It was December 26th. An overwhelming sense of relief washed over me as I celebrated once again ‘getting through’ the marathon of Christmas. The previous month had been packed with church, family, and neighborhood events, the pressures of buying, wrapping, and giving the perfect gifts, and my kids’ endless parties and performances—and let’s not forget the extra baking, hosting, and card-addressing. But somehow I’d done it, we’d made it, and now I could rest.
Yet as I looked back over the holiday, I felt disappointed that I had let the things of the world steal my joy from the most important truth of the season: my humble, loving Jesus had come in such a simple, quiet way. That day, I endeavored in my heart to simplify future Christmases so that I would never again miss the true gift. It’s been a journey of intention, but in the last few years I’ve made a lot of changes to enable the advent season to be a time of rest and reflection.
OBSERVE ADVENT IN THE AFTERNOONS
A few years ago we started a simple practice that we call “Advent in the Afternoon.” Every afternoon during the month of December, my children and I gather around the kitchen table with a cup of something warm: tea, coffee, hot chocolate, or even spiced apple cider. I keep a basket of tea bags, hot chocolate, and cider packets handy so all we need to do is boil a kettle of water and sometimes we’ll also pop a big bowl of popcorn or put out some crackers and cheese.
While everyone enjoys their drinks, I read to them a little bit of the Christmas story from the Bible (we’ve also used Ann Voskamp’s “Unwrapping the Greatest Gift” and the Sally Lloyd-Jones “The Jesus Storybook Bible” as jumping-off points), followed by a Christmas picture book from the library, reading a different book for each day of December. If you’re looking for Christmas books, look no further than your local library, but be sure to reserve all your favorite Christmas picture books in October or November—they go fast! This simple and restful gathering does not require any extra work, time away from home, or money, yet it has made so many beautiful memories for our family. While afternoons have worked best for our family, you could easily adapt this practice to suit your schedule.
FOCUS ON THE FELLOWSHIP, NOT ON THE FOOD
For many years, I attended a Christmas cookie exchange that was held in our neighborhood. While I looked forward to celebrating with my neighborhood friends, I dreaded coming up with the perfect cookie recipe and making the dozens of cookies needed for trading. One year, the organizer made some changes to our annual gathering. On the invitation, she added the option to just come and visit without having to be involved in the food exchange. Such a weight was lifted from my shoulders! This got me thinking about how I could shift the focus for Christmas gatherings that I organized. How could we focus on fellowship instead of food? How could we simplify food—is it even necessary at each gathering, or would beverages sometimes be more restful? What could I purchase that is premade at the store or make in advance and freeze? Pie crusts, items from the deli section and rotisserie chicken became my friends.
CONSIDER NEW TRADITIONS
Do you find yourself continuing traditions from your family of origin even though they might not be the best fit for your family? Or holding on to practices that bring stress or are simply not necessary? One year when our children were babies and toddlers, I worked all Christmas Eve afternoon bouncing a baby on my hip while making a turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing feast that my family would enjoy at the dining room table on my good china late that night after our church’s Christmas Eve service. Observing my busyness, my husband asked, “Are you sure you want to go to all of that work?” But the recipes reminded me of my mom’s cooking, and the dishes I placed around the table brought back memories of my Grandma Betty, so they seemed like the right choice. “Yes,” I replied. After church, we arrived home late, with half of the kids too sleepy to eat dinner. Some of us struggled through and did enjoy the food, but at midnight I was still clearing the table and doing dishes. My husband said, “Next year, we’re getting Chinese!”
And you know what? That’s just what we did and have continued to do for several years now. Our new tradition has been picking up Chinese food on Christmas Eve after church. We change into jammies, gather around the kitchen table, and feast on festive dollar store Christmas paper plates. If restaurant food is not in the already-tight holiday budget, consider a super simple crockpot dish that will be ready when you get home from a Christmas service.
RESTRUCTURE YOUR DECEMBER
Our family is a homeschool family, and with the goal of simplifying Christmas, we decided not to school during the month of December. We start in the month of August and log a month of school then so that we can take the month of December to truly enjoy our Savior’s birthday. This might not be an option for your family but consider what things you can take a sabbatical from to make this month minimalistic and enjoyable. Can music lessons or a child’s activity be put on hold? Can a book club or Bible study take a break for this month? You just simply can’t do everything all the time.
CONSIDER EVERY YES
A friend of ours sends a family Valentine’s card instead of a Christmas card. She found that she can say no to Christmas cards, but still wish love and happiness to friends when the schedule has calmed in February. Another family we know said no to Christmas gifts last year so that they could say yes to a family hiking trip in Sedona. And while some years we do get a real tree, I’ve found that saying yes to the ten-dollar fake tree I bought on February clearance 18 years ago means I get to say no to lots of sweeping up pine needles throughout the month. Consider what you can say yes and no to this year that will make Christmas lighter.
RETHINK SPENDING AND GIFT PRACTICES
Something that can steal joy during this precious time of the year is over-gifting. I began considering our habits and making changes that would make gifts simpler and hopefully more meaningful. For example, we did away with stocking stuffers a few years ago because buying several small gifts each of our children really added up (and the Chap Stick that we gave them each year continued to end up melted in the dryer.) And while we did decide to reinstate them last year, we drew names and then headed to a discount store with the rule that we could only spend three dollars on our special person. It turned out to be a fun memory-making activity that did not add stress.
One of my favorite verses from Luke’s account of the Christmas story says, “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). That’s exactly what I want to do at Christmas time. I want to simplify and slow down long enough to treasure the arrival of Jesus and ponder in my heart how deep and special His love is for me. Will you join me this year?
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