Family Traditions that Keep Christ at the Center of Christmas

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Written by Emily McClements, Contributing Writer

Singing Christmas carols, lighting the Christmas Tree, putting out the Christmas decorations, lighting the Advent candles, giving and receiving gifts, rejoicing in the birth of our Lord and Savior.

Christmas is such a special and magical time of year; filled with family traditions and warm memories. But, it is also a busy and full time, where we can easily get swept up by all that we “have” to do, and miss out on truly celebrating the Reason that we celebrate at all.

Since adding children to our family, my hubby and I have become more aware of the importance of creating and keeping family traditions that are meaningful and point us toward Christ during the Christmas season. I was so blessed to grow up in a wonderful Christian family where my parents helped my sisters and me to keep our focus on Jesus at Christmas time. They created traditions that I am looking forward to passing on to my children, as well as incorporating our own new traditions.

Family Traditions That Point Toward Christ

The Nativity

My family had a nativity scene growing up that was not the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, but I have such fond memories of it. The paint was chipped on the figures, and the stable was cardboard with hay glued to the roof that would become thinner and thinner with each passing year; it was obvious it was well loved.

Our nativity was not a “just look but don’t touch” kind of nativity. My sisters and I loved to play the Christmas story by acting out with the figures. We would take turns playing with the different characters, and instead of just being a decoration, the nativity was a special toy for us to play with.

I want my children to have the same experience, to be able to play and interact with our nativity scene so that it can become real to them, and not just something that just sits up on a shelf or the mantel. We celebrate Christmas because Jesus came to us, to be where we are, to interact with people on a close and intimate level, and I want the figures that represent His birth to symbolize that  for my children.

Lighting the Christmas Tree

“Come on, ring those bells, Light the Christmas tree, Jesus is the king, Born for you and me. Come on, ring those bells, Everybody say, Jesus, we remember, This your birthday.” This is the song that we played on our record player (yes, record player) every year as we would decorate our family’s Christmas Tree. It was a reminder to us that Christmas is about celebrating Jesus’ birthday.

Now with my children, when we light our Christmas tree, I also want to talk about how Jesus came to earth to be the light of the world (John 1:9). One of my favorite things to do at Christmas time is to sit in the dark and look at the beautifully decorated Christmas tree. I want to teach my children that the same Light that we celebrate at Christmas shines through their lives as they live for Jesus.
Christmas Carols (in very easy arrangements)
Photo by Mykl Roventine

Christmas Carols

Who doesn’t love singing Christmas carols?  I love to hear the words about Jesus’ arrival on earth playing on the radio and in stores where otherwise His name would never be mentioned.

Children love music, and songs are a great way to teach them truths about God, the Bible, and the true meaning of Christmas. Too often, though, I think the words of the most beloved Christmas carols are so familar that we sing them and miss the true meaning of the words.

On Christmas morning my sisters and I were allowed to wake up my parents at a specified time by playing Christmas carols on the piano. We would practice for weeks ahead of time, and then begin Christmas morning by playing songs that declared the arrival of Christ. It was a great way to begin our Christmas celebration focusing on Him.

Teach Christmas carols about Jesus’ birth to your children and take the time to explain to them the words and what they mean. Taking your children Christmas caroling is also an opportunity to share the good news about the birth of Jesus with others. My parents began a tradition of caroling on Christmas Eve after I had moved away to college, but I know that it is something that they look forward to every year.

The Christmas Story

Before we could open presents on Christmas morning, my family would always read the account of Jesus’ birth from the Bible;  and not just read it, but also act it out. It was usually just the five of us, my parents, my two sisters and I, but we would all get involved in the retelling of the story.

We would even get dressed up – we had a white sheet and a halo made of pipe cleaners for the angel Gabriel, towels on our head tied on with string transformed us into Mary and Joseph, and my mom’s purple robe became the outfit of one of the wise men. My dad played the part of honor as the donkey who Mary would ride to Bethlemham on, until we got to big to sit on his back any longer, of course.

It wasn’t always the most peaceful performance as my sisters and I would often argue over who got to be the angel or Mary, our favorite roles. But, I treasure those memories almost more than any other Christmas tradition.

Of all of our traditions, I think that this one was the most important; reading and being involved in the Biblical account of Christ’s birth helped to keep us focused on Him. Even when I entered my teenage years and thought I was too “cool” to act out the story with my sisters and would roll my eyes and sit on the couch pretending I didn’t care, it was still my favorite part of Christmas day, because I knew that if Jesus had not come to earth as a baby, we would not be celebrating at all.

christmas tree 2004
Photo by Scott Feldstein

Giving Gifts

Giving and receiving gifts at Christmas is the major focus of our society today, so I believe that it is very important to keep Christ at the center of gift giving, and guard against getting swept up in the materialism and consumerism of our culture.

