Keeping Christ at the center of our Christmas celebration can be challenging. Observing Advent can help keep our focus on Christ as well as build memories and family traditions that can make Christmas even more meaningful for our families.
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This has been one of my favorite weeks of the whole year on Thursday. We celebrated Thanksgiving and Sunday was the first day of advent. Today is the 1st of December, and in our house, we’re already thinking of all things Christmas. Advent is not a traditional practice in my home church, but advent has always been important to me individually and especially as a mom. It has been important to me that we focus on Christ throughout the Christmas season. Traditions and making memories during this season are especially important to me. And I plan out the season each year, the best I can. When my kids were really little I’d plan when we’d bake cookies and watch movies and shop. And then a few years later, I became the choir director for our church, so the season was also filled with rehearsals and performances. And then I went back to teaching full time and the season got even crazier, especially because some of that time I was teaching in a country that doesn’t have a Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday. So we worked all the way through the season and even on Christmas day. Making the holiday special for our family and focusing on worship took a lot of determination.
To help our kids focus on others rather than only on what they wanted, we would take them to Toys-R-Us, to shop for their siblings. It was so much fun. My best friend would come with us, so we could divide the kids up more and shop in different parts of the store. It was a great object lesson as they saw all those toys that they wanted but were required to think of what a sibling would want instead. And because our funds were always greatly limited, we would just have each child draw a sibling’s name, so they could focus on that one person and we would give them an amount they could spend. And then we would shop. Of course, we also heard about every toy that they wanted to, but it became a fun event we looked forward to each year. It was also fun because we were shopping in an American store. Taipei had two Toys-R-Us stores back then. And so that was always really a treat for us.
And one of my kids’ favorite parts of celebrating Christmas overseas was working with another ministry that would do a live nativity flash mob sort of thing in several places around Taipei, usually at a mall or other public area. And they would dress up like Roman soldiers, shepherds and wise men, and the group had live animals, and each participant would walk among the crowd of people. The wise man would come in trying to find the newborn King asking where he could be found, and they would speak their native languages, which were not Mandarin. So it added to that sense of mystery to the situation. And soon a crowd would gather to hear what was going on as the missionary playing one of the wise men would share the Christmas story and share the gospel in Mandarin. It was exhausting, but wonderful. And I think I’ll share a few pictures in the show notes, just for fun, because it was such a neat memory and such a neat event for our family.
We have the tradition in our family on Christmas morning where we have cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate, which is definitely not our normal breakfast at all. And then we read the Christmas story. And after that we open prisons, we watch each person open their gifts. We enjoy seeing their reactions. So we aren’t one of those pandemonium-ensuing-at-present-time sort of families. It’s a time of really cherishing each gift that is given and enjoying seeing each person enjoy what they receive. And then after we finish the presents, it’s time to go to my aunt’s house for a family lunch together.
Now, when my mom was alive and we happened to be in the Midwest, Christmas was more complicated since my parents were divorced and we would have Christmas Eve breakfast with my mom and stepdad, and my sister’s family would join in, and we would open gifts together at mom’s house. Then we’d have Christmas Eve evening at my dad’s with my sister and her family sharing gifts with Dad and his wife. And then Christmas morning was time for our immediate family. Then Christmas afternoon, we’d drive a couple hours away to my husband’s family’s Christmas. They always have Christmas lunch and open gifts in the late afternoon together. So that worked out very well.
