The coming holiday season is full to the brim for most families. Between education and work alone there’s a serious push towards busy-ness. We have the pull of seasonal philanthropy, seasonal fun, and seasonal consumerism. And yet, with a little planning, we can find stillness and orient our families towards God.
The Nativity Icon
At the very least, acquire and place an Icon of the Nativity home. Make sure it’s in a place where you will notice its special presence in your life during this season. Use it to talk with your children about the coming feast. The icon of the Nativity is rich with many stories happening at the same time–St. Joseph and the Devil, the women washing the baby, the shepherds and angels, and more. Describe what is happening in the icon to them, and what it means.
St. Nicholas Day
Before the feast of St. Nicholas, our family places his icon in a prominent location. The night before the feast, we have our children (who are preschool to elementary age, at the moment) leave their shoes out by the icon corner. In the morning, their shoes are filled with quarters, oranges, and chocolate, and occasionally a special gift (if the budget allows). We tell the story of St. Nicholas’ life and sing a special folk song (you can get the music here). Celebrating St. Nicholas gives deeper meaning to the gift-giving that comes at Christmas season, and is a wonderful way to talk about the “real” Santa Claus to the non-Orthodox.
Our children have a crochet Nativity scene gifted to them by their grandmother. Early in December, the whole scene is set up in the house, with the exception of the Holy Family. On one of the cold evenings close to Nativity, we light mason jar lanterns we’ve decorated for the occasion and go out on a search to find the Holy Family figurines (hidden earlier in secret by one of us parents). We search in the dark, find them, and bring them into our home. Doing this helps to show the children that we must go as light into the world and seek Jesus intentionally. We also tell our children how our Savior came into the world without a home; there was “no room at the inn.” When we invite the homeless Mary and Joseph into our home, we invite them so that Jesus can come and dwell with us and in us.
The Advent Wreath
The Advent wreath is drawn from the European Protestant traditions, but it does a great job of marking the time to Nativity. The wreath is essentially a calendar made of candles. The composition of the wreath and number of candles in the wreath itself can vary, but the essential element is a physical marking of time approaching the feast of Christmas. In our family, we use it as a part of a miniature family liturgy in the home–a time to dedicate to reading the Gospel stories of Jesus’ arrival on earth, to light candles, and sing the Nativity Kontakion, a good way to memorize it (and you can read more here).
The Nativity Chain & The Jesse Tree
If a daily ritual fits into your schedule well, you could create a Nativity chain out of paper using different colors for special feasts & saints throughout the season. The chain shortens as you pull off the links, so young kids can easily count and see how close the Nativity feast is. The Jesse Tree works in reverse: you fill the tree with special ornaments, and so the tree becomes full once Nativity arrives. Either way you do it, helping children to visually see the coming of the Feast is a wonderful tool of anticipation.
Above all, remember that you will feel endlessly repetitive (like other parts of parenting). But the more you repeat, the more you lay down grooves of habit that help your children remember what Nativity is all about.