Monday, September 14, 2015

Christ in Christmas part 3 - How our Family Celebrates Christmastide

Once you have established Christ as the basis for your Christmas season, the next most important step is to limit your activities, traditions, decor, crafts and any other Christmas cheer - to leave time to just enjoy, to sit, to feel the spirit, to notice other's needs, to be.  Mary did not rush off from Bethlehem the next day after having Jesus, not wanting to miss a moment of his precious life and foretold existence.  If we rush around, however well intentioned our activities and hearts may be, we through our busyness do not leave any room left over for the Spirit of Christmas - for the Holy Spirit we feel throughout Christmas and throughout all the year, to work within us.

Celebrating Christmas should not feel either like a marathon of endurance, testing our limits to just keep going, going, going. Neither should it feel like sprinting with frantic activity, even Christ-focused activity, followed by slumping on the couch in fatigue or a sugar-induced stupor.  Christmas season should, I think, feel like an enjoyable stroll.  Sure, your kids will run off or around, someone will always complain about the cold, and as great as it is, you also really like getting back home. But it feels relaxed, natural, and full of the moment as well.

For our Christmas season, we plan some large activities, like our ward Christmas Party, or our Annual family Christmas Party. Most of our Christmas celebrating is woven through the fabric of our days, brought in through small measures and in ways that do not feel like a lot of extra steps we need to accomplish, but rather just nestled in among our pre-existent routines, adding very little extra time or effort.

After two entire posts devoted to discussing focusing on Christ during Christmas, you will find that not all of our traditions do so.  I believe once we establish Christ as the center of our religious and familial focus, bringing in other cultural traditions works perfectly well. For some families this may mean Santa Claus, for our family this means always having a live Christmas tree, or making gingerbread cookies. Christmas time is also a celebration of light at the darkest part of the year, and as such there are a lot of traditions of light, warmth, and persevering over the darkness that I feel not only can be applied, if you so choose, to the light of Christ triumphing over the darkness, but also provide some much needed cheeryness to part of the coldest and darkest part of the year.

I started planning this post at the beginning of my Christmas season - but I only finally started writing it on the last day of December, and publishing it around the middle of January. I am sure this is somehow a metaphor for my life.  Because of the delay, this is not jus a hopeful list of traditions we have done for years, and new ones we are incorporating this year, to bring the spirit of Christmas in. Rather, it is a look back on what we did this year, with both some new traditions, our old standbyes, and things we hoped would become a tradition, but instead became a flop.

Christmas Decorations:
We don't go overboard both because packing and unpacking large amounts of items one month apart does not appeal to me or my family. But we always get a live tree because we love them. This year it took us a week to complete this tradition, from buying the tree, leaving the tree on the van for a day, bringing it inside and setting it up, and then a few days later finally starting to decorate it (meaning the kids went to the basement and found the Christmas ornaments themselves and tried to decorated themselves), and finishing it even days after that. I tell you all this not to brag in being the slowest decorators in the history of ever, but to let you know that it is alright if you love something to do it, even if it takes forever to get it done. And when the balance of completing a family tradition becomes a drag instead of a joy, it is also fine to just cut it out, if that helps your Christmas joy. For us a live tree is still a tremendous joy, and so even though this year it was a slow moving molasses joy, we did it anyway.

We don't do a lot of other decorating, excepting a large collection of nutcrackers that Avram has collected from his childhood, but we do have a couple of nativity scenes. This year our kids, compliments of their grandparents, received a Little People Nativity set, which I wanted so that they would stop moving our nice olivewood one around the house, and yet still be able to play out the story of Christ's birth often throughout the season.  As we didn't get most of our decorations away until January had already started, they got a good two weeks with that set, and had a lot of fun with it.  Having religious Christmas decor is an easy way to remember Christ without adding anything to our "to do" list.

