When my husband grew up, his mom made chocolate milkshakes to accompany the Sunday night Advent devotional; we floated the idea this year, and the kids had no objections. On Sunday evenings, we light the proper number of candles at dinnertime, and read from a short devotional my mother-in-law wrote years ago.
On weeknights, we light the candles but skip any reading. But let me get to the point: the kids take turns blowing out the candles. They love that stuff, don’t they? Candles feel like something special, and children love to have an important job. And parents will drink a milkshake if they have to (it’s for the children).
My elder daughter was given a nativity set by her godmother. The fair-trade pieces are painted wood and stand up to lots of real playing. They are similar in size to pieces from some toddler puzzles we have, so we throw in extra farm animals as needed.
This year when we got them out, my 4-year-old used the nativity pieces to act out a little Exodus story, with Moses and Pharaoh and Israelites lined up for a journey. Ha! Close enough. Let my people go… to Bethlehem to be counted. These holy stories will withstand plenty.
Last year when our church had a “hanging of the greens” event, the companion activity for kids was making nativity sets out of toilet paper rolls. The project took only a teeny bit of planning—time to collect enough rolls—but otherwise was just a happy pile of fabric and paper scraps and a hot glue gun. I had so much fun that I continued the project at home, adding wise men and shepherds (I saved it in a box labeled “Family Heirloom: Do Not Ever Throw Away Upon Penalty of Death”).
An insight that arrived for me is how making things, even very simple creative things—baking, wrapping gifts with care, raiding the recycling bin to illustrate sacred stories—is part of my own spiritual engagement.
We keep our Christmas books in the attic. As a child, I looked forward to those special books being back in circulation, and it was fun to witness that as a parent this year: I can’t tell you how hungrily both of my children (a reader and a pre-reader) turned pages and read those books when the box was opened.
Our collection is a mix of religious and non-religious favorites. Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry is a charming little story of sharing and finding beauty. Mary and Her Miracle: The Christmas Story Retold by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton is first-rate. As a chapter book, it makes a good bedtime story spread over a couple of weeks. A church preschool teacher gave us The Beginner’s Bible: The Very First Christmas, which has cartoon-like illustrations and does a pretty good job with the Christmas story. My kids both liked the energetically mad King Herod fuming at the Wise Men.
We’re not reading board books as often now, but Who Is Coming to Our House? (Joseph Slate and Ashley Wolff) has a pleasing rhythm as a barn of animals scurries to prepare for special visitors. A great take on the Incarnation is hidden in The Runaway Bunny (Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd)… a parent figure who would do anything to love the child, including becoming whatever the child becomes. Hello, God taking on human flesh in Jesus!
The last few years, we’ve also enjoyed Pamela Grenfell Smith’s marvelous “Nicholas: A Garland of Tales for the Nights Before Christmas”. If you’ve stewed (I’ve stewed) about how to make any kind of connection between the modern practice of Christmas (Santa, too many gifts) and the Christian life, you may be glad to read this. It’s a wonderful expansion on the little we know of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, and points toward mysterious gift-giving as a practice of love.
It’s easy for the Santa scene to preoccupy Christmas preparations; we try to come at that with a light touch. Enjoy the story, go easy on the “better watch out” bit. I’ve heard it said that a gift you deserve has a name: a paycheck. We do not keep elves on any of our shelves to send behavior reports to the North Pole. It’s hard to draw a line from Santa judging whether you’re good enough to receive a gift, to the incredible grace of God entering human life in Jesus Christ to love us right now, before we’ve lost five pounds or forgiven our friend or figured out how to tithe. Christ came for us while we were yet on the naughty list.
What we aim for in keeping Advent is a passing on love for a story that can be read, and handled, and questioned, and treasured, and lived.
How do you keep Advent in your home?