New family traditions for highlighting the meaning of the season
There is no shortage of family traditions at Christmas time, whether it be trimming the tree or making a special holiday treat. But amid the hustle and bustle, families may want to create new traditions that emphasize the season’s spiritual depth, say some Anglican specialists in children’s ministry.
Kate Newman, co-ordinator of children’s, youth and family ministries at Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria, B.C., notes that Christmas is not always a peaceful time for families.
“It’s so easy to rush your way through the holidays, and there’s so much pressure for it to be this really big, decorative, exciting time,” she says. Children may be excited about it, but they may also be struggling with anxiety, as many today are, she adds.
For Newman, moments of peace are “the gift of the season.” She suggests families find traditions centred on peace and simple spirituality.
For example, she says, families could spend an evening with the lights off, using only candles or fire, relaxing and reading. Another activity could be family nature walks in which parents and kids look for different types of birds.
Celebrating St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, is another simple yet meaningful tradition. “We’re really blessed as…Anglicans to be able to extend our Christmas season [to] more than one day,” Newman points out.
The extra day can make a difference for families that find scheduling tricky around the holidays—if mom or dad live in different houses, for example, or if a lot of family visiting is involved.
Newman suggests taking time for a special St. Stephen’s Day breakfast—“You know, omelettes with some of the turkey, or just waffles. Something really simple.”
For those who want a hands-on activity, she says, making ice lights is an activity that is both contemplative and creative. First, fill a plastic container three-quarters full of water, then insert a smaller plastic container into the centre, filled with enough water to weigh it down as it sits in the larger container. Put the containers in the freezer (or outside, if it’s cold enough) until frozen solid. When the plastic is removed, a tea light can be placed in the ice vessel. Families can bring the candles out to the garden or another special place, light them and share their hopes for peace for the coming year.
Catherine Keating, deacon at St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church in Toronto and co-founder of the Toronto Children’s Ministry Leadership Conference, and St. John’s children’s ministry director Alison Juurinen suggest starting a family tradition based on Advent.
“Advent is about anticipation and waiting,” Keating points out, adding, “I think kids have a hard time waiting—the kid in all of us has a hard time waiting!” Parents can create activities for children that connect to “what we’re really worshipping and remembering and waiting for.”
Keating says families can shift the focus from Christmas presents to the presence of Christ. “This is the real presence we’re waiting for— Jesus living in and through us,” she says.
Keating suggests putting up a stocking with Jesus’ name on it that will be filled throughout Advent with “gifts” for Jesus. Throughout the Advent weeks, family members can write down instances when they see each other performing acts of hope, peace, joy and love—the themes represented by candles on the traditional Advent wreath.
On Christmas morning, the family together empties the stocking and reads over the “gifts” inside. “There are always opportunities to catch yourself or catch somebody else being Jesus in the world, and I think celebrating that is really, really important,” says Keating.
Christmas is also a good time for families to start traditions of helping others, Keating says, giving examples like volunteering as a family, buying gifts for those in need or donating necessities like toiletries to local shelters.
As team leader for Messy Church Canada, a charity that helps churches provide a church format to famlies outside the tradition of regular Sunday worship, Sue Kalbfleisch creates ways for families to connect church messages with what they do at home. Families, Kalbfleisch says, can adopt a tradition for helping them pray together: pieces of paper with each family member’s name are put in a jar. As each piece of paper is drawn out, the family says a prayer for that person. Or families can create a “thank you” Christmas tree from which parents and children hang written prayers of thanksgiving as ornaments.
A fun way to tell the Christmas story could be to make a nativity story cube, she says, a giant die with different images from the story on different sides: a candle, signifying Jesus as the “light of the world,” the star of Bethlehem, the wise men, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, a shepherd and an angel. (You can find a printable version online, or make your own.)
“The idea is, you cut it out, you make it, you glue it together, and then you roll the cube and talk about the part of the story that lands face up,” she says.
Families can also use an Advent calendar or countdown as a way to talk about the Christmas story. One idea, adapted from the book Family Fun for Christmas by Jane Butcher, a British specialist in children’s ministry, involves making 24 tags with different words from the Christmas story. Each day the family can talk about one of the words and hang the tag on the Christmas tree.
Another tradition for those looking to engage with other families is a travelling nativity scene. Both Kalbfleisch and Newman have seen versions of this. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, families take turns keeping a nativity set in their homes.
The nativity could travel with a book where children write something short about the experience, suggests Newman, or each family could take a picture and post it online. “It’s a nice little way for families to connect,” she says.
“It wouldn’t even have to be a nativity scene—it could be something else, as a way of passing on the message,” says Kalbfleisch.
She suggests giving out a page that tells the Christmas story along with the nativity scene, and that families say a prayer when they pass it on. Families could also keep a memento, like a small ornament, after they pass on the nativity.