped to free the focus up. I love it.
Another tradition I learned from a friend, and we started last year, has really helped with dealing with the potential excess of Christmas with kids. On Christmas morning, we just have 3 gifts from our family for each kid, coinciding with the gifts of the 3 wise men for Jesus. They each get a gold gift - something precious, something they really want (for Luke, a not-kiddie digital camera, for Tobin, a scooter); a Frankincense gift - frankincense was used for worship, so this is something for their spiritual growth (for Luke, a Bible study book & Adventures in Odessey CDs, for Tobin a Veggie Tales Bible and DVD of Veggie Tales Bible stories); and Myrrh - Myrrh was used on the body, like a lotion, so this is something for their bodies (For Luke, a Husker Jersey, for Tobin, a robe - just like the one Luke has, he's going to LOVE it!) I really like how this connects the presents they receive Christmas morning with the birth of Christ, and I like that it gives me boundaries in buying for the kids, and has helped tremendously with budgeting!
We do still give stockings, and Matt thinks I go overboard on those, but I haven't found a structure to bind me in that area :D. I also get the kids Christmas-y pajamas on the first of December each year, along with a new Christmas CD. This year we got Andrew Peterson's Behold the Lamb of God, which was just in concert here on Friday, and is WONDERFUL. (I really enjoy adding to our collection of Christmas CDs each year - last year, we got Third Day's Christmas album, which is very good, and the year before that it was Relient K, which surprisingly is one of my favorites :).
One of our favorite Christmas traditions is our advent calendar. It was designed by Noelle Piper, I learned about it in her WONDERFUL book, Treasuring God in Our Traditions. I like that her calendar actually tells the Christmas story, adding a little bit of the story, and one figure to the picture, each day. By Christmas, Luke has almost the entire narrative memorized. Sadly... it is not being produced right now. They are revamping it, and it was supposed to be ready for this Christmas, but the website still says coming soon...
By far the family tradition that has most helped me to relax about CHRISTMAS.MUST.BE.ABOUT.JESUS!! is actually celebrating Advent. I have always associated Advent (like Lent) with more traditional churches, and our church doesn't even really acknowledge Advent. But as a family, celebrating the Sundays of Advent has been such a blessing!
I think the reason this is so helpful for me is that by the time the inevitable craziness of Christmas Eve/Day roll around, and all the gifts start rolling in, you've spent 3-4 weeks talking about the Christmas story, looking at all the parts, remembering that "Jesus is the greatest gift of all." Not that we don't talk about Jesus on Christmas Eve or Day, but I don't feel the tremendous pressure, because we've already covered it. We can relax and enjoy time with friends and family, remembering that Jesus is the reason for all of this.
It's taken several years for us to find a structure that works for us, and we'll probably adapt as the kids grow up. Last year we tried something different, and really enjoyed it. Tobin was too young to really participate in anything we did, so it was focused more on Luke... We have some readings by Woodrow Kroll from Back to the Bible that we used in the college group & decided to use in our family advent as well... They are dramatic readings of the Christmas story, told from the perspective of the different characters in the story - Joseph, Mary, the Shepherds, as you'd expect, but also Zechariah, Elizabeth, Herod, Anna & Simon. It was really good, and I look forward to using those again. If you're interested, I'd be glad to send those to you, I have them in an email...
Now that Tobin is understanding more, we're back to a simple, toddler friendly advent. This is also what we did with Luke a few years before Tobin was born... For starters, we have an advent wreath. I married into the one we use (it was Matt & Julie's before we were married), but I imagine you could get one at any Christian store. It's a flat wreath with a place for 4 candles. Some years I've bough advent candles (3 purple, 1 pink, large white pillar for the Christ candle), other years I've just spent $.50 each at Walmart for 4 white tapers, then bought a white pillar for the Christ candle.
Going on the suggestion from Noelle Piper (this again), we take a figure from one of our nativity sets and put it next to each candle. Noelle (I like to talk about authors like they're my friends) says that young children are very tactile, so you need to give them something visible to associate with the story you're telling.
Each Sunday we like a candle, and talk about one of the characters from the story. Actually... The first Sunday, you light the first candle (Mary, for us), then the second Sunday, you light the first and second (Joseph) candle, the third Sunday, you light 3 etc. We light that week's advent candles during all of our meals during the week, but we only do the reading once (we mostly light the candles as a reminder, and because Luke likes lighting candles & Tobin likes blowing them out.) The middle candle is the Christ candle, it's lit on Christmas Eve or Day. We'll be in Texas for Christmas, so we won't be lighting the Christ candle this year...
So...the 4 Sundays before Christmas, we light that week's candle(s) before dinner. As dinner is finishing, Luke reads the passage listed out of his Bible, and then we read a picture book for Tobin. I found this wonderful book at a going out of business sale last year, and it is such a find! It actually breaks the Christmas story into 5 different stories, and it goes almost exactly with what we already focus on. Then we sing a Christmas carol (again, mostly because the boys love to sing; we just picked our 5 favorites & put them with the Sundays they make the most sense), and pray, thanking Jesus for whatever the focus of that Sunday is (Jesus is the Light/Savior/God/King). Simple, and lovely.
Here's the reading schedule we've worked out (some of this I found on line, some of it we just figured out as we went...)
First Candle: Jesus is Light
Mary, Luke 1:26-38 (O Come Emmanuel)
Second Candle: Jesus is Savior
Joseph, Matthew 1:18-25 (Silent Night)
Third Candle: Joy (the pink one, traditionally), Jesus is God
Shepherds & Angel, Luke 2:8-17 (What Child is This)
Fourth Candle: Jesus is King
Wise Men/3 Kings, Matthew 2:1-12 (Joy to the World)
Christmas (Christ candle, in the center; we won't be doing this one this year b/c we'll be in TX...)
The focus is Jesus of course :), and we sing O Holy Night.
Luke 2:1-7, or John 1:1-14
Wow. This ended up being really long...and it's late. But I hope it's helpful to someone out there! And if you have traditions you grew up with or have developed in your own family that help keep Jesus at the center of the celebration, I would LOVE to hear them!