Sunday, December 1, 2013

Ideas for Keeping Advent and Christmas Holy

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We'll be sharing different ways, tips, stories and real-life experiences that will help us focus our Advent and Christmas on JESUS!

The Santa Question

Since last Christmas, when my son was finally getting old enough to comprehend was Christmas was all about, I've been struggling with the question of whether or not we should continue to encourage and teach the legend of Santa alongside the story of Christ's birth or not.  I've been thinking and reading about it all year, and here's what I've finally concluded.

I do believe it's possible - even in this culture - to "not do Santa" in your family.  True, Santa brings a wonderful sense of "magic" to Christmas.  But if you celebrate the feast of Christmas well, there is absolutely no lack of magic in the incomprehensible beauty and wonder of the Christmas story (see, for example, this account of how an American family celebrated in the German tradition).

I have spoken with a couple adults who were raised without the Santa myth, and don't feel that they were at all deprived.  However, Santa is a part of my family's celebration of Christmas, and both Tom and I still have some nostalgic attachment to him.  I decided that if we can work him into our otherwise Christ-centered Christmas, we don't have to cut out Santa entirely. 

In many parts of Europe, the little children would write letters during Advent to the baby Jesus (remember that adorable one that Pope Benedict XVI wrote as a child?), and they believed that He was the one who brought the gifts.  Here in America, it's Santa who's solely responsible for this.  I'd like my kids to understand that Santa/mom and dad/relatives/friends are giving gifts at Christmas *in celebration* of the birth of Christ.  And I came across a wonderful little passage that suggests a way to keep Santa, but relegate him to his proper place:

The fairytale of Santa Claus will not be abolished easily, despite the efforts of well-meaning people.  Nor does it seem necessary.  Children do like fairytales, and Santa Claus is one of the most charming of them.  Catholic parents might use it without harm, provided they apply some safeguards to avoid undue overstressing of the Santa Claus figure….Keep the Santa tale in its simple, appealing form and shun the corruptions introduced by commercial managers….Never allow the figure of Santa Claus to dominate the child’s mind.  The Child Jesus must be the main figure in all his Christmas thinking.  Picture to him Santa as merely a servant and deliveryman, delightful but not very important….Do not let your children present their wishes to Santa.  If you want them to write down what they desire, let them write to the Child Jesus according to the old Catholic custom.  Santa does not give the presents, he only delivers what the Lord sends.  The above suggestions will also help to lessen the "shock" when the children find out that "there is no Santa."  As one mother did when her little boy came full of doubts and asked her if there was really a Santa Claus...."Of course not," said mother quietly, "that's only a story for very small children.  You are a big boy now, so you understand how it really is.  Our dear Lord does not need a deliveryman.  He has already given you somebody who loves you very much and who is happy to give you the Christmas presents in His Name.  Do you know who these persons are?"  The child thought for a moment, then he said, "Daddy and mother?"  "Yes, my dear", answered she, "and would you not rather that father and I give you the presents?  We love you more than Santa Claus does."
– Francis W. Weiser, S.J., The Year of the Lord in the Christian Home

I think this is a very good approach to take.  Ultimately, I don't intend to discourage belief in Santa, just to downplay some of his influence over my children's understanding of the meaning and purpose of Christmas. [In case anyone is wondering, I have some issues with considering Santa the same person as St. Nicholas.  I won't go into them here, but we will celebrate St. Nick separately on his proper feast day of December 6th.]

Here are some of the ways we will observe Advent/Christmas this year:

Replacing our Secular "Advent Calendar" with a Jesse Tree

We grew up with a cute advent calendar with velcro "ornaments" that you add to a tree each day of December.  My mom was so excited to pass it on to me as soon as I had kids of my own.  There's nothing wrong with this Advent calendar, but as the other moms and I at the latest discussion group lamented, "there are so many cool Advent practices you can do with your family, but you just can't do them all!"  The symbols in our calendar are mostly items like presents and toys.  And the calendar culminates on December 24th with a Santa face.  Not exactly the message I want to get across to the kids about what Christmas means. 

