"Why didn't Santa come to our house?" our 4-year-old son asked. "Was I bad or something?" An ominous silence filled our once joyful minivan as I looked helplessly at my wife. It was time for parenting trick Number 412. "Son, look! A bulldozer! Cool!"
We dodged that bullet, but we knew this was only the beginning.
Easter and Christmas—two holidays that have caused more controversy in Christian circles than when Jesus is coming back. Is Santa an innocent story or the Devil's trick to pull our focus from Christ? Is the Easter Bunny just a silly way to keep the kids busy while we get the ham in the oven, or is he a dangerous myth that leaves our children wondering what's true and what isn't?
But in truth, most of us follow the culture's leading when it comes to celebrating these major holidays. The spotlight's shift from Christ to a focus on presents, eggs, and such is becoming commonplace, even among Christians. My wife and I began to wonder if we had the fortitude to follow in Joshua's footsteps, " … as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (Josh. 24:15).
Like everyone else, my wife and I both grew up with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Admittedly, we turned out just fine (an argument, by the way, you'll hear from anyone you tell that you're not teaching your kids about Santa). We each have a passion for God in spite of our former belief in an egg-laying bunny and a large, jolly fellow who jumps down chimneys.
Even worse, we have no fonder memories than hunting for Easter eggs on bright spring days and rushing downstairs to open the presents Santa had left on Christmas morning. I didn't even care that my chimney led straight to the furnace—that was Santa's problem. Our problem, however, was that both of us grew up caring only about the gift portion of Christmas and Easter. As parents, we wanted our children to have warm memories like ours, yet give Jesus all the glory on his days.
Now, we're smart people. We figured out potty training, how to keep our son from removing all his clothes in public, and even got him to eat broccoli. This one little parenting dilemma was no match for two smart parents, or was it?
We tried refocusing. One Christmas we decided to go cold turkey: No Santa. We gave our son, Levi, three presents, representing the three gifts from the wise men. He picked out a new toy to give to a needy family. We read the Christmas story. Everyone felt real spiritual all right, but my son didn't understand why Santa hopped down every chimney but his. Something just didn't feel right—to Levi or to us.
Easter wasn't much better. No baskets. No bunny. Levi and I built a cross and put 40 nails in it. Each of the 40 days before Easter, we would hang an ornament relating to a Bible story and discuss it with him. Levi was actually excited for each new day and ornament. Things were looking up until … well, have I mentioned my son's grandparents?
My wife and I had given the grandparents strict instructions—no Easter baskets! Even though there are no lawyers among them, they still found a loophole in our instructions and showed up with "spring baskets" full of toys. Nice. Forty days of instilling the "true meaning of Easter" were now replaced with a machine that blew bubbles as big as your head. Despite our best efforts, Levi was associating Christmas and Easter with presents.
You could almost see our dreams of having a family focused on Christ float into the sky like a head-sized bubble. As my wife and I talked things through, we came to the conclusion that our Father in heaven likes to give us good gifts. Because we're created in his image, our desire to give good things to our children was only natural. Basically we felt stingy, not God honoring.
But we weren't going to give up, not on something this important. So we decided to pray.
We explained our dilemma to God: (1) Christmas and Easter needed to focus on Jesus Christ. (2) Presents, Santa, and our floppy-eared friend unfortunately seemed to take away from him. (3) We didn't want to "cheat" our children of joy. (4) We wanted some sort of excitement and surprise "like" Santa and the Easter Bunny.
We said our prayer and then thought back over the list we'd just given God. Then we talked more about our family holidays thus far, and thought over our prayer again. In the midst of that conversation, God began revealing to us that we weren't doing so poorly after all. The focus was Christ. Our son learned what Jesus had done for him, and we had some fun at the same time. Then it hit us. It wasn't what we were doing. It was what we weren't doing.
We realized we'd been putting all our eggs in two baskets if you will. We had tried to pack everything—spiritual truths, presents, and fun—into just two holidays. What would happen if we spread the love a little?
So with God's help, we made a plan.
Step One: With no guilt, we made Christmas and Easter all about Christ. We dropped the presents, kept the Easter cross and Christmas story. We added a birthday party for Jesus and made both holidays a joyful recognition of what God did for us. Christmas and Easter have evolved to days of teaching and celebration. As our kids grow, we'll add mission trips, volunteering, and service projects designed to give the holidays back to Christ.
Step Two: Birthdays need to be a huge deal. These days are all about children so we decided to celebrate them in a big way. The money we save on Christmas alone allows us to add all kinds of special extras to our birthday celebrations. But we still try to add a spiritual element and remind our children that their birthdays are one way we celebrate the special, unique people God made them to be.
Step Three: We created GOTYA (God Thinks You're Awesome) Days! Each year, my wife and I sit down and pick two slightly obscure holidays to throw a surprise party for each of our kids. Again, we use the money we save on Christmas and Easter gifts to buy presents, decorate the house, and plan events. With younger children, you can still choose to have Santa (he could visit special kids on Columbus Day). Older kids will scour the calendar guessing which day will be their GOTYA Day.
We typically celebrate one child per GOTYA Day, but you could also fill one GOTYA Day with different activities for all your children and throw in a few GOTYA Days each year (see "Happy GOTYA Day," p. 51). No matter how we celebrate, we start out each GOTYA Day by explaining the two reasons why it exists—to honor Jesus on Christmas and Easter and to let our children know that God thinks they're incredibly special.
We've found that our kids don't really miss Santa or the Easter Bunny. In fact, Levi thinks he's pretty special when he's the only one getting presents on National Donut Day (June 2). That special feeling translates into feeling good about himself. Even better, telling our kids that the Creator of the Uni-verse thinks they're awesome translates into feeling good about who God made them to be.
We Have a Winner!
These three changes had tremendous benefits for our family. Naturally, we had a ball with our kids. But we also grew closer as a couple. Our GOTYA Days in particular required teamwork. We sat together researching holidays and choosing themes and activities. My wife and I decided on presents and shopped together. When a GOTYA Day arrived, we'd snicker like kids as we woke up early to sneak into our child's room and yell "GOTYA!" We worked toward a common goal and found that our marriage was full of them. Our sense of teamwork spilled over into other areas of our relationship and drew us closer.
Best of all, Levi didn't keep silent about his GOTYA Day and the reasons for it. Talk of Jesus spread from his friends to their parents simply because he opened presents on National Family Day (first Saturday in June). Our son had a new witnessing tool! God's wisdom is simply amazing.
One word of warning—be careful when you start getting creative; it's addictive. You never know when your spouse might team up with your kids for your GOTYA Day! Christ will be honored in the way he deserves on his holidays. Your kids will have more fun than ever before with a unique, new way to witness. And you, in all your glory, will have a better answer than parenting trick Number 412 for why Santa didn't visit them on Christmas morning.
Now all you have to do is convince the grandparents to cooperate, but that's another article.
Mike Greiner and his family celebrate God and each other at their home in Illinois.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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