I’m sharing all these things to point out that each family has their rituals or traditions and ways of doing things. And these are the “right” way of doing Christmas in our kids’ eyes. Whatever we develop as a tradition in our family becomes something meaningful to our children that hopefully they will carry on into their adult lives with their family, with their children. And so for Advent, that’s why we’re talking about some of the things we can do for Advent to make this time special. And we find if we have to change those traditions, it can be upsetting. When we get married, merging traditions can be challenging. Our biggest problem in our marriage was Santa. My family did not emphasize Santa. We didn’t have a chimney, and we had kind of a dysfunctional view of Santa. My grandma always told me that Santa would spit tobacco in my eye if he found me awake when he came. And when I asked my dad how Santa got in the house, since we didn’t have a chimney, dad told me he came up our toilet since we didn’t have a chimney. So I took it all as a bunch of silliness, and I never bought into it much. Although I loved the idea of Santa and the excitement of Christmas morning, just like any other kid. My husband’s family, however, did Santa big. They were not very religious at that time, but they would go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. And Santa was their main focus of Christmas. Dave’s mom would totally redecorate the whole house for the holiday. So our compromise has been that we pretty much redecorate everything in our house from changing the pictures on the wall to putting up our Christmas town to having at least two trees in the house. We watch as many Christmas movies as we have time for. And we talk about Santa, even though we’ve always treated it like any other fairytale. We always made the distinction between the true story of Christmas and the fairytales surrounding the modern holiday with our kids. I do that too, with some of the stories that have been made up like The Fourth Wise Man, or, you know, the stories about the donkey, you know, from the donkey’s perspective, clarifying with children, that this is an additional thing that is not found in the Bible to make it clear what is for sure true and what has been adapted and assumed or supposed might be true. We talked about St. Nicholas and the story of who he was and how from that we got our Santa Claus. And so I’ve just always tried to be very honest with my kids and enjoy the season thoroughly, but also didn’t try to lie and manipulate. I just never liked that personally.
At our church, we had several traditions that added to the meaningfulness of Christmas, as you know, my husband is a pastor. And, and so as a pastor, he’s directed us to do several traditions. Sometimes we’ve done a hanging of the green service on the last Sunday of November and had a celebration as we decorated the church for the holidays. And even when we didn’t do that, we would still have a family tree. And this is a tree we had in the church in each family in the church would bring an ornament to hang on that tree and we would decorate it as a congregation.
We usually have a Christmas Eve service, but it’s very family oriented. It’s cozy and devotional in nature. Our Sunday before Christmas, we typically do a lessons and carols service. And our Cantata performances were usually the week before that. And each of these, we would pray over each of these services seeking God’s leading on what he wanted us to emphasize each time. And I also pray that for my family, what is God wanting us to focus on this Christmas? And I got that from Carol Brazo book, No Ordinary Home. I believe it’s out of print now, but if you can get ahold of a copy, it is an amazing book. That book changed my life as a young mom and as a young wife. Excellent, excellent book.
By the way, I have most of my service lineups, narrations, monologues available for free on my website. Feel free to check those out, use them if you would like to. And I hope they will bless you and your family and your church. Let me know if you use them, and let me know how it went and what you did with them. I have some children’s plays, all kinds of things. So just check that out on my website at TerrieHellardBrown.com.
Of course, this year is very different, so we’re still not sure how that is all going to unfold. But in our church, several leaders and members helped create an Advent devotional book leading up to the new year. It started on November 29th and is going to January 1st. And we mailed that to all our families. For Christmas Eve we’ll probably have a video Christmas Eve service online where we’ll use a lineup we’ve used before, where we light candles to tell the Christmas story and sing carols through the different parts of the story. And then have a time of prayer.
One of the things I’ve done to hopefully make this Christmas a little bit more meaningful is I’ve created a list of 25 acts of kindness that are COVID-friendly for you to do with your kids during this season., Feel free to download that. It will be in the show notes. And you’re welcome to that as well as the Advent calendar that has been up for a few weeks with a story a day throughout the Advent season.
So as we start this Advent season, I wanted to go over a few options for Advent books and calendars. One of them I’ll be giving away and you can enter by commenting on my blog. We’ll draw the winner at the end of this week. So you need to comment quickly because I want to get that book to you as soon as possible, since we’re already starting the Advent season.
And the book I’m going to give away is called The Jesus Storybook Bible a Christmas Collection: Stories, Songs, and Reflections for the Advent Season, by Sally Lloyd Jones and illustrated by Jago. And it’s the book that I’m giving away. It is really fun. And one that your kids will enjoy with you, as well as enjoy reading it alone. It has buttons to push that help tell the story. It’s narrated by David Suchet. Some of the buttons play Christmas songs, and it shares the story from the fall of man to the Wisemen. And each story is very short and will be easy to share each day leading up to Christmas Day.
Now some Advent devotionals tell the story from the fall of man to the Wiseman coming, or even to the second coming of Jesus. Some Advent devotionals share from Zechariah and Elizabeth to the wise men, and some devotionals share more the themes of advent or character traits that we want to emphasize. So I’ve gotten an advent devotional that kind of emphasizes each one of these for you to consider, depending on what you feel like you want to focus on with your family.
