Q: I try to do as many special events as possible at Christmas, but doing so doesn't leave enough time to stress the importance of the holiday season with my young children. What ideas or practical advice do you have for incorporating the meaning of Advent into the everyday life of my family?
A: It's easier to be creative about Advent if you look through your child's eyes. Try to explore unique ways to promote Advent by using the following six ideas to guide your search:
1. Break down the stimulus. Christmas changes young childrens' worlds with decorations, busy schedules, and lenient rules. Within four short months, your child is pushed from one exciting event to another. School starts, Halloween comes (with lots of candy), Thanksgiving passes (lots of sweets), Christmas arrives (with presents and sweets), and New Years brings in another year of celebration. By Advent, your children may be exhausted. It's easier to teach deeper concepts if they are rested and calm—be sure to schedule quiet days, and plenty of opportunities for naps.
2. Explain why your decorations, programs, or preparations are important. Children will never understand Advent by osmosis. It's easier to hang the wreath or arrange lights when children are away or asleep but that doesn't involve them in the reason for the change. Bring Advent down to child-size proportions with a focus on one item at a time. Don't try to explain everything in one day. Instead highlight one decoration or one event each evening meal. Use the camel from your nativity scene to ask, "Why is this camel important? What was his job or function?" Discuss why the nativity scene is included in your decorations. Children will appreciate traditions and decorations more when they understand their meaning.
3. Keep your teaching fun and as short as a television commercial. Ask unique questions that will encourage your child to participate. "Do you think we can have a good Christmas without Christmas lights?" After your child shares his opinion, follow with a quick explanation and Bible reference. "I think the baby Jesus can be our light. The Bible teaches that he is the light of the world." Keep your focus on the reason for Advent, by being chatty with your child.
4. Set realistic goals. Don't expect your young child to feel the deeper meaning of Advent immediately. Set long-term goals over several years. Understanding our faith is best when it happens spontaneously.
5. Excitement, like the flu, is contagious. If you seem burnt out during the holidays, your children will follow your lead. If you are excited, it will be easier to lead your child into the joy of Advent.
6. Use all five senses. Children will find it easier to participate if you vary your teaching method. While being chatty is great, be sure to also include new foods, smells, pictures, stories, crafts, and physical activities about the reason for the season. One year my son focused on his desire for toys rather than the joy of giving, so I quickly scheduled a trip to a homeless shelter where all five senses highlighted the fact that we were blessed.
Here are five more ideas that come from Christian school teachers, Sunday school teachers, and creative moms:
1. Bring advent into the hustle of your kitchen. While you cook, allow your child to use a chalkboard to make lists. How many times did angels appear during the Christmas story? What kinds of animals were in the stable with Jesus? Why did Jesus come to earth?
2. Rather than using an Advent calendar that doesn't change, use 25 paper lunch bags. Amie fills them with a small item that relates to Advent and adds a note or Scripture passage. Because the bags are created every year, she can make them age appropriate.
3. Play an Advent adventure game with your small children. On Thanksgiving Day, my friend Kathy placed an empty Crèche and manger in the family room. The pieces from the nativity were positioned in various rooms in the house, and all month the figures moved from place to place as if traveling to Bethlehem. They shared stories about the journey, and made up situations in different towns. On Christmas Eve, every figure (except baby Jesus) was arranged in the stable. Christmas morning while the family sang, baby Jesus was placed in the manger. Kathy is now playing the game with her grandchildren.
4. Create simple costumes to make Bible characters feel real to young children. Every supper at home, Lisa asked her children to dress as a Christmas Bible character. They discussed their role in the Christmas story. On Christmas day, everyone took turns holding the baby Jesus.
5. Start a "Christian" Christmas tree. Give every aspect of the tree a spiritual meaning: the evergreen stands for God's everlasting love; white ornaments and lights represent purity, and that Jesus is the light of the world, and snowflakes refer to the Scripture that our sins are washed whiter than snow (Psalm 51:7).
Every year we each make or purchase a new ornament for the tree. We fix a special dinner, sing songs, and add our ornaments to the tree. The ornaments can be anything, but they must have some sort of spiritual meaning or scriptural reference. As the children grew, we became more creative with our choices. Angels, stars and nativities join non-traditional ornaments like baby running shoes and airplanes. My favorite is a deer that stands for: "As a deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you" (Psalm 42:1). My friend Ron admires the dented matchbox car that stands for the car wreck, and the angels that protected Jamie. My other friend, Ken, made a compass, and thanked God for directing his life, and Amie loves to help with the yearly installation of the tress. The tree has become a yearly walk through the journey of our lives. We each stand before the tree together, and marvel at the way God has been entwined in our lives.
Creativity, imagination, and a little time can help you find ways to involve young children in the process of Advent. When you help your children appreciate all the joy of the holiday season, you change their hearts forever.
Debbie Jansen is an author, speaker, and family specialist. Connect with her at www.debbiejansen.com.