I think I'm going to keep it in the box this year, and try out a Jesse Tree in its place.  Again, I don't think the calendar is harmful in itself.  But we can only fit in so many "you have to do this once a day" items, and the Jesse Tree is one I've wanted to try for awhile. For those who are unfamiliar, it's a way to walk through the Biblical stories of salvation history, culminating in the birth of Christ.  You have ornaments with symbols that represent each of those events in salvation history, and each day you add one to a little "Jesse" tree.  I participated in Karen's ornament exchange this year, and received a set of very cute and creative ornaments from other bloggers.  Now I just need to figure out which ornament corresponds to which story AND find some sort of (free?) transcript of little-kid-friendly prayers or readings for each day...and I think I'm good to go!

Also, our children's Christmas book collection is about half-and-half religious and secular at this point.  This year, I think I might weed out some of the ones that focus too much on getting presents as the main excitement of Christmas.

 Actually Remembering to Light Our Advent Wreath Each Day

This has been a big problem for Tom and I during Advent.  We always seem to start out with grand plans about saying nightly prayers around our lit wreath, but then manage to only do it one or two nights a week.  This year, the plan is to say our prayers and let Sly add an ornament to the Jesse Tree right after dinner - before anyone gets up from the table.  That way, we won't run the risk of forgetting or running out of time later.

Last year, we tried to sing one verse of O Come, O Come Emmanuel each time we gathered around the wreath.  It is a long song with many verses, would still be nice to have some other Advent songs in our repertoire.  Does anyone know of any others that are good for group singing, and written in English??

Using Representations of the Nativity to Tell the Story of Christmas

We have two nativity sets right now.  Our "nice set" is made by Fontanini.  I don't really let the kids play with it, but all the figures are actually made from plastic (my favorite part is that they don't *look* plastic at all), so I don't have to worry if they do.  I like to set out the figures for this set slowly, in the order they would have actually arrived at the scene...some cows and sheep and shepherds hang around the stable during most of Advent; Mary, Joseph and the donkey arrive on Christmas Eve, the baby Jesus shortly after, and then the angel, followed by the wise men and their camel on Epiphany.

We also have the Little People set.  It's not my favorite children's Nativity, since the modern-day Little People are so chunky and the animals are non-posable (unlike the Little People animals of my own childhood).  But it's great to not have to mind if they get roughed up a bit by the kids.

One of my favorites - and something I saved up money for a year to purchase! - is my lifesize Christ statue in a manger.  They make them in smaller sizes, but it was important to me to find one that was life-size, because I thought that would help us all the understand that Christ was really once a tiny baby on this earth.  This is VERY breakable, so I have to keep it up on a table.  The wooden manger sits out, empty, during Advent.  Last year, when Sly was only two, I had him add a piece of "straw" (cut up yellow paper) to the manger everytime he did something "good."  He really enjoyed this, and was pleased to help "make a soft bed" out of his sacrifices for the baby Jesus, who we brought out on Christmas morning.

Sorry, but I can't find a link to this right now.  It's a 20" "Florentine" statue with manger.  It took me over two years to finally track down a retailer that had them in stock.  Very difficult to find!  So keep an eye out throughout the year.

A friend of mine also called my attention to what I think would be a really fun tradition to start.  I've been trying to think of good ways to continue the celebration of Christmas day to extend to all "twelve days of Christmas."  One family came up with a great alternative to the silly Elf on the Shelf thing that does just that.  The three wise men travel throughout your house on those twelve days, searching all sorts of silly places, wondering where they can find the newborn king.  If I can get ahold of the Playmobil Three Wise Kings this year - and I've already mentioned it to the grandparents who were looking for gift ideas for our kids - we're definitely going to try it!

Not Starting Christmas Too Early?

Well, except for one thing: I do like to find most of my Christmas gifts as early as possible, ideally before December.  The sooner I do that, the sooner I can stop stressing out about it, and just wrap myself up in the peacefulness and expectation of Advent.

