How to Talk to Your Kids about Christmas
© 1997 by Paul Thigpen
Christmas was coming, so the first-grade CCD class was asked to draw pictures of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. One little boy proudly displayed his masterpiece of the Holy Family — riding in a jet. In the cockpit was another figure.
"Who's that flying the plane?" asked the teacher.
"You know," said the young artist, wondering how she could be so dense. "That's Pontius the Pilot."
Who can blame kids if they get the details of the Christmas story a little confused? After all, our contemporary holiday celebration is a crazy mix of manger scenes and Santa Claus, Advent wreaths and tinsled trees, "Gloria in excelsis Deo" and "Fa-la-la-la-la."
Even so, Christmas is a prime time for talking to our kids about the wonderful mystery of the Christian faith. The signs of the season are sure to stir their curiosity, and surprisingly profound conversations can follow an innocent question like "Daddy, who was Round John Virgin?" Consider these tips for helping kids make sense of the celebration:
Start at the manger. Christ is the heart of the holiday, so what better place to begin than the scene in the stable? Tell your children that we don't know exactly what day of the year Jesus was born on, but December 25th has been chosen as the day for having a birthday party for Him. All kids can relate to birthday parties; in our home, we make the point by lighting candles on a cake on Christmas morning, then singing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus. (For fun, my daughter always raises the issue of how many candles we should use — maybe 1,994 this year?)
We also talk with our children about Jesus' family relationships — that Mary is His mother, but God is His Father, and God gave Joseph to Jesus to care for Him like a father. Of course, the wonder of the Virgin Birth is a topic we only tackle after our children have learned about where babies come from. Even then, we emphasize that how the event took place is beyond human understanding, but we can know for sure that Jesus is God's Son in a way that no one else could ever be.
We talk especially about why Jesus was born. God the Father sent Him to earth because we needed someone to save us from the mess we've made of our world. His coming was a great sacrifice: In heaven He had no needs, no hurts, no enemies. But when He came to earth, He gave up His perfect happiness to suffer all these things just as we do.
Though He's the king of heaven, He was born a homeless child in a barn. Though He created sunshine and bubbling springs and all growing things, He learned how it feels to be cold and thirsty and hungry. Though He commanded an army of angels, He became weak and helpless in His Mother's arms. And He did all that so that He could be one of us — because if He became like us, we could one day become like Him.
No wonder the angels shouted on the night He was born! Christmas is our way of celebrating that God came to be with us and will always be with us — that's what the Christmas word "Emmanuel" means.
Explore the meanings of familiar Christmas symbols. When we see the Advent wreath at church, we remind our kids that just as evergreen needles stay green all year round, even when other leaves die, God's love for us is always fresh and alive, even when other loves fail. We tell them that the candles are a picture of Christ, who brings light into our darkness by showing us the right way to live. The greenery and colored lights of Christmas trees serve the same purpose.
When we give one another gifts, we talk about how we're following the example of the Wise Men, who gave the Christ Child presents. And we note how gracious Jesus is to let us receive gifts on His birthday!
Many other Christmas symbols are easily explained: stars represent the star over Bethlehem; bells ring out joy; angels are heralds of Jesus' birth; wreaths are a circle with no beginning or end, just like God's love.
Tell them about the real St. Nicholas. The debate goes on: Is Santa Claus a bit of harmless fun, or a lie that turns kids' attention away from Jesus? What should we tell our youngsters about St. Nick?
Why not tell them the truth? I don't mean a somber lecture about how reindeer can't really fly. I mean the story of the real, historical St. Nicholas — a man whose life pointed beautifully to Jesus.
Born in Asia Minor more than sixteen centuries ago, Nicholas was a bishop who gave his life to serve others. He worked miracles and brought many people to faith in Christ. He also shared his wealth with the poor and took special care of children.
We don't know much more for sure than that, though legends abound. But this much is certain: St. Nicholas shone so brightly with the love of Jesus that the Church has never been able to forget him.
Over the years, some Christians honored him by dressing up like him and giving children gifts. As his fame spread across many countries, his costume and his name took many forms. The Dutch called him "Santa Claus" and introduced him to America. In our country, the red suit, sleigh and reindeer were added to his portrait.
Whatever we may think of these more recent notions of St. Nicholas, they shouldn't keep us from telling our children the truth about a great servant of God. If we share with them the story of the real St. Nicholas, we won't be turning their attention away from Jesus. Instead, we'll be showing them how the Child of the manger can shine even now through a heart that's devoted to Him.
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