10 Brilliant Ways To Countdown To Christmas With Your Kids
I love Christmas. I love the cosy evenings and the festive cheer. I also love the opportunities it brings to help my children engage meaningfully with Jesus and his mission in the world.
Here are 10 ways to help this Christmas be of spiritual benefit to your whole family.
1. Bedtime reading
Reading to your children at bedtime is a habit that most parents value but with the busyness of life it's easily broken. Why not renew it again with a special Advent season? Some families do a book-swap Christmas tree – 24 books borrowed from friends piled from largest to smallest to read one a night. You could include some that retell the Christmas story – here are two that I recommend depending on the ages of the children. Ann Voscamp's Unwrapping the Greatest Gift is great for children eight years old and over. This book retells the Christmas story by tracing person by person, story by story the lineage of Jesus from the Garden of Eden to the manger and beyond. For older children, The Christmas Mystery is one I loved reading to my kids; its possible that I enjoyed it even more than they did. It's a wonderfully quirky, poetic take on the Christmas story. Or for younger children the Jesus Story Book Bible is probably the most beautifully illustrated children's Bible I've ever read. Sally Lloyd Jones has done a great job tying the grand story of the Bible to Jesus which makes it brilliant for a countdown to Christmas, and there's a free Christmas printable available here. Visit and encourage your local Christian bookshop for more ideas.
2. Elf on the Shelf
Here is a growing craze which is easily rebooted with some spiritual content. Your elf is basically a cuddly toy who each night causes a bit of chaos in your house so that the children have a bit of fun waking up each morning in December. Why not join in, but add your own twist – a Bible verse to decode over breakfast, a challenge to find out the location or significance of Bethlehem, a play scene to talk about or an act of kindness to plan for the day. Mum of four and primary school teacher Anna Ranson has written about her take on this called the The Kindness Elves. Or check out the Bible Society's advent challenge for ideas.
3. Family devotions
Why not experiment with a family devotional time either over breakfast or dinner? You could read one of Tom Wright's daily readings from Advent for Everyone or maybe read half of a chapter each day from Tim Keller's new book Hidden Christmas. For younger children this could be accompanied by using nativity scene characters, or by rebranding some of your Lego or Playmobil people to retell or reflect on the Christmas story. There are some fun video resources that could help you such as All Stars Kids Club kids devotions with puppets that look at a verse or two of the Christmas story in a short and fun way.
Just as we often chose to give something up for Lent, why not take something on for the month of December? Perhaps as a family you could volunteer to take on an extra responsibility for the Christmas service. You could provide some extra hands at the local soup kitchen at this busy time of year, or make a point of visiting your local care home once a week. I still remember the impact on my childhood of my parents leading us as a family to volunteer in the old people's dinner on Christmas day. From making mince pies to giving away a bag full of toys (also making way for new ones), December is a great month for helping our children focus on the needs of others. Perhaps you could take up Caroline Macrory's "doorstep challenge", anonymously donating a bag-full of Christmas goodies to a local family who may be struggling this Christmas.
5. Reverse Advent
There are lots of countdown to Christmas and Advent calendars out there. 'The Real Advent Calendar' by the Meaningful Chocolate company uses Fairtrade chocolate and contains a 28-page Christmas story activity book. But how about going one step further by collecting an item a day to highlight that this month is about giving as well as receiving? Prepare a box together as a family, and fill it up with an item a day. By the end of the month you could have a box full of non-perishable food items to donate to your local Foodbank. Or you could have a box of toys or home-made items to donate to a local hospice. What a lovely way to celebrate the greatest gift we have ever received!