Though it's difficult, I try to resist listening to Christmas music for most of Advent.  I bring out the Christmas decorations slowly, bits at a time.  I wish I had the resolve to not even trim the tree or light the lights until Christmas Eve, but these things usually happen a week or so before.  It's not a great excuse, but I hold an annual cookie exchange at my house shortly before Christmas, and I like to be decorated by then.  Advent is a good time to try out some simple recipes - soups, meatless meals, and similar.  Make these little sacrifices for Christ now, and the joy of Christmas will be all the more.

I think if you try maintain the right attitude about Advent in your home - this exciting time of quiet and waiting - then you can enjoy a very peaceful and holy season.  And hopefully, by the time Christmas actually arrives, you are jubilant rather than feeling sick of it!

Visit these participating blogs for awesome posts about Keeping Christ in Christmas!
Equipping Catholic Families: Keep Christ in Christmas
Simply Homeschool  Living Advent Series 12/1 – 12/25
Fifth of Five     Keeping Christ in Christmas – Blog Link-up 2013
Coffee Moments with Sam     The Light of Hope
Hand-Maid With Love: CHRISTmas Presence: Keep Christ in Christmas 2013 Edition
Open Window Making hay while the Advent wreath shines
Faith Filled Freebies: Keep Christ in Christmas
Written by the Finger of God: Not Christmas as Usual
On the Way Home:  Keep Christ in Christmas
Sue Elvis Writes: Bring Christ to Others
Mommy Bares All       Why Celebrate Christmas Even After #YolandaPH
Canadian Catholic Mom         Keeping The Little Ones Focused: An Advent Link-Up
Mountain of Grace Homeschooling   Keep Christ in Christmas
Em’s Estuary: Keeping Christ in Christmas
Happy Little Homemaker: December Devotion: Immaculate Conception 
Adoro Ergo Sum:  How We Keep Christ in Christmas O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Home to 4 Kiddos        Keep Christ in Christmas
Embedded Faith          Boldly Be the Christ in Christmas
City Girl, Country Home         Emmanuel Is With Us. Are we WITH HIM?
Journey to Wisdom: Trusting in your Awkward Fiats
Joy of Nine9    Waiting in Joyful Expectation Like a Child
Splendor in the Home Ideas For Keeping Advent and Christmas Holy
Training Happy Hearts            10 Ways to Celebrate the New Liturgical Year
A Catholic Life Advent: The Beginning of the Liturgical Year & Source of Rich Meditations
Designs by Birgit: Elf on a Shelf and Santa Claus
Catholic Inspired: Faith-Centered Family Christmas
A Slice of Smith Life: How we keep Christ in Christmas
Catholic All Year: Three Reasons I love Advent
Mary the Defender: Christmas The Battle Begins
Truly Rich Mom: Keep Christ in Christmas
Day By Day in Our World: 40 Days Seeking Him and Keeping Christ in Christmas
Diapers and Drivel: Keeping Christ in Christmas
Raising Soldiers 4 Christ: Keeping Christ in Christmas
Rosary Mom   Keep Christ In Christmas With A Teenager
Tercets:           Keeping Christ in Christmas: Join Church Ministries
Campfires and Cleats How We Keep Christ in Christmas
Life Unabridged: Celebrating the Fullness of the Advent and Christmas Season
Homeschooling With Joy        Keeping Christ in Christmas
Mrs Domestic Bliss     Gingerbread Nativity
The Chic Traveller      Keeping Christ in Christmas
California to Korea     Keeping Christ in Christmas
Dominique’s Desk       Keeping Christ in Christmas
Our ABC Life: An Advent Update
Journey Living: Anno Domini
The Road to Rome: Advent Prayer and Reflection Resources
Life of Fortunate Chances: Keeping Christ in Christmas
Quidquid Est, Est!: Reblog: Advent Posts


  1. Love the Advent letters and simple meal reminders! Thanks.

    Happy Advent :0)

  2. I love that quote in your first, it's a great distinction to make.

  3. I love your thoughts on Santa. I haven't quite organized my own yet so I appreciate other moms take on the subject. My kids believe in him because their cousins told them about him and they believe what the cousins say (Elizabeth is 6 whole years, so she knows everything). I'm not going to tell them that Santa doesn't exist, but my husband and I don't talk about him either. We just emphasize St. Nick instead.