Another song that we played on our record player when I was growing up was “The Gift Goes On” by Sandi Patti as we handed out presents on Christmas morning. The words, “And the gift goes on, The Father gave the Son, and the gift goes on, The Son gave the Spirit, and the gift goes on, The Spirit gives us life, and the gift goes on and on and on…” reminded us how God gave us the greatest gift in His Son.

This year, our family is implementing the three gifts idea, based on the gifts that Jesus received from the Magi. We are looking forward to simplifying our gift giving, guarding against over-consumption, as well as teaching our children another aspect of the Christmas story in this way.

Birthday Cake for Jesus

Another new tradition that we are going to start with our family this year is making a birthday cake for Jesus. My three year old daughter loves birthdays. As we just celebrated birthdays for three of us this fall, and this was the first year that she could really remember and understand, birthdays are fresh on her mind. I read about this idea after Christmas last year, and thought it was such a great way to teach children that we celebrate Jesus’ birthday at Christmas that I knew it was a tradition I wanted to add to our family’s celebration.

Ultimately, as a family, we want to glorify God in all that we say and do, and this is just as true at Christmas time. We want to keep and incorporate our family traditions that focus on Christ as the reason for Christmas, and create our own traditions that will add to our children’s experience of Christmas as Jesus’ birthday.

Beth wrote a great post about evaluating the symbols that we use at Christmas, and I think it is also important to take the same attitude toward our different Christmas family traditions and make sure that they are drawing us closer and pointing us to the One who is the reason that we celebrate, that He is the greatest celebration of all!

What traditions keep your family focused on Christ during the Christmas season?

Top photo by OakleyOriginals

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  1. i love the idea of your waking up your family with carols. we also acted out the christmas story growing up and i look forward to doing that with my little ones. at 1 and 3, they are small for many traditions, but they would love the idea of a birthday cake for Jesus.

    we have a little felt nativity advent calendar, with a character or animal for each day. my daughter LOVES it and wants to pull out baby Jesus eight times a day. having to wait, taking about advent and preparing our hearts for Jesus–it’s a symbolic and fun teaching tool.

  2. My five year old son is very excited about Christmas this year but it feels like sometimes for the wrong reasons. Presents and Santa can dominate conversations. It started to click a little better for him when I kept telling him that this was Jesus’s birthday. He actually brought up that Jesus needed a cake! So we are going to make a cake this year for Jesus! I’m glad that he is understanding a little bit more what Christmas is all about! You have great other ideas too! Thanks so much!

  3. We actually did a lot of these same things growing up! One year my brother was forced to wear a big white tshirt and stuff pillows into it so he could be a lamb! I definitely treasure those pics!

    We usually set aside some extra tithe for giving a family a goat or chickens through World Vision…its an awesome way to share His love through gift giving!

  4. WOW, this is such a great post. I am a nerd and a little chocked up at the idea of starting traditions when we have kids one day. I have a question about the three gift limit. Is this three gifts from you the parents? Just wondering about grandparents and extended family gifts.

    1. @Angie Alford,
      Thanks Angie!
      Yes, the three gifts is just from our family and doesn’t include grandparents or extended family gifts, but we do ask our extended family members to just give a few and simple gifts. We really want to guard against our kids getting too many gifts and also guard against bringing too much stuff into our home at Christmas time.

  5. What a beautiful post! I have been thinking and praying about this very thing this year. It seems like as much as I try to teach and remind my kids (ages 4 and 6) about Jesus being what we are truly celebrating, my kids get lost in the seasonal excitement. (Okay, so do I sometimes.)

    I am definitely keeping Christmas more simple this year as far as gifts and my “perfectionist” tendencies go.

    One thing I am planning for our family is painting a nativity scene together. Last year I bought a ceramic nativity scene from Family Christian Stores. We have a family night every Monday night at our house. This coming Monday, we are going to paint this nativity scene together. I am looking forward to doing this with my kids and talking with them about Jesus.

  6. I love this! We’ve always done the 3 gifts w/our kids (they are only 2 and 4) but it is so simple and special on Christmas mornings. The grandparents are a little harder to control…but at least around OUR tree, we’ve got a nice calm feeling.

    This year we instituted a gift for Jesus and picked out a present from a Gift Catalog (Compassion, World Vision, Samartian’s Purse) and are making that be our most important gift!

    Thanks for the great ideas!

  7. A wonderful lady in my church just started a blog called, Making it Meaningful! She is such a godly woman that has raise 3 godly children. She has such wonderful ideas for christmas and keeping Christ at the center!

  8. My parents did a great job, too, of “keeping the Christ in Christmas.” I always knew that was a good thing, but I appreciate it all the more now that I have a daughter of my own. She’s only 5, so we keep our traditions simple. We have a lovely kid-friendly Nativity set (knitted by a family member in England) that she’s been playing with since she was 2. Since she’s very story-oriented, we also make sure we have some Jesus-centered Christmas books to read every year–even for babies, there are some great board books out there. This year, I made our first Advent calendar out of felt; all the calendars I could find in stores were secular, so I borrowed a pattern from a lady at church to make one with a manger scene.

  9. I really enjoyed this post. We did many of these growing up but I wanted to implement some new family traditions with our children. My sister-in-law’s family always did a birthday cake for Jesus and now that my kids are into birthdays I want to start doing that as well.

    With my extended family, we decided to draw names this year and put a $ cap on it as well. Then we are going to select a missionary or other needy cause and donate money as a family towards it.

    We haven’t really given our kids any gifts yet as they get plenty from extended family but I really like the 3 gift limit. Also this year I plan to have them go through their old gifts and choose which ones they want to donate to a charity. At only 3 years old this will be difficult for them but we want to teach them early on about the importance of giving to others.

  10. We do the three gift thing too but we don’t categorize them. We just simply tell the kids that they get 3 gifts on Christmas because the baby Jesus received 3 gifts when he was born.

  11. We spend our evening prayer times talking about all the things that we are thankful for. We pray together that all the goodness of God in our lives would overflow onto others during Christmas time. And then we make plans for how to actually do that.
    This year, we are making a basket for a father whose son just committed suicide. And we are planning a special present for a family whose newborn baby just had open heart surgery. My children are learning that the only proper response to God’s love for us is to love others.

  12. I love all your ideas!

    We’ve been doing the 3-gifts tradition for 2 years now (this will be our 3rd) and I love it. It makes gift-giving so much easier and allows myself and my family to focus on Christ, instead of rushing around with buying and wrapping a bunch of stuff we don’t really need anyway.

    One tradition I’m starting this year is to make Christmas treats for our neighbors. I don’t really know our neighbors at all, and I’m hoping that handing them 1/2 lb. of holiday fudge will give us the chance to chat and eventually lead to an open door for the gospel down the road.

  13. Thank you so much for this post Emily! My husband and I share so many of your same traditions at our home, and the mention of Evie’s “Come On Ring Those Bells” and Sandi Patty’s “The Gift Goes On” were such warm reminders of my childhood. We listened to those same songs and albums, and their lyrics are such a beautiful reminder of Christ’s birth. I’m off to see if I can find Sandi Patty’s album online… Thanks for a lovely start to my day! P.S. My hubby had never heard of Evie before he met me, but her Christmas album is now one of his favorites too!

  14. Oooh the pumpkin pie! I love all things pumpkin and they aren’t always easy to find. We make pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin bread, I even made pumpkin ice cream! I would LOVE to try pumpkin tea! It sounds so delicious!

  15. Thank you for posting this! I am trying so very hard to make sure that we start some traditions and incorporate our own family traditions now that we have a 2 yr old son. I just lost my Dad in April, so this is even more important to me now! The nativity was my favorite- ours was ‘well-loved’ too! I hope my son interacts with ours just as we did. Thanks!

  16. I really liked your article. We also came to the same conclusions when we had our son but my husband and I didn’t come from Christian homes so I love the ideas you bring. Thank you.

  17. I had this post bookmarked and I am so glad I did. I’m starting to prepare my mind and heart for the Christmas season. I look forward to adding some of these ideas to our current traditions. I want to infuse the season with the meaning of Chirstmas so that my kids remember not only the glitz and the glitter but the true meaning of why we celebrate. We actually don’t even call it Christmas much, we call it “Jesus’ Birthday”.

  18. Thanks for this wonderful article. I have so many young moms that read my Facebook that I reported your blog on my page. I gave credit to you. That’s so much for being a Titus 2 woman!

  19. My mom used to made it that we should only have three gifts, like jesus did. Now i know it is our family that gives us the true spirit of christmas. again, thank you.

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