Have Yourself a Very Simple Christmas

How to clear out the clutter and create a meaningful holiday

One of our all-time best Christmases was the year we were broke. Really broke. We had just joined the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ, making the shift from "a real job" (as our parents liked to say) to raising adequate support for our missionary endeavor. We had two small boys and no money.

We economized at every turn. A friend loaned us her artificial Christmas tree. Grandparents came for the holidays loaded down with yummy food and other goodies. A neighbor called and told us they'd just gotten a great deal on steak and bought too much for their freezer.

Another friend gave our boys toy car panels?complete with horns, steering wheels and other enticing controls. These panels soon became the boys' favorite toys, fueling our sons' imaginations and transforming from cars to space ships to trains to whatever else our boys wanted them to be.

We decorated our whole house with chains of colored construction paper glued together with homemade paste. Our home was festive. Joy abounded. And we weren't exhausted by all the running around we would have done had our financial situation been different.

We had no choice but to focus on other aspects of Christmas, like the fact that it's Jesus' birthday. Despite our simple, low-budget celebrations, that holiday season was extravagant and rich. We realized the importance of building meaningful holiday traditions and rituals and focusing on the gift of joy we have in Christ.

Where to start

To make your holidays more meaningful this year, start with traditions that make your family unique. Take a few minutes together as a family and evaluate your traditions. What are your favorites? Which are most meaningful? What traditions do you continue that are only a ritual and no longer have any real meaning? If you're a young family just establishing holiday traditions, you can ask the same questions of the rituals your own families practiced.

Start by listing your traditions and discussing the following questions:

  1. Where did this specific tradition come from?Mom or Dad's childhood? Other families? A book? A magazine?
  2. What traditions have disappeared over the years?
  3. What new traditions have been added?
  4. What traditions need to be dropped?
  5. What traditions would you like to add?

Once you've decided what should stay and what should go, feel free to add a few new traditions. If you're stumped for ways to celebrate, consider some of our favorite ideas. They're simple to adopt and won't cost much. Plus, these ideas are designed to draw your family closer together, a true gift for this holiday season!

Try Some Old-Fashioned Caroling

Organize a choir of family and friends and go Christmas caroling. Call ahead to alert your neighbors to the fun. At the end of the evening, celebrate with hot chocolate or hot spiced cider and sugar cookies, and read the Christmas story.

Create a Family Prayer Basket

Each time God answers a prayer during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, jot it down on a card and drop it in a prayer basket (any basket or bowl will do). Keep the prayer basket on the kitchen table or somewhere your family will see it often. Encourage everyone in the family to participate, helping young children who aren't able to write yet add their own discoveries. At dinner on Christmas Day, initiate your new tradition by taking turns reading the answered prayers.

Bake a Birthday Cake for Jesus

Let your children help you make a special cake ahead of time and share it with friends and family on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day:

  • Make a white, round cake to remind your family of Jesus' purity and his eternal reign.
  • Use 20 candles to represent the 20 centuries since Christ's birth. You can use red candles as a symbol of the blood Jesus shed for us and for Christmas joy. Tell your children that the candlelight reminds us that Jesus is the Light of the World.
  • Place a silver star in the center of the cake to represent the star of Bethlehem. You can make a star with silver candles or by covering cardboard with aluminum foil.

Before you sing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus and blow out the candles, explain the symbolism to your children.

Make a Manger

Assemble a nativity scene at the beginning of December. (You'll want to use one your children can hold and touch. Save the breakable one for the mantel.) Leave the manger empty and have a small container of straw nearby (you can get straw at a local farm or garden store).

For each act of kindness you notice among your children, add a piece of straw to the manger. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, when baby Jesus is laid in the manger, your children will appreciate that their kind deeds helped to prepare his bed.

Start a Christmas Factory

Choose a room or corner in your home where you can keep supplies for wrapping gifts and creating Christmas crafts. Supplies might include: paper, ribbon, tape, scissors, glitter, glue, buttons, stickers, a glue gun, and boxes.

For money-stretching packaging suggestions, consider the following:

  • Use newspaper for large packages. Children love getting the comic sections.
  • Use pine cones, evergreen sprigs, or tiny tree ornaments to decorate your packages.
  • Tie plain brown bags with burlap ribbon, twine or red and green yarn. Add Christmas symbols or holiday greetings with felt-tip markers or stencils.
  • Make gift tags from recycled Christmas cards.
Roll Out the Dough

Making your own Christmas ornaments is inexpensive and fun. They also make great gifts for grandparents! Here's a favorite recipe:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Mix together:
2 cups flour
1 cup salt
1 cup water

Knead together. Roll out and cut with cookie cutters. Brush with beaten egg. Use a toothpick to make a hole at the top of each ornament before baking.

Bake for 10-15 minutes.

After baking and cooling, push red and green yarn or ribbon through the hole and make a tie for each ornament. Leave the ornaments natural or paint them with acrylic paints. Spray with varnish for a long-lasting finish.

Make a Christmas Scrapbook

Designate December as scrapbook month. Gather all your favorite snapshots from the past year. Pull them out in December and make a family scrapbook of your year. It's also the time to pull out scrapbooks from previous years and enjoy the memories of days gone by.

Throw a Brown-Bag Party

Put on your favorite Christmas CD or tape, light the tree, and take a few minutes to enjoy each other and the magic of this time of year. Roll down the tops of brown lunch bags and fill each bag with goodies to munch around the tree. Include finger foods like nuts, dried fruit, popcorn, miniature muffins and cookies. Talk about the things Mary and Joseph would have brought along for their journey to Bethlehem and what they might have eaten during their stay in the stable.

Celebrate Christmas Afternoon

On Christmas afternoon, take time to wind down as a family. After all the celebrating is over, bring out a new jigsaw puzzle or board game for the family. You might also want to pull out the sleeping bags and take a family nap around the Christmas tree.

No matter how your family celebrates, make sure your traditions really matter to you and bring your family closer together. Most of all, center your celebrations on the gift of Jesus. When you do, you're certain to have the happiest of holidays.

David and Claudia Arp, founders of Marriage Alive, specialize in marriage and family education through seminars, training, video-based curriculum, and books including Suddenly They're 13! (Zondervan). For more family building tips, visit their website at www.marriagealive.com

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