The children came up with a list. When they were finished, Dan asked them why they thought the Gaffney family kept these traditions. And that led to the following dialogue with his 4-year-old son, Joel:
“Why do you think we celebrate Christmas as a holiday?” Dan asked.
“Because God needs a Christmas tree … and presents,” Joel replied.
“Why do you think we light candles?”
Joel was sure he knew this one, “Uh, because the electricity goes out.”
“And what about the house? Why do we decorate it for Christmas?” Dan asked.
“So we don’t get snow on our house,” Joel said. “Because if there’s snow on the roof we’ll slip off when we try to put the decorations up!”
Why are Christmas traditions important?
We laugh at the logic of a 4-year-old, but honestly, Joel’s words do challenge us to think about the traditions many of us maintain during the Christmas holidays—the dinners, the decorations, and the gifts. Perhaps there is something more—some additional traditions that would bring more meaning to your holidays and make Christ the true center of Christmas.
Traditions are powerful for a family. For one thing, they bring families closer together. By nature, traditions take time and commitment. This time together helps you make new memories while also remembering the past. Traditions remind us to stop the busy cycle of life long enough to reconnect and build bonds.
But the ones that are most affected by traditions are children. “Children love rituals,” says Martin V. Cohen, Ph.D., associate director of the Marital and Family Therapy Clinic at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. “Children find a certain security and solace in something that gives a sense of belonging and comfort. Kids find rituals fascinating—artistically, spiritually, and emotionally.”
They find a sense of awe in the holidays, giving them a picture not only of family bonding, but also of the importance of Christ—the celebration of His majesty.
Traditions create legacy. Traditions are a great way to pass down family values to children who will in turn, pass them on to their children and so on. Just as God told the Jews in Deuteronomy 11:18-20:
“You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates …”
When used properly, traditions are a great way to pass down stories of faith and customs through the generations. As children interact with their senses—the feeling of the prickly needles and the smells of the evergreens and the sounds of caroling—parents should remind them of the meaning of these traditions. The evergreen tree is a reminder of the cross and the everlasting life of Christ, and the sounds of caroling are the proclamation of rejoicing.
Traditions are symbolic. Perhaps the most important purpose of traditions in the Christian community is to remind us of Christ Himself. This is most obvious in the symbol of communion. In Luke 22:19, we find Jesus leading the disciples in the first communion. At the end of this verse, He says, “… Do this in remembrance of Me.”
In the same way, we have Christmas traditions that remind us of Christ. The nativity reminds us that God came as a man in the flesh to take away the sins of the world, and gifts repeat the story of the three wise men that came to adore the Christ child.
It may sound strange, but Christmas traditions don’t have to be … well … traditional. You can start new activities that bring meaning to your holidays and build a legacy for your family. Perhaps you came from a family of non-believers, and you have never celebrated traditions that were based on Christ. Or perhaps you have found that your current traditions have no meaning for your family. This year, we have compiled 10 ideas for new traditions, some from FamilyLife and some from our readers.
1. The names of Christmas. The Christmas holiday is really just a part of the gospel story—God came as the man, Jesus, in the flesh to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Jesus’ birth signifies God’s grace and love for His people. FamilyLife has developed an interactive set of ornaments that tell about who Christ is and why He came to live among us.
This resource, The 12 Names of Christmas, can be used in your own family, in Sunday school classes, or as an outreach for neighborhood Christmas parties.
2. Fast a meal. In America, Christmas includes a large focus on food. This year during the week before Christmas, give up a meal and pray during that time for the poor, hungry, and spiritually lost in the world.
3. Use decorations to tell about the entire life of Christ. Christmas is a time that usually emphasizes the birth of Jesus, but decorations can also celebrate the remainder of His life on earth. In addition to the basic nativity set, angels, and stars, use the Ever Thine Home Christmas collection to adorn your tree and home.
4. Watch a movie that remembers the life of Christ. There are several good films that focus on the birth, death, and life of Christ. We recommend Jesus of Nazareth, the film, Jesus, or for mature audiences, The Passion of the Christ. Or for a change of pace, try Ben Hur, a movie that begins with Jesus’ birth and ends with His death, and tells the story of a man who was transformed by His love and forgiveness.
By watching movies that focus on other aspects of the life of Jesus, the Christmas celebration of His birth is put into proper perspective. This can be an excellent opportunity to talk to your children about why Christ had to come in the form of a child.
5. Share stories about how God has worked in your life. Have you ever told your children the story of your salvation? How about your spouse? While the family is together during the holidays, use the time to share your personal stories about faith, redemption, and life change. Also, reflect on the previous year and talk about how you have grown in your faith individually and as a family.
Traditions recommended by our readers
In a past newsletter we asked our readers to send us some of their family traditions that keep Christ as the center of their celebrations. Although there were many wonderful ideas, here is a list of our five favorites.
1. Happy birthday, Jesus! A number of readers suggested a variation on this idea. One wrote:
I come from a long line of pagans, and we spend Christmas day with all of them. So my husband and I have established Christmas Eve as our time for celebrating the birth of Christ with our two boys, ages 3 and 5. We have a dinner together followed by the lighting of the Christ candle on our nativity wreath, and then Daddy reads the Scripture account of Jesus’ birth. After that we have a birthday cake for Jesus. The cake is chocolate, representing sin. It’s filled with cherry pie filling, representing the blood of Jesus, and it’s covered with white frosting which represents our new life in Christ.
2. Moving nativity
One of the things we do in the days before Christmas is place our nativity figures all over the house. The empty manger is placed under the Christmas tree. As the days get closer to Christmas, the figures are moved closer to the manger. The first thing my kids open on Christmas morning is a wrapped baby Jesus to remind them that Jesus is the best gift we can ever receive!
3. The gifts of the Three Wise Men
While looking for a new tradition for our family, I wanted to focus on the aspect of gift giving since it has become the central theme for many people at Christmas time. I found an old perfume bottle, and my kids and I covered it with colorful tissue paper. This represents the frankincense the wise men brought to Jesus. I then took an assortment of spices (whole cloves and cinnamon sticks) and wrapped them in a piece of green tissue paper tied with a ribbon. This represents the myrrh. Then I found a chain of gold balls—the kind you can get in any craft store. I wrapped this in gold tissue paper and tied it with ribbon. This represented the gold brought to Jesus.
All these were placed in a colorful gold bag—very fancy and beautiful. I then wrote up the verses found in Matthew 2:1-12, which tells the story of the three wise men, and added them to the bag.
Each year we went to church on Christmas Eve, and when we came home my children knew there were three gifts they were allowed to open before they went to bed. As a family we read the Scripture and opened the gifts one by one. We talked about how important it was that Jesus was born and that He was born for us. That was the reason for us receiving gifts. I told them, “Isn’t it great that it is Jesus’ birthday and He gives us all His presents?”
My children are now 17 and 15 and I know they will still want to open the three special gifts under our tree on Christmas Eve, even after all these years.
4. Family gathering
We decorate with all the traditional stuff—tree, lights, presents, etc. One year it dawned on me that we could add a deeper spiritual touch to our celebration by thinking in spiritual terms. As we gather to have our family Christmas, we began the evening by looking at the decorations and sharing what each item reminded us of:
- The lights—Jesus, the Light of the world
- The tree—the cross
- The gifts—God’s gift to us
As our children grew each year, more spiritual meaning was given to our celebration.
5. A hard floor
We realized that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus did not have it easy that first Christmas, and we wanted to remember that. Each Christmas Eve we give up our beds and sleep on the floor together to remember what they must have endured. Our children are young enough at this point that they think it is fun and different, while we often feel it in our older backs. Each year they understand a little more the sacrifice that Mary and Joseph made, and at the same time we do enjoy the cozy family time.