SUNDAY'S CHILD: CHRISTMAS AND THE FAMILY
by Donna Bobin
In last month's article, I suggested that one way parents could help in the religious education of their children was to make the liturgical year more a part of family life. With Christmas fast-approaching, I don't think many families need be persuaded to celebrate this holiday together. However, I do think that we all - no matter our age - tend to get a little overwhelmed by our own hectic preparations for the holiday. With so much to do and so little time to do it, it's very easy to lose the feelings of joy and hope and brotherhood that should be a part of Christmas because we are tired and short-tempered from fighting holiday crowds on our shopping trips or from staying up too late writing Christmas cards or baking cookies. And I've known many a frantic father muddling through directions on how to assemble toys at 1 a.m. Christmas morning who has thought very black thoughts about the whole gift-giving tradition. And children, surrounded by TV shows about Santa Claus, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman along with hundreds of commercials on their favorite cartoon shows about toys that no child should be without, may have a little trouble understanding why gifts are given or what the whole holiday is all about.
How can we and our families keep our bearings as we go through the pre-Christmas period? How can we keep our attention focused on the religious meaning of Christmas and not get sidetracked? Well, I have a few suggestions.
First, we can start by observing the Church's period of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, which is a period of fasting that begins on November 15 and extends for 40 days until Christmas. There are many things that families can do together during this period to ready themselves spiritually for the feast — through fasting, prayer, church attendance, participation in the sacraments, and a concentration on the full meaning of this feast both to all mankind and to each of us as individuals. What follows are some suggestions of things to do during this period.
You and your family can decide together which ones you want to do, but it's a good idea to make a plan before the period begins so you'll have a clear course of action. Below is a little chart of the suggestions to help you plan.
NOVEMBER 14 — Make wreath — Make plans (Fasting, prayer, church attendance, sacraments, activities)
NOVEMBER 15 — Candle lighting
NOVEMBER 18 — Candle lighting — Gifts for God
NOVEMBER 21 — Feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos to the Temple
NOVEMBER 25 — Candle lighting — Gifts for the Less Fortunate — Fix-up Week
DECEMBER 2 — Candle lighting — Grab bag
DECEMBER 6 — St. Nicholas
DECEMBER 9 — Candle lighting — Christmas card making
DECEMBER 16 — Candle lighting — Christmas decoration making
DECEMBER 23 — Candle lighting — Prayer, meditation and thanksgiving
DECEMBER 24 — Gifts for God placed under tree — Grab bag evening
The day before the fast period begins is a good time for the family to get together to make plans and to begin its preparations for the feast (families with very young children might want to shorten the periods of some of the following suggested activities since young children may tire of them more quickly). One way of emphasizing the meaning of Christmas and the ideas to be remembered throughout the preparation period is by making an advent wreath. The advent wreath symbolically represents religious ideas, and explaining these ideas as the wreath is being made by family members focuses their attention on the religious meaning of the feast. The wreath also serves as a means of marking time to the feast. It can be as simple or elaborate as the family wishes. The family can begin with a large ring mold filled with wet sand as a foundation or a styrofoam circle bought at the 5 & 10. Evergreens are inserted into the mold or the styrofoam round, along with one candle for each week until Christmas (partial weeks are treated as full weeks so seven candles are needed). Six of the candles should be purple and one should be pink. (If you have trouble finding purple candles, buy white ones and tie a purple ribbon around each.)
As the family puts the wreath together, the parents can explain the significance of each part. The circle of the wreath symbolizes eternity and God because both are endless. The evergreens symbolize eternal life. It is through Jesus that we were given the gift of eternal life, and that is why we celebrate His birth and are so happy we know the gift He is bringing us. The candles also mean something special. Candles give light just as Jesus gave us light. He became one of us and taught us about a new way of life full of hope and love. He is like a light shining in darkness, leading us to a better way of living and to eternal life after death. Six of the candles are purple because purple is the color of repentance, for being sorry for the things we've done wrong. Jesus offers us wonderful gifts, but we have to do something, too. We have to look at how we are living our lives, what we are doing wrong and how we can improve. Being sorry for what we've done wrong and trying to do better make our hearts and spirits ready to receive the gifts of Jesus; and these six purple candles help us remember for six weeks to repent. One candle is pink because that's the color for joy and hope. We feel joy as Christmas comes nearer because we think about Jesus bringing us hope for eternal life and we are happy. This candle, the last one lit the week before Christmas, reminds us of joy and hope.
When the wreath is finished, the parents can also explain about the lighting of the candles. One candle should be lit each week: the purple ones for repentance first and the pink one for joy last. One candle should be lit at the beginning of the fast period (November 15) and one new one each Sunday. Usually the youngest child lights the candle the first week (an adult can help very young children) the next youngest lights the first candle and a new one the second week, etc., with the parents also included in the ceremony. The family should pray together before the candles are lit, perhaps with the candle-lighter for the week adding a special, spontaneous prayer.
CAUTION! Make a firm rule at the beginning that children are not to light the candle unless an adult is present. If live evergreens are used, take care that the candles do not burn too close to them: live evergreens can get very dry over the preChristmas period and dry evergreens burn readily. Using the ring mold filled with sand that is kept wet will keep the greens fresher, but caution is still necessary. Finally, make certain that the full seven-week order of candle-lighters is agreed upon in advance; this avoids last-minute "discussions" about whose turn it is or should be.
After making the wreath, the family should set it aside for the candle-lighting ceremony the next evening and discuss some general ideas about observing the fast period — its purpose in shifting our attention from filling our physical needs to filling our spiritual needs, the necessity for a program not only of fasting but of fasting, prayer, church attendance, participating in the sacraments and examining our lives and trying to make them better. Perhaps the family can plan to set aside a time each day for home prayer together during the period. Family members should also try to make some resolutions about church attendance during the period and perhaps, too, agree on times to go to confession and communion together in preparation for the feast.
The first three Sundays in the fast period can be devoted to focusing on the meaning of gift giving. Many of us often think of gifts in terms of things rather than actions. On the first Sunday, perhaps after dinner and the lighting of the advent wreath candle, the family can begin its exploration of gift giving. To begin, the parents might get out the family's manger set and tell the beginning of the Nativity story, using pieces from the manger set. The manger can be set in one part of the living room, which will be Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph can be set at a distance from the manger, journeying toward Bethlehem (the figures can be moved a little closer to "Bethlehem" each day until Christmas Eve), and the story of the Annunciation and the reasons for Mary and Joseph's journey told. Those gifts that the birth of Jesus heralds — the hope for eternal life and the possibility of living in a new, more loving way — can also be pointed out. The parents can ask what sorts of gifts we can give God in return for the gifts He has given us. When the discussion turns to "doing" things for God, parents can suggest that each member of the family give a special gift to God during the preChristmas period. Each member of the family (parents included) should decide on a gift of "doing" that will be done every day during the preChristmas period. It might be a chore that helps Mother or Dad around the home or it might be a personal trait that needs work like not fighting with a brother or sister or perhaps working up to potential in school. Each person should then find a "gift" box, and parents should explain that each member of the family will get a token to put into his or her box providing that the agreed-upon gift is done that day (the token can be a bean or some kind of marker; what it is is less important than what it signifies). On Christmas Eve, the gift boxes, hopefully filled with tokens, will be wrapped and placed under the tree as special gifts to God.
The Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple falls during the Christmas fast period (November 21). The Church commemorates in this feast the revelation of God's choice of Mary for the great future honor that was to be bestowed upon her (as you remember, the priest did an unusual thing and took the three-year-old Mary into the holiest part of the Temple). Because of the importance of this feast and its relationship to Christmas, your family may wish to mark the feast with a special observance at home. On the eve of the feast, parents can tell, to younger children, the story of Mary's presentation and its significance, or older children can tell the story to the family. Family members may also wish to make individual icons for the feast (see last month's article).
The second Sunday exploration of gift giving might emphasize the idea of gift giving as love through sharing with people outside the family. The suggestion might be made that each member of the family share with the less fortunate members of the community. Children can go through their toys and games, selecting those that they wish to give to a home for children in the area. Teenagers and parents can go through their possessions for books, clothing, etc. to give to others. The week that follows this Sunday could be designated "Fix-Up Week," with the children (with some help) repairing and repainting their toys and teenagers and parents mending and/or washing their gift clothing before everything is boxed and made ready to be given away.
The third Sunday, still emphasizing the idea of gift giving, might be grab bag day. For this grab bag, the name of each family member is placed in a box, and it is explained that the "gift" to be given to the person whose name is drawn is doing something special for that person each day during the pre-Christmas period. However, family members may not tell whose names they have drawn. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, each person reveals the name of the person he or she drew by giving that person some small gift (a little time might also be spent just going over those daily gifts; certainly family members would wish to thank each other for these daily favors).
Since the feast of that well-known gift-giver, Saint Nicholas, falls during this week (December 6), family members may want to have a special family observance for this feast. The story of Saint Nicholas and his many acts of charity may be told or perhaps acted out if the family can find the time beforehand to write a short play. Older children might be given the project of tracing how Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus, and the results of their research might be shared with other members of the family.
The fourth Sunday can be Christmas-card-making day. Parents can suggest that the religious meaning of Christmas be kept in mind during the card making with religious subjects used for decoration and religious greetings used for the inside. Using original drawings or pasting pictures from other sources, children can make their own Christmas cards to send to family members and friends. Inside the children can write (or if they are too young to write, to dictate) their own special and personal Christmas greetings to family and friends.
The fifth Sunday can begin Christmas-decoration-making week. One project that the whole family can work on together is a religious banner, perhaps of the Nativity scene (see Creative Activities I, section on banner making). Another family project can be making a Jesse tree, which is a family tree for Jesus. A tree (an evergreen if you like) can be cut from construction paper and hung with symbols of Old and New Testament people who lead us from the Garden of Eden to Bethlehem. For example, a tree (of Knowledge of Good and Evil) can be cut to symbolize Adam and Eve, an ark for Noah, a figure of a man for Abraham, a replica of the stone tablets for Moses, a crown or a harp for King David, a drawing of a river for John the Baptist, a hammer (carpenter's symbol) for Jesus' foster father Joseph, a rose for Mary, and a star for the top of the tree-Jesus. These are just some suggested people and suggested symbols; your family might want to include more people (Isaac, Jacob, etc.) or they might think of some symbols that they feel more fitting; but a list of people and symbols should be drawn up beforehand. All the symbols can be hung on the tree on one day or one can be added to the tree each day until Christmas. (Since Sunday, December 23 is the Sunday of the Fathers, December 22 might be a good day to set aside to talk about the Jesse tree in terms of how everyone fits into this pattern extending from the Garden of Eden to Bethlehem. It will make the Gospel reading for that day (Matthew 1) a little more meaningful to children.)
The sixth Sunday is December 23, the day before Christmas Eve. Knowing how busy the last few days are before Christmas, I'm still going to suggest that the whole family take time for a period of prayer and meditation. Looking forward to the gifts under the tree or the gifts from Santa Claus, some of us sometimes forget the gifts we already have that have been given us by God; and this is a good time to think about them and to give thanks for them. That you are together as a family, that you have many blessings in your life given to you by the abundance of God, that you have life and hope and love, that you have tried to come to this feast with an open and giving spirit-ample reasons all for giving thanks. Parents and older children may also wish to remember those who are dead. Because Christ offers the gifts of hope and salvation, Christmas is a fitting time to offer prayers for those who are separated from us by death. In this happy time, we should also be happy that the same hope we treasure is also there for those who have died.
Christmas Eve at last. What is left to be done? Wrapping our special gifts to God that we have been working on for many weeks and putting them under the tree. Perhaps, having delayed putting the Christ child into the manger until now, we can do so with a prayer of thanksgiving for those gifts He has given us. And once the children are in bed, if there are Christmas stockings to fill, I hope that you have remembered some religious gifts, perhaps some Arch series Bible story books or a Biblical jigsaw puzzle for younger children or a book of colored reproductions of icons for teenagers or adults or perhaps a gold cross or an album of Orthodox liturgical music.
I hope that you will try some of these suggestions for preparing for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and that they work to help you and your family come closer to each other and closer to God. I wish you all the joy of this very special feast.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America