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My first two children were born in the month before Christmas, which has posed a bit of a challenge for me when it comes to gifts. We're pretty restrained when it comes to getting gifts for our kids, but still, between us, close friends, grandparents, and godparents, they end up getting quite a bit for their birthdays. And then Christmas comes so soon ... more gifts ... and the joy of giving (and getting) gets squelched by the cringe-inducing question, "Where's my next gift?" before the one in their hands is even fully opened.
I don't think my children are over-glutted selfish little greedy people. They're pretty normal kids, and I think their reaction isn't uncommon. Too much of anything is usually too much to take in well, even more so for these little not-fully-developed characters.
The weeks before Christmas can be tricky. I'm like anyone else: I get all the warm and fuzzies when I see lights on houses, wreaths on doors, and hear Christmas jingles on the radio. But I'm just as interested in preserving the expectation of the weeks before Christmas as I am eager to celebrate it. After all, Christmas is about the birth of a baby, and just like with the birth of any other baby, the months beforehand are ones of preparation and joyful anticipation. And not just preparation of the nursery and the wardrobe and making sure all the gear is collected, but making space in the heart of the family for the new little person. When we're celebrating the birth of Jesus we're not only joyfully awaiting his birth and all the promise of joy and peace and happiness that He brings, but we're also preparing our hearts and our lives, making space for His love.
Children will instinctively take all the good they can get. Restraint, thoughtfulness, moderation - these are things they need guidance in. They will soak up all the Christmas celebration and be stuffed full before they can absorb its meaning. A couple years ago, when my oldest was just getting to an age where traditions really became meaningful, I thought through how I would approach our family's preparation for and celebration of Christmas. I was eager to strike a balance between defining our own traditions based on our beliefs and principles without isolating ourselves from a lot of our friends and community. Here are a few things we do that are pretty basic and easy to facilitate, but which I think reinforce the message of Christmas.
1. Have seasonal books around. I try to have some beautiful Christmas books out and easy to access for the kids. They can look at the pictures or read it to themselves or you can read it to them. This also helps prompt discussion or reflections about what Christmas is really about.
2. Decorate gradually. This one is hard! But it's really effective at building anticipation. So on the first Sunday of Advent (right at the start of December) we usually put out our nativity set and our Advent wreath. The kids love to play with the nativity set, so I encourage getting one that isn't breakable. The next Sunday we put up a wreath on the door and maybe some snowflakes on the windows or lights on the house if the husband is up for it; the Sunday after that we put up the tree and finish decorating the interior of the house. The kids really look forward to which decorations go up each Sunday.
3. Have some kind of evening ritual. For us, this ritual involves lighting a candle on our Advent wreath and singing "O Come O Come Emmanuel" and reading a bit of this little Advent book we have. It's a little simplistic, but the kids really enjoy it and I like having something specific for each day leading up to Christmas. We also have a Melissa & Doug magnetic Advent calendar, so between that, lighting a candle, and blowing out a candle, each of my three kids has a little "job" to do - and it's pretty amazing how important these little jobs can be to them! These evening traditions become some of the strongest associations with Christmas for the kids. They take on a very real importance to them in their childhood memories, I think.
4. Play some kind of Secret Santa game. I did this growing up, so I'm pretty partial to it. We would put the names of all the siblings (there were 6 of us!) and the parents in a bag and draw names. You were "Secret Santa" for whomever's name you chose, which meant that you were to do nice things for them for however long you were playing. In my recollection, the things we did for each other were pretty simple - like making each other's beds or leaving a piece of candy on their pillow. To be fair, this is easier when the kids are older and have access to money/stores. If you have littles, my next suggestion might be more doable.
5. Fill the manger with hay. I have to be honest, we've never done this, I think because it seems not too far off from Secret Santa. But the idea is to have an empty manger and a collection of pieces of hay, and the kids can put a piece of hay in the manger for each good deed they do and make a comfortable bed for the baby Jesus. It's very sweet and encourages the kids to be conscious of their behavior not just for the sake of gifts but for the sake of the baby Jesus.
6. Help the kids buy Christmas gifts for their siblings and parents. When we were kids, we were given a (very paltry) Christmas budget to use for purchasing gifts for everyone. With 5 siblings and 2 parents, this was a lesson in economics and budgeting! But I think most of the joy of Christmas was seeing other's open our gifts to them. I think it's important to balance the child's participation in Christmas from simply receiving to also giving. The key here is the ownership they have in the process. Give them an allowance. Help them figure out what kinds of things they can get everyone if they're operating on a small budget. And work with them on their level! Take them to a thrift store, or a budget-friendly store like Big Lots or Marshalls where you can find some pretty excellent steals. This ends up being pretty fun, I promise!
7. Involve the kids in preparations. The week before Christmas is usually pretty hectic, between cooking, baking, cleaning, shopping, and wrapping. As the kids grow, they're more and more able to help out and participate in the bustle of Christmas preparation - and they appreciate being included! Have them help with decorating the house or baking cookies; maybe have the kids help each other wrap gifts. I'm sure there's some cleaning they could do! Even chores becoming just a little more exciting when part of Christmas prep.
8. Sort through toys and donate! I think we can all appreciate this one. There's no better time to clean out unused toys than in the time leading up to Christmas. Get the kids to think about which toys they really want or use, and how they can donate the rest to a place where other kids could maybe benefit from them. Kids can be pretty motivated by the spirit of giving.