By Teresa Thomas
I’ve been yearning for simplicity lately. Have you? During this Advent season, I suggest we turn inward and even backward a bit, to create for our families an old-fashioned, blessed, wonderful Christmas. Here’s how.
Put Christ at the center
To have a wonderful, blessed, old-fashioned Christmas we must, of course, keep Christ where He belongs — in front. Stores and advertisements on television, the Internet and radio feed modern materialism, and we ourselves sometimes inadvertently do things that take away from the true meaning of Christmas too. Even though we may be well meaning, if we prioritize the purchases, plans and meal details before considering spiritual aspects and how to guide our families toward gratitude and a deeper relationship with Christ, we will find ourselves frazzled and missing out on the best part of the season, Christ himself.
There is nothing wrong with decorating; enjoying some of the secular trappings of the holiday is fun, of course. But, if anything takes away from our ability to hone in on prayer time, preparing our hearts and leading our families in that direction, we need to ditch it!
Putting the Nativity set in a conspicuous place of honor and making time for quiet prayer and contemplation daily will do wonders for keeping the focus where it belongs, on Christ. You can find Advent devotions in any Catholic bookstore, online or in real life, but you don’t need them. Put the family Bible next to the Nativity set and spend a few minutes reading the story of Christ’s birth from each of the Gospels each night with your children. Read the little children age-appropriate books while snuggled on the sofa before bed. Pray the rosary. Attend an extra Mass during the week. Take the family to confession. Make a Jesse Tree. Use an Advent calendar. Focus on being kinder and more patient and doing little acts of love for your spouse, children and those around you. It’s catchy, and you’ll find that Christmas cheer spreads rather quickly when you start it yourself.
Give to others
It’s somewhat easy to toss in canned goods or an old coat for a food or clothing drive, often much harder to do something for someone in your own little circle of acquaintances; but oh, it is so much more meaningful! Is there a struggling college student or young person you know? Send him a cheery note of encouragement and tuck a $10 gift card inside. Are you at the drive through of your favorite coffee or bread shop? Ask the cashier how much the person behind you owes. If it’s affordable for you to do so, tell the cashier you’d like to pay for the person behind you and to simply tell them “Merry Christmas.” Offer to babysit for a young mother for a couple hours so she can do some Christmas shopping. Bring some homemade cookies to the neighbors. Gather a group of friends or family members and arrange to meet at local nursing home, with prior approval of the activities director. Sing traditional Christmas carols as residents eat their meals, or go door to door and pass out candy kisses. Stay and talk. Does someone in your family play the piano? Do that for the residents too. Double your dinner recipe one night and drop off some food at the rectory with a card. Call your mother just to say “hi.”
Make colorful, construction paper chains with your children. You can make these Christmas countdown chains, and remove a link each day until Dec. 25. Some families cut red and green rectangles that will make up the links and leave them in an easy-to-access spot. Family members write any good deeds they do each time they do them, then fold and tape the link to the others. The long chain at the end of the season will be a reminder of all the loving things your family has done throughout the season. On Christmas Eve you can place the paper chain on the tree or drape around the manger scene as a gift to the Christ child.
Get out and about. Go ice-skating at a local rink. Host a cookie exchange. Invite friends over for eggnog and to play cards. Make a date with your spouse to window shop or look at the Christmas lights. If your town has a manger scene, take your kids to see it. The University of Dayton in Ohio has a large Marian library and a large crèche collection. These Nativity scenes are displayed every year before Christmas and are wonderful to see. Find out what is available in your city by checking with colleges, museums and your local park department. You might be surprised to find some wonderful displays and activities right in your own backyard.
Bake from scratch
Pull out those dusty, handwritten recipes that came from your grandmother and make treasured treats for your family. Don’t have any? Call your mom or mother-in-law and ask for some old family standbys. What’s even better, if you have young children or grandchildren, invite them to help you bake. Freeze the goodies for Christmas Eve. There is something incredibly special about making recipes that are family heirlooms that have been handed down from generation to generation. You may want to tell stories while you bake, memories of your grandmother or own childhood Christmases.
The Advent and Christmas seasons can be a time of stress and high expectations. Be realistic in what you expect, whether it relates to how much you think you must accomplish or what to expect of a relative’s words or behavior. Repeat in your mind as much as is necessary, “Christmas is about Jesus’ birth. What else is, is.”
Lastly, simplify, simplify, simplify! You know your own limits. If buying gift cards instead of actual presents for some people on your list means you can spend more time preparing your heart well for our Lord, or with your family in meaningful interaction, don’t hesitate to do so. Choose those traditions that have meaning and value to you and yours, remembering the true meaning of Christmas, Jesus’ birth. Prioritize, then let go. No one can do everything perfectly and with no glitches. No one. Focus on what counts most.
If you do these things, then, when the wrapping paper litters the floor on Christmas morning, when dinner has been eaten and relatives have gone home, you can look back gladly and with confidence that you have created a most meaningful Christmas for your family. When you and your family put Christ as the center, you will experience great joy and peace, even in the hectic details and imperfections of life. What’s more, when you focus on the right things, you know that Christmas morning is just the beginning, not end of the liturgical Christmas season. Thank God. Literally.
Have a very merry, blessed, wonderful, old-fashioned Christmas!