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The first year I hung a Jesse Tree Advent calendar on the wall, I envisioned four cherub-faced children and one thoughtful husband carefully listening to me read the devotions each night before reverently hanging an ornament on the tree. 

In reality, for twenty-five days four cranky kids and their frustrated dad wiggled and complained as I read, then fought, over whose turn it was to hang the ornament.

In spite of that disastrous first year, the hanging of the Jesse Tree eventually became a DeBoer family Christmas tradition, thanks to some attention-span adjustments I made to the devotions and the creation of an elaborate turn-taking plan for hanging the ornaments. (In fact, now when our young adults come home for Christmas one of the first things they do is look to see that the Jesse Tree is hanging on the wall).  

More important, I learned that the first way to focus family Christmas celebrations on what matters is to remember that perfection doesn’t exist on earth (hence, Jesus).

The second is to be intentional about finding practices that surround kids with more of the biblical Christmas than the commercial one. Here are some ideas to help you do that:

  • If your child believes in Santa Claus, try celebrating his arrival (or the gift giving) on a different day from your celebration of Jesus’ birth. Once the gift giving and receiving is done, it will be easier to focus your kids’ attention on Jesus’ birthday.  
  • 'Unbusy' yourself and your family. In her fabulous book Faithful Families for Advent and Christmas: 100 Ways to Make the Season Sacred, author Traci Smith suggests making a "not-to-do" list during Advent as a way to be intentional about your focus. 
  • Include ornaments on your tree that symbolize parts of the Christmas story, and talk about them while you decorate: “What do the stars remind you of?” “Which part of the Christmas story do the angels make you think about?”
  • Sing, listen to, and play songs about Jesus’ birth. Find out what Christmas songs your kids are learning at church and add them to your at-home playlist. Something else you might add: the album Waiting Songs by Rain for Roots and this “Hey, Mary!” video.
  • Set up a nativity set that your child can touch and use to act out the Christmas story. Get inspired with these super simple ideas.
  • Light candles on a cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.
  • Gather picture books about the birth of Jesus. Stand them up on a table as part of your Christmas display.
  • Make an #AdventWord photo challenge list and invite older kids to take a daily photo of something that captures for them the theme of the day.
  • Keep gifts simple. The best gifts we ever exchanged as a family weren’t the most expensive; they weren’t even on anyone’s list. They were the result of exchanging names with the kids and giving each one $5.00 to spend. The only rule was that the gift had to be purchased at a thrift store that helped others in the community or that supported a worthy cause.
  • Serve together. Choose a local and/or global charity and plan a way to support their work together.
  • Engage all ages in a fun, wonderfully interactive retelling of the Christmas story using the Christmas Participation Story by Paul Osborne
  • Find a fabulous Jesse Tree and use it in a way that works for your family. My new favorite is the God's Big Advent Story: Jesse Tree

And, dear fellow imperfect parents, when things don’t go as planned, remember these wise words from this blog post by Heather Sleighthold:

"Believe me, your children won’t remember what kind of candles you used, or how fancy the whole setup is. What they will remember most is this time with you—of getting to help and be included. And it will also make an impression on them about what the season of Advent truly means, and the joy that can be found in the waiting.”  

This post includes material adapted from Home Grown Handbook for Christian Parenting (Faith Alive).

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