Saint Nicholas:
This year for the first time we celebrated St. Nicholas on December 6th. The night before we talked about the historical St. Nicholas, and about his gift giving to others, and really focused on his connection with Christ.  Then they got a little candy in their shoes the next morning, along with a family Zoo membership (which was the experience part of our family gift giving). Then for Christmas proper we did some preparation for Santa, like leaving a little candy out, but really we do not focus on Santa, Santa doesn't leave any gifts at our house, and we enjoy the fun of pretending while not having to have the Santa versus Christ dilemma. I know plenty of people who do have Santa visit, and still focus on Christ, but for our family I like keeping it as simple as possible when it comes to gifts and their origins.

Parties:
We always go to our Ward Christmas Party, and we always, except once last year, when I was pregnant with Athena and too stressed to do so (which is okay! Being stressed is a great reason to simplify, even on set-in-stone family traditions) have a family Christmas party at our home.  For the family party we invite friends over, have an array of foods, and just sit and chat while our kids play, hopefully in another room.  This is not a Christ focused activity, and there is more munching than focusing on the manger.  We have it every year though, and Avram loves the hospitality of Christmas, while I always love having people over at our house.  Because we work on having a Christ centered home every day, I feel great having some activities around Christmas that are focused on friends or family as well. We always make Gingerbread men for this party, and usually we decorate them, but this year we simplified even more to just eating them plain. This party isn't fancy - our food table would never make Pinterest - it didn't even make the low standards of my blog (ok, really I'm just to lazy to go hunt the picture up, but just imagine a bunch of food plopped on a plain table...yup, that's how we roll).

Weekly Traditions:
We try and have Family Home Evening every week, and although we are not always successful at this, we have made a renewed focus in this area (fueled by Lydia's interest, to be honest).  During December we had a couple of our lessons focus on Christ. Lydia, aged eight, really wanted to do a Christmas lesson, and so she planned one where we read the Christmas story in Luke 2, watched a Church video online of the same narrative, and talked about Christmas together.  We usually spend a couple of weeks in December focusing on Christmas and Christ for our family home evenings. Our lessons only last fifteen minutes or so, and we never manage to plan activites, much to our children's sorrow, so this really doesn't take much time at all.

The week of Christmas for Family Home Evening we went Caroling with some friends who usually go. This was the major request of Lydia, that we could carol this Christmas, so we asked if we could join in with them.

Every Friday we usually watch a movie, and during December we watched Christmas ones, none of which were religious, from the Nutcracker to White Christmas, which our kids were so bored during that we turned off in the middle and switched to a colorized version of Miracle on 34th Street.  The colorizing bothers Avram to no end, but it makes it palatable to our modern kids. I would like to find a good religious Christmas movie, but for now we don't have any. That's okay too - we don't have to start our marriage, or our kids' lives with awesome tradition already in place. They will grow organically throughout the years.

Daily Traditions:
Every night as a family we read scriptures, pray, and each child picks a song for us to sing to them before bed. Starting at the beginning of December, inspired by my nights spent singing Christmas songs with Dil, my professor, and his family in Jordan and Syria, our family switches over our nightly songs to Christmas songs, and Avram and I also pick out a song to sing as well. We can pick any song, religious or not, but most of them are usually religious, and then we sing one chosen verse from that song. Guinevere loved this tradition this year and turned off all the lights except for the ones on the Christmas tree, and then having us sing by that white and green dappled light alone.  This right here is one of my favorite Christmas traditions that we do. It is so simple, easy, takes very little time, and yet every evening refocuses our family on Christ.  Even when our kids are fighting over who gets what song (which has led to a firm rule that anyone can pick what song they want, even if there are repeats.), even when our days are hectic, this small ritual slows us down, makes us pause in the moment and simply sit, sing, and feel the spirit of Christmas.

Around twelve days before Christmas we also switch over our family scripture study to prophecies about Christ's birth, and narratives of his birth. We used to stretch this out over the whole month of December, but as our kid's attention spans have increased and we read more verses a day there wasn't enough material to last that long.   I wish I had some nice system set up, but usually year to year we play it by ear every night, talking about right in that moment what the next prophecy we will read. A couple of years I have made count down paper chains to Christmas, with scriptures written on each one, but that was a few kids ago by now....

