Here we are in the hustle and bustle of the Advent season. I don’t know about you, but in this stressful year, in this charged political and cultural climate, I’m yearning for simplicity. I suggest we turn inward and look to yesteryear a bit, to see what we can do to create an old fashioned, blessed, wonderful Christmas for our families. Are you game? Here are a few suggestions:
Put Christ at the center of the season.
To have a wonderful, true, old fashioned Christmas we must, of course, keep Christ where He belongs—in front. Stores and advertisements on television, internet, and radio feed modern materialism, and we ourselves sometimes inadvertently do things that take away from the true meaning of Christmas too. Even though we may be well-meaning, if we prioritize the purchases, plans and meal details before considering spiritual aspects and how to guide our families toward gratitude and a deeper relationship with Christ, we will find ourselves frazzled and missing out on the best part of the season, Christ Himself.
There is nothing wrong with decorating, and enjoying some of the secular trappings of the holiday is fun, of course. I’m even going to suggest some such things below, but first and foremost we make sure these are not the primary focus, and that our children know that. If anything takes away from our ability to hone in on prayer time, preparing our hearts, and leading our families in that direction, we need to ditch it!
Putting the nativity set in a conspicuous place of honor and making time for quiet prayer and contemplation daily will do wonders for keeping the focus where it belongs, on Christ. You can find Advent devotions in any Catholic bookstore, online or in real life, but you don’t need them. Put the family Bible next to the nativity set and spend a few minutes reading the story of Christ’s birth from each of the Gospels each night with your children. Read the little children age appropriate books while snuggled on the sofa before bed. Pray the Rosary. Attend an extra Mass during the week. Take the family to Confession. Make a Jesse Tree. Use an Advent calendar. Focus on being kinder, more patient, and doing little acts of love for your spouse, children, and those around you. It’s catchy and you’ll find that Christmas cheer spreading rather quickly when you start it yourself.
Give to others.
It’s somewhat easy to toss in canned goods or an old coat for a food or clothing drive, often much harder to do something for someone in your own little circle of acquaintances, but oh it so much more meaningful! Is there a struggling college student or young person you know? Send him a cheery note of encouragement and tuck a $10 gift card inside. Spray a bit of pine fragrance on the outside envelope. Are you at the drive through of your favorite coffee or bread shop? Ask the cashier how much the person behind you owes. If it’s affordable for you to do so, tell the cashier you’d like to pay for the person behind you and to simply tell them “Merry Christmas.” Offer to babysit for a young mother for a couple hours so she can do some Christmas shopping. Bring some homemade cookies to the neighbors. Decorate the saran-wrapped paper plates with pine cones and a red bow. Gather a group of friends or family and arrange to meet at local nursing home, with prior approval of the activities director. Sing traditional Christmas carols as residents eat their meals, or go door to door and pass out candy kisses. Stay and talk. Does someone in your family play the piano? Do that for the residents too. Encourage your teens to invite their friends over for a cookie decorating party. Play Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and Perry Como music CDs as they decorate. Or religious songs of a choir. Wrap cookies for each to take some home. Double your dinner recipe one night and drop off some food at the rectory with a card. Call your mother just to say hi.
You may want to skip purchasing a professional Christmas card photo this year. Instead, give your child or grandchild some colorful markers and ask him to draw a Christmas scene. Have the picture copied and send out handwritten notes to loved ones on those instead of store-bought photo Christmas cards. Go ice skating at a local rink. Host a cookie exchange. Invite friends over for egg nog and to play cards. Make a date with your spouse to window shop or look at the Christmas lights. If your town has a manger scene, take your kids to see it. The University of Dayton in Ohio has a large Marian library and a large crèche collection. These nativity scenes are displayed every year before Christmas and are wonderful to see. Find out what is available in your city by checking with colleges, museums and your local park department. You might be surprised to find some wonderful displays and activities right in your own backyard.
Make colorful construction-paper chains. You can make these Christmas countdown chains, removing a link each day until December 25. Some families cut red and green rectangles that will make up the links and leave them in an easy-to-access spot. Family members write any good deeds they do each time they do them, then fold and tape the link to the others. The long chain at the end of the season will be a reminder of all the loving things your family has done throughout the season. On Christmas Eve you can place the paper chain on the tree or drape around the manger scene as a gift to the Christ child.
Help your children create a Christmas play. A small blanket draped around the head transforms your daughter in to the Blessed Virgin Mary. A small towel makes ‘swaddling clothes’ for a baby Jesus doll. Your kitchen broom, with a few adjustments, can become Joseph’s staff. Cut a star out of yellow construction paper or colored poster board and use glue and glitter to help it sparkle. Help your children write a script. Invite cousins or neighborhood friends to participate. Rehearse during Advent and show the grandparents or neighbors on Christmas Eve.
Bake from scratch.
Pull out those dusty handwritten recipes that came from your grandmother and make treasured treats for your family. Don’t have any? Call your mom or mother-in-law and ask for some old family stand-bys. What’s even better, if you have young children or grandchildren, invite them to help you bake. Freeze the goodies for Christmas Eve. There is something incredibly special about making recipes that are family heirlooms which have been handed down from generation to generation. You may want to tell stories while you bake, memories of your grandmother or own childhood Christmases.
Watch family Christmas movies together.
Skip what has become the “modern classic” movies like Home Alone, Elf or The Santa Claus, and return to a sweeter simpler time. Get your hands on the classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Claymation’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol (1930s version), Charlie Brown’s Christmas (original), Muppets Christmas Carol, How the Grinch Stole Christmas… Watch a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, easily found on You Tube online. The Bolshoi Ballet offers one, as does the New York City Ballet and others. Better yet, attend the Nutcracker locally. Many student ballet studios as well as professional companies offer this production. Dress up for this. Make it an evening. Let your child invite a friend. Have fun. You’ll get more ideas for great old fashioned Christmas traditions just by watching these shows.
The Advent and Christmas seasons can be a time of stress and high expectations. Be realistic in what you expect, whether it relates to how much you think you must accomplish or what to expect of a relative’s words or behavior. Repeat in your mind as much as is necessary, “Christmas is about Jesus’ birth. What else is, is.” And remain calm, through weather that doesn’t cooperate with your hopes (whether it remains green and you hoped for white, or whether you wished for a mild day and it turns out cold and stormy). If a relative at a family gathering says something unkind, just smile and move along. When purchasing gifts, only spend what you have, preferably in cash. That’s how most of our grandparents did it.
Lastly, simplify, simplify, simplify! You know your own limits. If buying gift cards instead of actual presents for some people on your list means you can spend more time preparing your heart well for our Lord, or with your family in meaningful interaction, don’t hesitate to do so. Choose those traditions that have meaning and value to you and yours, remembering the true meaning of Christmas, Jesus’ birth. Prioritize, then let go. No one can do everything perfectly and with no glitches. No one. Focus on what counts most.
If you do these things, then, when the wrapping paper litters the floor on Christmas morning, when dinner has been eaten and relatives have gone home, you can look back gladly and with confidence that you have created a most meaningful Christmas for your family. When you and your family put Christ as the center, you will experience great joy and peace, even in the hectic details and imperfections of life. What’s more, when you focus on the right things, you know that Christmas morning is just the beginning not end of the liturgical Christmas season. Thank God.
Have a very merry, blessed, old-fashioned, wonderful Christmas!
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Theresa Thomas is a Catholic mother of nine children. She lives in Indiana.