We love Christmas so much at our house. All the traditions, all the decorations, all the presents. Even the cheesy parts, like schmaltzy Christmas music and drinking hot cocoa by the fire. We love watching Home Alone and The Santa Clause, wearing Santa hats and listening to someone read A Christmas Carol (even if it’s just the Disney picture book version with Mickey Mouse).
We love Christmas so much because we love celebrating that Jesus came into the world to live the life we couldn’t live, die the death we should have died, and make us right with God now and forever. This is such good news (what we Christians call “the gospel”) that our family loves to do anything that makes the coming of Jesus seem as beautiful, fun, attractive, intriguing, inspiring, and awesome as it truly is.
A big part of why everyone seems to love the holdiay season so much is in the annual reenactments of our cherished Christmas traditions. Think about your own traditions, the things you love to do each and every year. I think you’ll find that you agree; as Darth Vader would say, search your feelings – you know it to be true.
Some of our favorite traditions are pretty much the same as ‘most everyone else. The Christmas tree decorating, the drive around town looking at all the Christmas lights, the holiday parties, the carols. We may not roast chestnuts on an open fire, but we usually make sugar cookies and let the kids go to town decorating them. My wife loves to watch the same movies every year; I’m more of a once-every-three-years kinda guy for most films, but I’ll watch Die Hard or It’s A Wonderful Life anytime. And even when the rest of the fam sticks in an old DVD that we’ve seem a million times, I’ll still sit down and watch, and even enjoy it – because it’s tradition.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that our traditions shape us. What we do over and over, daily, weekly, or yearly, tends to make our values and beliefs and lifestyle look like those things. So for us Christians, it’s important that we have traditions that are centered around Christ. This is true in day to day life, and it’s definitely true in the biggest annual cultural bonanza in American life. (Spoiler: I’m talking about Christmas.)
So how can we re-shape our Christmas traditions, and maybe create some new ones, that center around Christ? My family has thought about this a lot, and here are some of the ones we do, plus a few others. These are ones that our kids actually like, because I don’t see the point in making the best time of the year something dreary for the sake of religion.
I’d also love to hear your own traditions in the comments at the end!
Christ-Centered Christmas Traditions that Children Love
1. Make Church a Joyful Tradition
Our church does a lovely Christmas Eve Candlelight Service every year. It’s short, it’s traditional, and everybody gets a candle. Most importantly, it’s a time to get together and rehearse the story of Christmas.
We’ve made this a part of our family tradition. It helps that the service is wonderful – we sing classic carols, we read the Advent passages from Scripture, and then our pastor gives a message about God’s plan of salvation. When he gets to the part about sin and darkness, the lights go out. And when we come to Jesus’ entry in the world, a single candle is lit. Then this light is spread about, until everyone’s candle is lit, and we sing again together. It’s beautiful.
As we have made fellowship with the local church body a priority and an important, happy part of our holiday traditions, our kids get saturated with these values and hear the story of the Incarnation told in different ways. At church, your children will hear the Christmas story told in song, through the reading of Scripture, in sermon, in children’s church activities, coloring pages and crafts, etc.
Oh, and if Christmas falls on a Sunday (as it does this year), go to church. Don’t be these people.
2. Jesse Tree
Every year on December 1st we pull out our Christmas stuff. Even if we didn’t get a tree yet, we still start going through our “Jesse Tree” ornament set. Our kids get super-pumped, and each take turns hanging one ornament each evening after we read about its meaning.
If you’re not familiar with this tradition, the Jesse Tree gets its name from Isaiah 11:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him… (etc)
This is an Old Testament prophecy about how the coming Savior will be a descendant of the great King David (who was Jesse’s son, which is what is mean by ‘from the stump of Jesse’). The Jesse Tree uses this and similar Old Testament prophecies and allusions to tell the story of redemption, from creation up until the advent of Christ.
Here are a few resources for Jesse Trees:
- Hand painted Jesse Tree ornament set
- Laser engraved Jesse Tree ornament set
- Jesse Tree ornament printables free download
- How to make a Jesse Tree – guide with printables and supply list
- More about the Jesse Tree tradition
3. Christmas Book Unwrapping
Each year, when we put away all our Christmas decorations, we wrap up all our Christmas books in leftover wrapping paper and stash them away with rest of the holiday stuff until next year.