So the second one I have, if you’re interested in adding a little more to each day’s Advent experience, you may like The Way to the Manger: A Family Advent Devotional by Jeff and Abbey Land. And this one is meant to become a keepsake book for your family because as each year, you write down responses to the questions you can see your responses in the past and then add to it and make it kind of a journal almost, to be a keepsake for your family to enjoy year after year. And it is written for fairly young children, so as your family grows older, you may want to add to it or include a more in-depth devotional, but this one would be great for creating that positive experience for Advent with your young children as you’re beginning these traditions with your children. This one is more of a focus on the themes of each week for Advent.
On the first day it reads, “Think about things for which you might wish. You might wish for a super-power like being able to fly, to leap over a building, or having incredible strength. You might wish that people didn’t die or that you could go to Mars. Every year when you blow out the candles on your birthday cake someone probably encourages you to make a wish.
“Now think about the word hope. If you had to explain what hope means, it might sound a lot like a wish. It’s really not. Hope is an expectation of something you know could happen. A wish is more like a desire for something that might not be as doable. When you study really hard for a big test, you hope you make a good grade. When you don’t study at all for a big test, you wish for a good grade.
“The people in the Bible were hoping for the Savior. They believed what God said, and they were anxiously awaiting His arrival. They knew He was coming because God had promised it.
“Jesus also promised that He would return. Today, as we prepare to celebrate the first time He came to earth, we are hoping and waiting for Him to come again.”
Then in the “Memory Maker” section each week, each family member responds to the questions. And week one asks, “What is something you hope you will get to do this Christmas?” And “What is something you might wish for even if you think it will never happen?” And these are the questions you can return to each year and answer with different answers each year. Then in one section, it has questions children can ask the parents and questions parents can ask the kids, and it has a discussion question. And each week has some “Taking It Further” questions where you dig into the scriptures even more and answer more questions. And also each week has a service project or activity your family can do together. So they focus more on the themes, like I said, of each week, rather than a chronological retelling of the Christmas or Bible story. It is more focused on discipleship and making Christmas meaningful.
I love character studies and emphasizing character traits with my kids. And this next devotional does just that by taking us through the different people in the Christmas story. It’s called 25 Days of the Christmas Story and Advent Family Experience by Dr. Josh Straub and Christi Straub and illustrated by Jane Butler. Each day includes a scripture and a question for discussion. This one is brand new and it isn’t available until December 10th on Amazon, but I think it would be a wonderful study to go through each character in the Christmas story and talk about the character qualities, the character traits, the lessons we can learn from each person in the Christmas story.
This next one would be a good choice for use in your homeschool possibly, if you want to focus your Bible lessons on Advent. It’s called Getting Ready for Christmas: 25 Multiple Choice Bible Studies for Advent by Celesta Letchworth. This study is a chronological study of the Christmas story, starting with Zechariah and Elizabeth and each day has review questions and scripture to read and reread as more questions are answered and an added bonus in this study would be that it could help your child with their reading comprehension, but each day has a devotional thought for inspiring discussion, but it really focuses on answering questions and comprehending the Christmas story.
The next one is very unusual. It’s called Christmas in the Heart: Advent Devotional Readings Based on Charles Dickens’ Classic A Christmas Carol by Michael Armstrong hall. It’s a fun devotional that I like a lot. Admittedly Dickens doesn’t discuss Jesus in his story exactly. But this author does. It’s very well done and a unique devotional covering the character qualities and the spirit of Christmas, but focusing on Christ. And so each entry has a couple quotes from the story, but then it also brings in a Bible verse that talks about the same quality, the same lesson, the emphasis of whatever the devotional is discussing. But A Christmas Carol is one of my absolute favorite novellas. I love that they have a devotional about it. This one is one I’m going to be reading this Christmas in addition to our church devotional, although I’ve already read a lot of it since I was preparing for this podcast, but I was still going to go over it each day as well.
Now, there are also a few Advent journals for kids. One I like is called, God with Us for Kids. And there is an adult version of this same journal if you’re wanting to do the study and journaling together as a family, and it’s from Love God Greatly Ministry, but there are several other journals. Or you could just get a notebook and give your children a prompt each day. There are some, if you go to some of the homeschooling and teacher websites, there are some websites for writing prompts for the whole Christmas season. And some of those have a Christian emphasis, but that’s something you could choose to do as a family that could make this a very meaningful Christmas time.
I want to share two more books I really like. Both are board books that have ornaments to go with each day’s devotional. One is Emmanuel God with Us Ornament Book with Advent Devotionals from Dayspring and the other is Jesus Is Born Nativity Ornament Book Advent Devotional for Kids also from Dayspring. These are so beautiful. And I love that after each devotional, a child can add an ornament to the tree as a reminder of that day’s devotional. You could do this on your own with some planning if you wanted to add an ornament to each day’s devotional in whatever book you’re reading. That would be fun, but these are done for you. And then of course, there’s the tradition of the Chrismon Tree. I had never heard of that when I was younger, but as an adult we’ve used it a few times, and the kids have helped me make the ornaments for the Chrismon Tree. It helps tell the story of Christmas within each of the ornaments. Typically, traditionally they are white or white and gold. And as you tell the story, you hang them on the tree. There’s the dove and the cross and the Shepherd’s hook. And you can Google that. I may put a link in the show notes to a website that shows you all of the different ornaments that you create to make your Chrismon Tree. So that would be another option along those same lines.
As I looked at several possibilities for Advent books, one common mistake or problem seems to be that many of them are not well formatted for Kindle. So I would advise you, whichever book you choose, to invest in the hard copy if possible. It becomes more of a keepsake that way for your family anyway. Many have places for journaling or answering questions that you can keep for your family as you celebrate each year, which makes that really special. But even if you do buy the Kindle version, just double check the reviews. Usually you’ll see, I go to the ones because the ones tell you if the–mostly the one ratings on most books are because something’s wrong with the binding on the book or the Kindle version doesn’t work. So I always check those out to see if there’s a problem with the Kindle version before I buy it. Just be aware that I did find that on a few of these, that they just aren’t formatted correctly for Kindle.
I really hope that this Advent season will help us all to prepare our hearts for Christmas when we can just celebrate our Savior and the sacrifice he made in leaving his throne to come to earth, and then his ultimate sacrifice of dying for us on the cross and being raised from the dead victorious over our sin and over death, giving us new hope, giving us life. And I hope that this Christmas season is just very special for you and your family. This has been a long, difficult year for many of us. I pray that those who have lost loved ones and have gone through losses of jobs, that they would find peace that surpasses all understanding, that they would be comforted and filled with the joy of our Lord. This Christmas I hope your kids find peace as well, that they are encouraged, and that this time is truly a time of celebration.
Thank you for joining us for “Books that Spark,” a podcast, celebrating books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussions. I hope our discussion will spark meaningful conversations with the children in your life. Be sure to check out my website at TerrieHellardBrown.com. When you sign up for my mailing list, you get access to several freebies that are available only to my mailing list. In addition, I have, right now, a link on my website and on these show notes for you to download an Advent calendar and the 25 Acts of Kindness that Are COVID-friendly. I hope these books and these suggestions, these activities, will just be a wonderful family time for you during this special time of year.
Terrie Hellard-Brown writes and speaks to help children and adults find God’s purpose and plan for their lives. She teaches workshops and writes devotional books, children’s stories, and Christian education materials.
Her podcast, Books that Spark, reviews children’s books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion leading to teachable moments with our kids. Her podcast posts each Tuesday morning.
Her blog posts are published each Thursday and discuss living as a disciple of Christ while discipling our children. She challenges us to step out of our comfort zones to walk by faith in obedience to Christ.
For more information, visit her website at terriehellardbrown.com
Terrie uses her experiences as a mother of four (three on “the spectrum”), 37 years in ministry (15 in Taiwan), and 32 years teaching to speak to the hearts of readers.
Her motto is “Growing older is inevitable; growing up is optional” and keeps her childlike joy by writing children’s stories, delighting over pink dolphins, and frequently laughing till it hurts.
Disclaimer: Although Terrie majored in psychology and sociology for her bachelor’s degree and has taught AP Psychology, she is NOT a licensed therapist. She sometimes mentions items in her blog and podcast that could be considered comments on psychology, but these comments are based on ministry experience and ministering to people through the missions and church work she’s done for the past 36 years. If you have questions about psychological disorders or counseling needs, please consider finding a reputable, licensed counselor in your area. Terrie’s comments should be seen as anecdotal and ministry-experience-related or scripture-based. Thank you!