My parents had a rule about December twenty-fifth: No one could so much as touch one present until after we had attended Christmas morning Mass together. We five children prowled around the tree, longing to dive into the inviting pile of gifts, but Mom and Dad stood their ground. Though I admit to having been somewhat distracted at those Masses, my parents’ insistence ingrained in us something deep and lasting: It taught us that Jesus comes first.
My parents taught by example more than words, so I saw the rule as just one of our family’s particular Christmas customs. Later, I came to understand that there was a reason behind it: They had taken a stand—they were expressing their decision to put Christ’s birth at the center of our celebration.
Since becoming a parent, I, too, have made the wonderful discovery that I can take a stand and have an influence on my children, their present, and their future. And especially at this time of year, I think about the staying power of good traditions. If cherished family rituals are chosen wisely, they go a long way in teaching children how to live and act.
And so I ask: What Christmas customs can point our children to Jesus? What kinds of practices will help form Christ in them as they mature? Here are some of the ideas I received as I spoke with other parents.
Rejoicing in the Lord. Mark and Gretchen, from Steubenville, Ohio, have developed an amazing range of fun and faith-filled traditions. A unique aspect of their family Advent celebration is a puppet show on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. In this entertaining production, which the parents and older children put on for the rest of the family, the holy bishop explains the true meaning of Christmas. That night, he mysteriously returns to fill the children’s shoes with little gifts.
A few days before Christmas, the tree is set up but not decorated. It is bare when the children go to bed on Christmas Eve—but when they wake up, what a transformation! Not just the tree but the whole house has been decorated from ceiling to floor in honor of the birth of Christ. The family blesses the crèche together. Then they open gifts; the children receive three apiece—one from their parents, one from the Christ Child, and one from St. Nick. Hidden somewhere in the tree is the green "Christmas pickle." Whoever finds the peculiar green ornament gets an additional gift—something to share with the family, like a board game or book.
The celebration continues. The day after Christmas, out comes the supply of Christmas books and music for everyone to enjoy. Twelve days later comes the grand finale, the feast of the Epiphany. There is a big meal, and each child gets one more present. Everyone dresses up in Mom’s garage-sale costumes to reenact the story of King Herod (always played by Dad), the wise men (always more than three, in this family of seven children), and the journey to honor Jesus with gifts. The gospel story comes alive, impressing its lessons about selfless love, ready obedience, and attentive listening to God. The family takes delight in the reality of Jesus’ birth and in his call to follow him—and no one doubts that joy and holiness go together.
A Blessing in Disguise. Sometimes, what becomes a cherished annual tradition develops out of necessity. This is what happened a few years ago to Jack and Theresa, a Florida couple with three young children. On December 24, they discovered that, through a series of mishaps, none of the gifts they had ordered online would be arriving. "We had a few small things, but none that the girls were hoping for," Theresa recalls. "I was in tears. I was sure they were going to be so disappointed."
On Christmas Eve, though, Jack had the sudden inspiration to hide a small gift in the family’s eleven-foot Christmas tree. The children soon spotted it, and then the fun began. All through the evening and into the next couple of days, he and Theresa hid gifts in the branches when no one was looking. The disaster was turned into a game, as the girls kept running over to see whether anything else was "growing on the tree."
There were fewer gifts under the tree than some years, and those that ended up "growing" on it would normally have been stocking stuffers. Yet the game was what the children remembered and excitedly recounted to their friends and cousins, not the fact that they hadn’t gotten what they were hoping for.
Says Theresa: "It’s so easy to forget what kids really want—fun interaction and memories with their parents and families, not things! This spur-of-the-moment game was the best gift of all."
Something for Jesus. I was also inspired by other parents’ approaches to various traditions of this season. Aimee and Mike from Columbus, Ohio, have added to the Advent wreath ceremony that many families use. They were spurred to approach this custom more seriously after skipping it one year, out of busyness, and hearing their three-year-old wonder, "Where did the Christmas candles go?"
Every Advent since, Aimee has placed the traditional wreath and its candles on the kitchen table, along with a small red box in the center. In the box are dozens of handwritten notes, each one describing a good deed: Write a letter to someone who is lonely. . . . Do something special for a person you don’t like. . . . Twice a week, each family member draws a note from the red box and then does what it says. Even the younger children take part, with parental guidance, as needed.
This simple custom, which cultivates an attitude of caring for others, provides concrete ways to prepare for Jesus’ coming. As Aimee and Mike explain to their children, "This red box contains our birthday presents for Baby Jesus. When Christmas comes, we can offer him all these good deeds."
Latisha, a single mother from Detroit, also observes a special tradition that centers on acts of kindness for Jesus’ sake. Each year, she and her two daughters visit a nursing home on the day after Christmas, a lonely day in most facilities. They sing Christmas carols to the residents and give them fancy boxes of cookies, which they made themselves.
"Jesus wants us to see him in everyone we meet," Latisha reminds her children. "That’s the reason we give and receive presents at Christmas—because it is Jesus’ birthday, and Jesus is in everyone." In this enjoyable and simple way, she is modeling the attitude that Jesus commended: "You did it for me" (Matthew 25:40).
Lights to the World. Greg, from Cincinnati, noticed how delighted his young children were by the elaborate Christmas light displays in neighbors’ yards. He decided to join in the fun by decorating the outside of his own house.
He seized the opportunity to talk to his children about what the lights symbolize for Christians: "They stand for Jesus and for the life he brought into the world." He went on to explain that not only did Jesus call himself the light of the world—he also said that we are the light of the world, if we follow him as his faithful disciples (John 8:12; Matthew 5:14).
At Greg’s house, the outdoor light display stays dark until the family is leaving for Christmas Eve Mass. Then the youngest child has the honor of flipping the switch that turns it on. The lights shine brightly, right through to the feast of the Epiphany.
May our Christmas customs and traditions draw us all closer to God this year. May they help us to shine out brightly for Christ—parents and children together—right through to his coming again. n
Mary Marshall is a wife and mother, hospice professional, and author of the Catholic fiction novel, Angel Fire.