We’re ten days into Advent. In our home, this means we have lots of little hands rearranging manger scenes–placing Mary with our spoons, Joseph on our piano, and various sheep and shepherds on our bathroom sink. It’s a wonder to me to think about the people represented in felted wool and plastic, these historical figures: Mary and Joseph, and startled shepherds on a hill side–people as real as you and I, witnessing heaven come to earth. Seeing Mary amid our spoons is startling to me, because sometimes she can seem like this distant sacred idea; but she too ate and drank, she cooked for and held Christ, the very bridge between Heaven and Earth. This paradigm of a bridge between the human and the sacred: God becoming man, is so strange and startling, so different from anything in history, that having twenty-five days to emphasize it seems apt. In our home we try to take advantage of this space in the Church calendar, to use every tradition to point to Emmanuel: God with us.
In our emphasizing Christ, on the surface what we do isn’t anything particularly fancy or involved, it doesn’t involve a multitude of scripted moments or some programatic approach. It begins how everything must begin, with my heart rejoicing in the God who saved me, in prayer, and a desire to submit every moment to him. As I consider the hope I have in Christ, it naturally overflows into how I teach my children to hope in him. Every tradition then, every special Christmas moment becomes about him because my affection is centered on him.
We light Advent candles and fill our Jesse Tree with symbols as we read about Old Testament promises, long awaited, being fulfilled one night in Bethlehem. Our Daughter’s favorite is the rainbow–it’s my favorite too: God’s promise to never again wipe out humanity through flood, tied to the hope of the new covenant that comes in a wash of perfect blood instead of water.
We bring out once-a-year special treats and activities. We decorate gingerbread houses and talk about how Jesus goes to prepare a place for those who put their faith in him, how our true home is with Christ, one that doesn’t dissolve like sugar–or crumble like brick.
We sing Christmas carols under twinkling lights, drink peppermint tea, read and re-read our favorite fictions and fairy tales, make gifts, decorate cookies, learn about the real man, Nicholas of Myra, eat candy canes and drink cocoa out in the cold while we watch birds, and we try to use these all as opportunities to connect abstract ideas to tangible things for little hands to grasp hold of and remember.
We fiddle every year with different ideas, casting off stressful things, holding on to things that are sweet and joy-filled, making space for conversations and questions, slowing down so that stress, high expectations, or too much stuff doesn’t overshadow what it is we’re truly celebrating: Love came down at Christmas, and gave his life for ours.
When we’re taking the time to be in awe of this reality it becomes natural to talk about him, whether we’re immersed in the pages of Scripture or sitting at a table strewn with cookie sprinkles and cheeks covered in icing. We learn that rejoicing can happen with giggly, off-key renditions of Joy to the World as much as well-rehearsed, beautiful choirs.
When we really think about what Emmanuel means what else can we do but celebrate in every facet of this season? God was made man: all these abstract characteristics about God, this being who is Truth, Love, Holiness, Justice, Peace, who created a universe that we can’t even fully comprehend, from swirling galaxies to the tiny, perfect hands of a newborn…all of who he is was enfleshed, plunked right here in our very human world. The hands that formed those galaxies, now with newborn hands of his own, later to be torn by nails hammered in by his own creation. There he was amid the most human of humans. Sometimes I think the story has become so known to us that we forget how absurdly strange and beautiful it is. A poor teenage girl and her rough-handed carpenter husband, holding their very own Savior in their arms, bearded and wind-swept shepherds, smelling of fields and sheep rejoicing along with a herald of angels…angels and shepherds–what an absolutely laughable contrast! In all this humble, unabashedly human circumstance he came, God came to save his people from themselves.
I’m not sure there is a more appropriate way of celebrating him than through joyful laughter, loud singing, and lights splitting the darkest of winter nights.
It is only right that in all the intricacies of our traditions: amid sugar cookies and choir sings; evergreen trees and nativities; wrapping paper and sermons, that we acknowledge him, worship him, and rejoice…truly rejoice. For our Creator has come. He lived, loved, suffered, died, and rose triumphantly, for us: his former enemies. He has turned our stony, hell-bent hearts to hearts of flesh that beat in time to his will. What an outrageous act of grace, what a beautiful display of love, is there anything more worthy of our attention, affections and focus?
If we can center our hearts first on Emmanuel, whatever traditions we employ in our homes with our children will be time well spent.
We’re indebted to some wonderful resources that have helped us teach our children and focus our own hearts in a season that can quickly stray from Christ. Here are a few of our favorites, take what you love and draws you to Christ, leave what doesn’t.
Jesse Tree Ornaments and Reading Guide These are simple, and we love that her readings are taken straight from Scripture, with simple explanations and a short enough to keep even young children’s attention.
Booklet for Nightly Advent Candle Readings A daily reading from the first Sunday of Advent until Christmas, it even includes lyrics to Christmas carols to prompt you to sing together. They’re short enough to read just at the beginning of dinner with plenty of time to discuss the ideas during the rest of the meal. There are a few parts that we’ve altered as we read because we don’t agree with the author’s view, but apart from one or two days (and a slightly out of order presentation of the nativity story), we’ve found it a good starting place to teach from.
In addition to these we like to read various nativity retellings, a few of our favorites:
We don’t teach Santa Clause as reality, but we do teach our kids about the historical figure, Nicholas of Myra, on whom Santa is based, and discuss how he went from factual history, to legend, to fiction, using these books:
We use Candy Canes as illustrations for the gospel, usually making some with pony beads, and eating them all all long (obviously a favorite tradition). You can look up The Candy Cane Gospel for various guides to make the connections of gospel to candy, but we love this book to read as a launch for explanation: