Ah, Christmas. The “most wonderful time of the year.” The time to celebrate Christ’s Nativity–to marvel at the wonder of the Incarnation. The time to gather with friends and family. The time to go massively in debt.
Oh, wait. That last one seems out of place, doesn’t it? Yet, each year millions of Americans go into debt in order to celebrate Christmas.
There are the gifts to buy. The tree and trimmings. The cards and family photos. The food. The travel expenses. And the list goes on.
Our family has chosen not to go into debt for Christmas, and believe me, it isn’t always easy! The pull of “things” is especially strong at Christmastime. However, we have decided to focus on what is important, on what is eternal, at Christmas.
If you would like to slow down and simplify this Christmas but aren’t sure how, here are a few ideas for you. These family traditions are easy to implement and, often, free!
10 Christmas Traditions That Won’t Destroy Your Budget
1. Create a Simple Homemade Advent Calendar
One way to count down the days to Nativity is to create a paper prayer chain. This is a very simple twist on the Advent calendar idea. First, cut up strips of paper that can be used to make a paper chain. Yes, just like you used to make when you were a kid! You’ll need one strip for each day during the Nativity Fast. You can use any kind of paper that you’d like, though the sturdier kinds might last longer in houses with small children!
Next, gather your children around you and come up with a list of 40 people, countries, or situations that you would like to pray for throughout the Nativity Fast. This can include everything and everyone from Grandma to Syrian refugees to the family pet.
Then, write down one prayer request on each of the strips of paper. Then, make one strip into a circle and staple it. Add another and another until you have created a paper chain.
Each night at family prayers, you can take off one link from the chain, pray for that person, and see how much closer you are to celebrating the birth of Christ the Son of God, who alone is able to answer all prayers.
2. Fill the House with Music
One of the simplest ways to get into the Christmas mood, is to play Christmas music. One of my most vivid childhood memories surrounding Christmas is of listening to our old Perry Como Christmas CD. Now as an adult, whenever I hear those songs on the radio, I am instantly transported back in time. Collect Christmas music as a family–whether through playlists on iTunes or through CDs. Let your kids request their favorites and find new songs to enjoy.
3. Bake Cookies and Give Them Away
Most children love to help their parents in the kitchen. Turn that enthusiasm into service by working as a family to make baked goods for fire fighters, police officers, or other community helpers near you. You can spend a morning baking cookies, dipping pretzels, or whatever treat you’d like. Then, take it by the station along with a thank you note.
4. Eat Simple Foods
During the months leading up to the Nativity of Christ, it seems that you can’t go anywhere without seeing Christmas decorations and hearing Christmas music. While the rest of the world is hurrying to get to Christmas, in the Orthodox Church we slow down. We enter into a time of preparation so we can fully appreciate the miracle of the Incarnation–God becoming man.
We do this by fasting: fasting from sin, from excess, from indulgence, and from selfish desires. This is pretty counter-cultural–especially before Christmas. One practical way that the Church helps us do this, and has for over one thousand years, is by establishing a fast from certain foods. Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, dairy, wine, and oil from November 15 until Nativity.
The Church calls us to prepare for the birth of our Lord through repentance, through a quieter and more reflective life, and through an emphasis on the spiritual disciplines. This means that the Nativity Fast isn’t the feast itself–it’s the hard work that takes place before the joy of the feast can be fully experienced.
Orthodox Christians, therefore, eat simply during the Fast. We eat simple foods in order to allow more time in our schedule to serve others and to pray. We eat simple foods in order to allow more wiggle room in our budgets so that we can give generously.
Even if you aren’t an Orthodox Christian, perhaps your family can choose to eat a simple meal a few times before Christmas–something like a “Meatless Monday.” Then, give any money that you saved to a charity of your choosing.
5. Read Christmas Books
I absolutely love Christmas books! Make it a family tradition to read a Christmas book every night in December, or every night the week before Christmas. You can create your own collection or head to the library to borrow some. Here are a few of our family favorites:
6. Go to Church
One simple yet profound way to keep the focus on the Nativity this year is to attend church together as a family. In the Orthodox tradition, this means going to Liturgy at midnight. Some churches also have a Liturgy earlier in the evening to accommodate families with young children. Find out if your church is having a service on Christmas or Christmas Eve. If not, try to find one at another church to attend. There is something simultaneously solemn and joyful about the Orthodox Nativity liturgy.
7. Sing Christmas Hymns
I grew up in a musical family, so one of my favorite childhood memories of Christmas is of our entire family singing Christmas hymns together. I can still hear my grandfather’s tenor singing out “O beautiful Star of Bethlehem.” If you grew up Protestant, Catholic, or are Western rite Orthodox, you probably know most of the familiar classics already. Have a family sing-a-long where you all join in “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” If you aren’t familiar with all of the tones or troparian for the feast in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, you can look here or here at some great YouTube videos to hear examples.
8. Make Ornaments for the Tree
Another craft project that can be as simple or intricate as you would like is that of making ornaments for the tree. Friends of ours string popcorn each year, and their kids love using the needles to create a beautiful garland! Or, purchase some inexpensive clear plastic ball ornaments. Let each family member paint a winter scene, their name, and the year. Finally, over the past few years, our family has begun adding Orthodox ornaments to our Christmas tree to help the children see the connection between the beautiful tree and the story of the Nativity. You can cut out paper icons, mount them on cardstock, and glue a ribbon at the top for a very simple ornament. Or, make a cross out of wood and paint it.
9. Go Stargazing
What small child doesn’t love staying up late at night?! Spend one night around Christmas outdoors looking at the stars. You can even use constellation maps to point out various features of the night sky while you tell the story of the wise men, who followed a star and found a King. End the evening with a cup of hot cocoa and the singing of the Nativity troparion, which mentions the wise men.
“Thy nativity, O Christ our God,
has shown to the world the light of wisdom;
for by it, those who worshipped the stars
were taught by a star to adore Thee
the Sun of Righteousness,
and to know Thee, the Orient from on high.
O Lord, glory to Thee.”
10. Create Your Own Polar Express
Sylvia from Adventures of an Orthodox Mom has a lovely family tradition. Each year she and her husband give their kids tickets to the “Polar Express,” aka the family mini-van. The family reads the story, makes popcorn and hot chocolate, get into their pajamas, and go off in search of Christmas lights. Such a simple, fun tradition! You can read more about it (plus get a free printable ticket) here.
Celebrating a meaningful Christmas with your family does not have to destroy your budget. Instead simple activities that help your family enjoy time together and to focus on the amazing mystery of God becoming man will lead to a joyful Nativity.
What traditions does your family have?
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