    I love the idea of waiting until Christmas Eve but the few times we tried it it just didn't work well. My husband works that day. So instead we always decorate after Mass on Guadete Sunday. (Guadete means rejoice after all.) This way we have all afternoon to do it. I do try to make it like a little family party, we have egg nog and put on the music, but just for the day. Over the last few years I have been slowly quilting a bunch of mats that are gold, red and green fabrics on one side and solid purple with rose trim on the other. I have been putting them under the Nativity scenes and the pine cones and the wreaths. I use the purple side for those last few weeks when it is still Advent and then on Christmas Eve I turn them over to the festive Christmas side. Someday I hope to do a tree skirt, but that's a much bigger project.

    I love your baby Jesus. How beautiful.

    1. I love your idea of the little quilted mats. I have a few table runners and things that I use, but they aren't liturgically-colored. Now that I am learning to quilt, I'll keep something like that in mind. It might be nice as a topper for our home altar - I could have various colors to use throughout the year :-)

  4. Hi Christine,

    I don't know if this helps but I found this link with Jesse Tree readings:

    A blessed Advent and Christmas in advance to you and yours! Blessings and prayers from the Philippines! :)

  5. We do a Jesse Tree, but I also specifically searched for an Advent calendar that was Nativity focused when my oldest was small. We have this one, though there are many (even a Little People one!):

    As for an Advent song, I've always liked this one. Sweet and child-friendly:

  6. We use what we've named the 'Waiting Tree'. It's a small tree, decorated by daily additions of tiny books from an Advent count-down calendar. Each book tells a small portion of the journey, up to and including, the Nativity. As a German child, I was told that the Christ-Child, accompanied by helpful angels, delivered my (unwrapped) gifts on Christmas Eve - also the time that our tree went up, real candles and all.

    1. Thanks for sharing this nice idea. I love everything I've read about traditional German Christmas traditions. I feel like they capture the magic and wonder of the event so well!

  7. Thanks for thoughtfully sharing all of the ways your family celebrates advent, as well as sharing the struggles...I enjoyed reading your reflection. Cyndi (

  8. I too have been having misgivings about Santa. Thank you for sharing what you wrote. He's coming this year but I am seriously going to take that to prayer and talk it over with my husband. we have the same Little People set and the children have always enjoyed it.

  9. We love our Jesse Tree. Yours is great too.

  10. We have tried to combine the true meaning of Christmas with Santa. We do Santa, but spend Advent focusing on the real meaning of Christmas. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. We do a Jesse tree. I just put up a post about our ornaments and the readings to go along with them. It might help.

  11. Christine,

    Your life-sized baby Jesus and manger are exquisite. What a treasure!

    We also have a tradition of lighting the Advent wreath and singing a verse of O Come O Come Emmanuel, at our evening meal time. After we have finished eating, my husband reads the appropriate verses from the Bible and we add the ornaments to the Jesse tree. Well, that's what supposed to happen! This year my husband seems to be late home from work more times than not, and he isn't here to be part of our tradition. So I decided we'd light our candles again just before our younger children go to bed, and have the hymn and readings then. Sometimes traditions need adjusting!

    God bless you!

    1. I'm glad to hear that this has been manageable for your family. I'm hoping we can keep it up!

  12. I like your quote on Santa. My wife and I also try to strike a balance between "there is no Santa" (which has a fundementalist feel to it) and the whole secular commercial Santa industry. I noticed you attend the forma extraordinaria and are from Pittsburgh. Do you attend Holy Wisdom at St. Boniface? It's a beautiful church and the liturgy is outstanding. We try to attend there as much as possible, although some weekends we attend Mass at our local parish. Have a blessed advent.

  13. I do think that is also important for us to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas and commemorate that (along with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception two days later.). For me, these are Advent highlights. My family will this year be exchanging gifts not on Christmas but on the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. It's important to remember Advent is for Advent and Christmas traditions are meant for Christmastide.