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Our little church has an annual gig singing carols at the sheltered housing facility in our town. Young and old singing traditional carols together is a lot of fun. Most of the classic carols are chock-full of wonderful theology so there are some great reasons for your family to be singing them and ask your children what they think is meant by words such as: "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity. Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel." A friend of mine organises carols in her street each Christmas – we go along with a guitar and she heats up mince pies, mulled wine and hot chocolate in her firepit. On the other side of town we have joined with a lady from our church who invites her neighbours into her lounge for a Christmas sing-along. There is hardly space left on her carpet for all the children to sit down but the atmosphere is great. Alternatively, if you find it hard to get out with your children, why not teach them a carol a day, or pre-load their music devices with Christmas songs that have meaningful lyrics?
During the holiday season church takes on a different atmosphere. From Christingle services to midnight carolling to nativity plays, there is usually lots going on and research has shown that this is the time of year most non-churched families would consider going to church. Why not use the countdown to Christmas to pray for families you know to come to church? Include a flyer or an invitation in a Christmas card. Encourage your children to invite friends, and then offer lifts to facilitate them getting there with ease. Or why not think about other different ways to do church as a family? Pledge to go early for a month. Deliberately look to help someone in need. Pray for/with somebody after each service. Take a box of chocolates to hand round. Donate a box of crackers to the youth group. Brainstorm ideas as a family to make it a month with a mission. Perhaps the church habits you develop over the Christmas season will stick into the New Year.
Most of us enjoy the company of friends and family over Christmas, but there are plenty of people who don't enjoy those privileges. Why not encourage each of the members of your family to think about someone you could host for a coffee, dinner or just a mince pie over the Christmas period? By including your children in the process of the invitation it helps them gain a vision for hospitality and the whole family can pull together as a team to make sure everyone gets the welcome they deserve. Bake through the Bible at Christmas is a fantastic resource that could help your family engage with the Christmas story in this way. Whatever you bake, share it with others in your home or bag some up so that you can take your hospitality out to someone who could really appreciate it. When Jesus graced this planet with his presence, his life was all about hosting and being hosted by the least, last, and lowest in society. Whether we feel like the innkeeper squeezing one more guest in to our busy lives, or the shepherds popping in to honour God, let us not underestimate the power of hospitality as a family this season.
The commercialisation of Christmas can mean that the festive period becomes centred around the accumulation of yet more stuff. One way this can be countered is by simply making your own gifts. A poem, a picture, a personalised upcycled item, or a lovingly hand-crafted gift can be so much more meaningful than a shop-bought item. Think about purchasing gifts where the money goes directly to charity such as Traidcraft or Oxfam. Alternatively, why not encourage your family to think about tithing what they already own ahead of Christmas and give away a tenth of those computer games, books, or clothes to a charity shop? Or tithe the gifts you receive this Christmas to people that would benefit more from them. And there are plenty of people who would love to relieve you of those unwanted gifts. The Salvation Army will make sure they get to children or homeless people in need this Christmas. Some Tesco stores are collecting for children in care. Look out for little ways you can balance the commercialisation of Christmas with simple and creative ways of giving throughout the month of December.
If all the above ideas sound brilliant, but you are worried they may take extra time to prepare in a busy month, then why not just set aside five minutes to pray together as a family? This could be done before or after a meal or whenever your family naturally gathers together. Take turns to be in charge of the prayer time and make it as creative as you like. From thanking God for 10 good things that have happened during the past day or past year, to praying for three different neighbours or praising God for his different attributes, there are lots of ways we can help our children learn to pray and enjoy praying. Pray with eyes open or closed, standing up or sitting down, holding hands or lighting a candle, listening to God's voice or singing a carol. You could video your prayers on your phone and play them back at the end of the month. Or write down your prayers and tie them to the Christmas tree. Or text a prayer to your teenage children at a certain time of the day. What better way to connect with the God who came at Christmas to open a way into his presence?
There is a lot to enjoy about the Christmas season. I love visiting Santa's grotto, feasting on Christmas day, and hoping for snow. The kids love the school discos and the glitter and lights and the festive TV shows and parties. But as Christians we have a foundation for all these celebrations. Let us take whatever opportunities we can to inspire the next generation with the true reason for the season.