More than a Countdown to Christmas

How to help your kids celebrate the Advent season

Two years ago, while strolling through a department store during the middle of back-to-school season, I was shocked to stumble upon an aisle of freshly stocked Christmas décor. Like many of you likely would, I nearly rolled my eyes out of my head at the dangling candy cane cutouts swinging above my head 130 days before Christmas.

The older I get, the more distaste I have for a retail season that gets longer and longer. And the more I mourn how somehow, invertly, it seems like the actual time it takes growing kids to tear all the wrapping paper off their presents gets shorter and shorter. If we’re not intentional, Christmas can be over in about 18 seconds.

If we’re not intentional, Christmas can be over in about 18 seconds.

Advent isn’t new, it isn’t trendy, and it’s been around for . . . well, a couple thousand years now. But if you attend church in many Protestant denominations, there might not be a big emphasis on this four-week season of remembrance that leads up to Christmas. Advent comes from the word adventus, which means “coming.” Hence, it is the time of year when we remember how the Jews longed for a Messiah.

Fortunately, there are many Advent traditions you can begin with your children to lengthen the time your family spends remembering Jesus in this special stage of the Christian calendar. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Let your outdoor nativity figures go on a journey. Do you have a lighted manger scene in your yard? When you set it up, position the shepherds and the wise men far across the yard from the stable. Then, each day, as Jesus’ birth approaches, move them just a little bit closer until they reach the manger on Christmas day. While this doesn’t necessarily follow a strict biblical interpretation, it emphasizes to your children the journey the wise men took.

  2. Create an Advent wreath. One long-standing Advent tradition is to place four candles on (or inside) a wreath. The four candles represent the four Sundays before Christmas. Before a family meal the first Sunday, help a child light one candle. The next Sunday, light two. Then, light the third and fourth candles on the last two Sundays. You may want to do some research when choosing the color of the candles as well, as purple and rose candles have special meaning.

  3. Add some purple decorations. While neighbors will deck their halls in red and green, talk to your children about why you’ve chosen to incorporate some purple—a color traditionally associated with repentance—into your display this year. Purple is also the color of royalty, which plays into anticipation for the coming king.

  4. Add a second tree to your décor. The Jesse Tree is a long-standing tradition in which you plant a leaf-less tree (or branch) in a basket or vase. You can let your kids make tiny ornaments out of paper or fabric to represent Old and New Testament figures who placed their faith in the God who would send a Messiah. Search the Internet for lists of figures to use or let your children choose figures from your family’s favorite Bible storybook.

  5. Sing a favorite song before bed. Sing a song that focuses on Christ’s coming. Some great examples might include “Joy to the World” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” You might also sing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which focuses on the faithful coming to Jesus.

  6. Make Jesus a crib. Using a doll bed or decorated box, create a crib to place somewhere central in your home. On the days leading up to Christmas, fill the crib with more and more straw until it is ready for Jesus (a swaddled baby doll) to lay in it on Christmas morning.

  7. Make space for Christ in your homes and hearts. Practice the art of giving by helping children sort through unneeded items they can donate to those in need. Talk to them about clutter and how material items can never capture the meaning we find in our faith.

  8. Prepare in advance. Try to create quiet, unrushed Christmastime experiences. Perhaps play some soft Christ-centered holiday music in the background. Bake cookies or wrap presents well in advance, so children can experience restful, simple days focused on meaning inside a sometimes rushed season of travel and holiday to-do lists.

  9. Read a new Scripture passage about the coming Christ every day at breakfast or every night before bed. Some suggested portions includeIsaiah 63:16–17; Isaiah 63:19; Psalms 80:2–19; 1 Corinthians 1:3–9; Mark 13:33–37; Isaiah 40:1–11; Psalms 85:9–14; 2 Peter 3:8–14; Mark 1:1–8; Isaiah 61; Luke 1:46–54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24; John 1:6–28; Malachi 3:1–24; Psalms 25:4–14; and Luke 1:57–66.

  10. Open a new nativity figure each day. Unwrap a nativity figure each day during the days leading up to Christmas, and tell children the story from each figure’s point of view. I’ve designed a resource, The Donkey in the Living Room: A Tradition that Celebrates the True Meaning of Christmas, that includes both the wooden manger scene figures and the book to support this tradition.

Finally, it doesn’t matter what traditions you choose to adopt. You may choose to incorporate just one new ritual or all of these. The trick is, of course, selecting ones that add meaning, rest, and focus on Jesus to your holiday season. Use only the traditions that help you remember not only how Christ came long ago, but also how he comes to each one of us where we are now and forever.

Sarah Raymond Cunningham is the author of several books, including Beyond the Broken Church (Zondervan, 2014) and The Well-Balanced World Changer (Moody, 2013). Sarah serves as Chief Servant to the Emperor Justus (her 5-year-old) and his Chief of Staff, the 2-year-old Malachi. This role prompted her most recent project, the top-selling children’s Christmas book, The Donkey in the Living Room (B&H Kids, 2014), which invites families to spend nine days engaging the Christmas story with their young children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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