  14. I love your ornaments for your tree! We don't have a Jesse tree but I really would like to have one next year.

  15. Hi, I'm the above Nathan's wife. He told me your family may go to Holy Wisdom too, so I stopped over too. I know I've seen your husband pacing the back with your kids occasionally when I've been back there with our daughter. small World! also, I wanted to let you know you should sign up for Holy Hereos which helps so much with the Jesse Tree. Even if you only watch the videos about the Jesse Tree it's a great daily resource. I hang a one-demensional felt Christmas tree on our wall and use thumbtacks to hang up the ornaments daily. Hope that helps! Maybe we'll met your family after Mass someday.

    1. Oh wow - hopefully we meet sometime! Thanks for the suggestions. I went to find my mini Christmas tree which I've had for years, thinking it would make the perfect Jesse tree this year...only to remember that I gave it away last year! I might be whipping up a felt one as well! How do you put thumbtacks in? Do you stick them through to the wall, or do you have a corkboard or something behind?

    2. I just stick it in the wall (we are in a rental and they'll re paint it when we leave.) Mine is super simple just green felt cut into a tree shape and a yellow star on top.

  16. I liked the Santa quote. We compare him to Mickey Mouse. A fun game that even grown ups like to play but who isn't real (we've been to WDW several times).

    Thanks for sharing!

  17. It's so tough striking a balance on the Santa vs St Nick thing. We still don't have ours figured out, but I know as the kids grow (currently 4 and 2) more questions will be asked. We love watching the CCC The boy who became Santa movie, and the Veggie Tales ones, and they do a pretty good job at explaining the story of Saint Nick and how he has sort of become the modern Santa that most kids know. But keeping everything focused on Christ, is still the most important part!

  18. Great ideas to focus Advent and keep Christ in Christmas! We have such rich Tradition and Faith...we really don't need to make anything up to celebrate the beauty and love of the Birth of Jesus! We're doing the Jesse Tree for the first time at our house...what a great way to delve into Scripture!

  19. I LOVE this book:

    Here's a fairly good description of the book given by one of the commenters down further on the page: "Santa goes for a walk in the woods to get in shape for Christmas deliveries. However, he gets tired and ends up falling asleep under a tree. When the forest animals gather 'round him and he tells them he might be too tired to deliver the presents this year, an alarmed fox asks, "Does that mean there won't be a Christmas anymore?" Santa replies, "No, no no...Christmas hasn't got anything to do with me." And he tells them his favorite story -- about the first Christmas, when Jesus the Son of God was born. He concludes, "Love was the gift God gave to us on the first Christmas, and it still is, you know. And this love is far better than any presents I can ever deliver." Re-energized by his remembering of the story, he and the animals return to his house to prepare for Christmas and deliver the presents."

    We also like to sing the song from Godspell "Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord" - easy words that just repeat. We just sing it like 4 or so times. :) Just Youtube it. The link I found is kind of theatrical sounding (obviously), but we don't go all out like that. LOL! You could even sing it in a round as the kids get a little older and are able to do that. I just like the song because the words are so easy to learn, even for little ones.

    We also get little advent devotional booklets from our church. They have ones that are appropriate for kids as young as preschool age, which I like. We read that each night around a lighted advent wreath. I admit that there are nights we just don't have time to light the candles and read at the table for various reasons, but even nights like last night, we read the devotion as part of bedtime routine and pretended to light and blow out two candles.


  20. Thanks for sharing all these wonderful ideas! I will look into your suggestions!

  21. We, too, try to wait on Christmas, focus Santa around the real Christmas story and remember to light our Advent candles (that's a tough one for us for some reason!) Plus, almost all our lessons during December are ones based on faith and Advent/Christmas stories.

  22. Your Jesse Tree ornaments look great! We celebrate Advent with a Jesse Tree, too, with felt ornaments I handmade. I now have an Etsy shop so others may enjoy the special tradition of a Jesse Tree, too.