We have silly Santa, reindeer, snow, and 12 Days of Christmas -themed books, along with ones that tell the Christmas story of the nativity and incarnation. Kids are pretty sharp, and we’ve found that ours don’t really like the ones that are overly simplistic, preachy, or cheesy. Everyone’s favorite is The Three Trees, which is a brilliant parable that touches on both Christmas and Easter.
Here are a few recommendations for quality children’s Christmas books. None are perfect, but these are beautifully written and illustrated and feature deeper themes than most:
- The Tale of Three Trees: A Traditional Folktale by Angela Elwell Hunt
- Santa’s Favorite Story by Hisako Aoki
- The Song of the Stars by Sally Lloyd-Jones
- Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck
- Mortimer’s Christmas Manger by Karma Wilson
- The Message of the Birds by Kate Westerlund
- The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
4. Sing Christmas Carols & Advent Hymns
You are what you sing. Kids will pick up songs with incredible speed, and the words will be tumbling about in their brains and on their lips for days at a time. Kids love to sing, so make it a point to infuse the content of their singing with the great themes of the classic Christmas carols and Advent hymns.
Even if they don’t understand what it means at age 4 or 7 that “he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found,” they will understand it one day. That line in particular struck me as a young adult when I finally tuned in and thought about the meaning of words I had heard every year since forever. It resonated so deeply because it is such a simple truth: everywhere we are, we see the effects of sin. Jesus came to make his blessings flow everywhere, even the deepest and darkest parts of your life and the wide world. That is surely great news!
Oh, and make sure the songs you sing around the house are ones you actually like. Anyone – and kids especially so – can tell the difference between singing as a joy and singing as a duty. Make it a happy thing. Don’t be afraid to sing about wanting your two front teeth, making lists and checking it twice, and O Christmas Tree (try adding the last verse). Sing all the songs, bringing “tidings of comfort and joy” alongside the Jingle Bells and Winter Wonderlands and Silent Nights.
Here are some of our favorite Advent hymns and Christmas carols:
- All Things New
- Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
- God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
- Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
- Joy to the World
- O Come All Ye Faithful
- While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night
5. Write Letters to a Sponsored Child
We sponsor a child through Compassion International, an organization that is explicitly Christian, partners with local churches in the child’s area, and also invests at least 80% of their revenue directly into child development programs. In 2016 that number was 82.4%, with just 7.9% of total revenue going towards administrative costs. These are just a couple reasons why we think Compassion is a great organization.
Their mission statement:
In response to the Great Commission, Compassion International exists as an advocate for children, to release them from their spiritual, economic, social and physical poverty and enable them to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults.
Around the holidays, help your kids get into the Christmas spirit by creating Christmas cards, letters, and drawings together to send to your sponsored child in time for Christmas. You can also easily donate a little extra to send the child a Christmas gift (they wisely don’t let people send gifts directly).
6. Operation Christmas Child Shoe Boxes
Our church – along with many others around the world – makes a big deal about these shoe boxes every year. We always try to beat the previous years’ total of shoeboxes filled by the church, and often as a church we do.
If you’re not familiar, Operation Christmas Child is the Christmas-gift-giving arm of the international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse. The idea is that you take a shoebox and fill it with toys, add $7 to cover the shipping costs of transporting it to some remote location, and a child living in an area of poverty will receive a beautiful gift and Christmas cheer. You can get your whole church involved, or you can do it on your own. Check out their website for details.
Operation Christmas Child does a great job of working hand in hand with local churches and missionaries. As often as possible it is local Christians who are passing out the gifts, which means that this isn’t just a one-off gift – it’s an introduction to the local Christian community and the story of Christmas and a huge blessing for a child all in one.
We make it a point to have each of our two kids help pick out toys to fill the box, and even offer them the opportunity to use their own money to get an extra-special gift that is specifically from them. Plus they make their own drawings and Christmas cards to put into the box. It’s a great way to teach our kids about giving as a microcosm of all that Jesus has done for us.