If you feel so inclined, these are the scriptures that we used this year:
Numbers 24:17 (possibly the prophecy spoken of by the Magi)
Psalm 2:7-12
Isaiah 7:14
Isaiah 9:6-7
Micah 5:2
1 Nephi 11:13-18
Mosiah 3:4-8
Helaman 14:1-8
3 Nephi 1:8-17
Luke 2 (this gets repeated a couple of times)
Matthew 2

I had read about families doing variations on reading a Christmas book every night in December, and wanted to try that out this year. Some wrap up them up, and then unwrap one a night. I like to keep things simple, and did not want to spend that much time and paper wrapping up non gifts, but also I wanted our kids to have access to all the books all season long.  So I had Lydia collect all of the Christmas books we already owned, and then put them in a basket in our living room. Then I requested a bunch of Christmas books from the library and every week changed up a bunch of the books.  I kept a balance of religious and just general Christmassy themed books, like The Grinch who Stole Christmas, and a bunch from Jan Brett, whom we love. Thus far it went really well, and our kids loved looking at all of the different books.  However....we did not in any way manage to read one a day as a family. I would say we read about three books a week, and I decided that for our family this felt like a great amount. I think the key to trying new traditions is being open to them changing to fit your family.

Throuhout December we just focused on these things. It looks like a lot written up, but because so much of what we do to observe Christmas is worked through our regular day, taking up no more time than the routines we already are following, we manage to do all this while still actually remembering the calm and peace of our Savior's coming.  The one area that I would really like to improve on for next year was that I didn't finish all my Christmas shopping as early as I would have liked, and so accrued unnecessary stress trying to finish it all up in time throughout December.

Excepting spending far too long reading reviews on Amazon for last minute purchases, I felt like this season we did a very intentional focus and lead up to the celebration of Christ's birth.  This worked to our good, as Christmas Eve I woke up with an extreme sore throat and a fever and chills and body aches. Our careful plans of a special Christmas Dinner by candlelight came to naught, and I spent the entire day in bed. However, Avram still had dinner by candlelight with the kids - they just had totino's pizza rolls and root beer instead. After dinner Elisheva very seriously put her hand on Avram and told him, "Thanks so much for having such a magical Christmas dinner," which just goes to show that kids don't need all the trappings to enjoy Christmas that we think need to be there (uhh, but we are definitely going to have a fancier dinner next year). We didn't do our nativity play, and the night ended with Avram doing bedtime by himself, and then wrapping up that last of the presents himself as well while I tried not to die (it felt like to me at least...maybe I might be exaggerating a little.)

Then Christmas Morning I felt even worse, and excepting for coming out of my room and watching our kids open presents I again spent the day in bed, sometimes even imagining who might come and greet me from the other side if I happened to you know, focus so much on Christ that maybe he would put me out of my misery. (Don't worry - I went to the ER the next morning and over the next couple of weeks was given four different courses of antibiotics, and eventually I felt better.  No death occured). We didn't get to our special giving that I wanted to do as a family on Christmas morning, inspired by this family and how they celebrate Christmas (read this post! It's great). This goes to show even awesome, well meant plans do not always come to fruition, but thankfully there is another Christmas a year from now when we will have the opportunity to give as well.

This year in the spirit of simplifying Christmas to focus on Christ, as well as thinking about trying to accrue less stuff but more meaning in our lives, Avram and I focused our gift giving down to four areas.  We decided for our family that each child will get

Something to wear or read
Something they want
An Experience gift
And money that we will guide in giving to others.

Keeping it simple kept Christmas morning simple (which I appreciated greatly this year). Ideally when I am not trying to expire we want to then after we open our presents do our family gift giving. This year we meant to give as a family, but then instead I lay in bed in agony while Avram soldiered on alone, so it never happened. But it is something we plan on incorporating in future Christmases.

So that is how our family works on focusing on Christ in Christmas while also having a low-key, merry Christmastime. Every family has a balance that works for them, and this is the way that we have found that helps us remember Christ. Of course every family's write up of Christmas would look unique to their situation, preferences and abilities, which I love. I love that we can all do so much good, and it will all be different, even if founded on the same essential rock.











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