7. Read the Christmas Story
This one is obvious, but it’s easy to forget or overlook in the excitement of a Christmas morning with kids. Read the old, old story of the birth of Jesus.
The birth of Jesus is told several times in different ways throughout the Gospels. An ideal passage, especially while your kids are young and fidgety, is Luke 2:1-20. Long enough to tell the whole story, but short enough that you can read through it and pray a thanksgiving prayer in a few brief minutes.
Of course you can read as much or as little as you want – Luke 2:10-12 is a perfect 3-verse summary, or you can go nuts with a full-on Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, or anything in between. The important points are 1) Read the Scriptures, and 2) Tell the true story of Christmas.
8. Have a Christmas Feast
Eating delicious food is a tradition anyone can appreciate. Have a feast, and tie it in to the classic feasts of the people of God. Christmas began as a “feast day”, and believers have been feasting in commemoration of God’s works since Old Testament times.
Thank God for his provision of the feast, the holiday, the gifts, and of course his only begotten Son. Ask everyone to share a favorite part of the Christmas story, or go around the table and tell the story piece by piece. Giving each person an ornament or a nativity scene character might help with this. Make it simple and brief, and let the feast be a time of merriment and celebration so that memories of joy and gladness surround your little ones’ memories of Christmas.
You can make this feast extra-special with some unique accents. Try a Christmas Day tablecloth, engrave champagne glasses or coffee mugs with quotes from carols or Scripture, get special Advent placemats, use a nativity scene as a table centerpiece, light Advent candles, etc.
These next couple of ideas are ones we haven’t tried yet, but may at some point. In our family’s experience, sometimes less is more, so you may not want to try all of the ideas from above or below at once. Space it out; find one or two that work for you, which your kids love and which you can make happen with joy every year, and then expand from there.
9. Throw a Birthday Party for Jesus
Try making the feast a birthday party. Set up holiday streamers and balloons, have a Christmas birthday cake, and sing happy birthday to Jesus. Younger children will love this.
10. Moving Nativity Scene
Set up your nativity manger, but have Mary and Joseph, the wise men, and the shepherds all set apart. Each day leading up to Christmas, move the figures closer to the manger. This represents their individual journeys to the birthplace of Christ. And of course wait to place baby Jesus in the manger until Christmas day, when all the characters arrive along with the angels.
Kids love the daily repitition of moving each character closer to the manger scene, building up the anticipation for Christ’s birth and the celebration of Christmas Day.
11. Celebrate Boxing Day
Boxing Day is celebrated on the day after Christmas, December 26th. This is the traditional day on which the church’s alms box – the collection box for the poor – would be opened and the donations distributed to the poor in the local community.
You and your children can set aside time to volunteer as a family, make gifts or care packages, bring good-quality donations to charitable organizations and ministries, or collect a family fund over the holidays to give to a family in need. This helps provide a much-needed connection between receiving gifts (i.e., receiving the grace of God through Christ) and giving gifts (living a life that reflects Jesus towards others).
12. Give Gifts to Jesus
How do you give gifts to Jesus? Remember what he said:
Truly, I say to you, as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.
Give a gift to a widow, orphan, or family in need. You can do this by celebrating Boxing Day (point #11, above), doorbell-ditching a gift drop at a home in your area, or by giving online.
Here’s one simple way to sit together, as a family, on Christmas morning and do this very thing: Go to Compassion International’s online gift catalog, a choose one or more gifts to give to someone in need. The choices are large and small, numerous, and beautiful:
- Food for a malnourished child ($16)
- Baby’s medical care ($60)
- Sponsor a computer lab ($1,200)
- Drought-resistant fruit and veggie seeds ($27)
- Lifesaving surgery ($7,500)
- HIV/AIDS care ($25)
- Sports camps ($100)
- And many, many more options
13. Add Your Own Christ-Centered Christmas Tradition
What are some of your favorite holiday traditions that celebrate Jesus? Comment below, we would love to hear new – and old – ideas!