On Christmas, here are three essential things parents must do with their kids

The most wonderful time of the year is not without its headaches and stressors. Each year we rush to buy gifts, decorate our homes, attend parties, wrap presents, whip up desserts, and navigate family meals and gatherings. All of this with as much cheer and as little pain as possible.

To top it off, there are endless television commercials, website articles, and mall advertisements telling us what to buy, how to decorate, and which foods to fix if we want to have a happy Christmas. It all seems so complicated.

But there are some very simple ways for families to experience the warmth and wonder of Christmas without overextending our budgets, stressing ourselves and missing out on the peace and beauty that should characterize this season. Here are three things every parent can do to make the Christmas experience what it ought to be:

Tell the Christmas story in a way that warms your children’s hearts.

Nothing is more important than gathering the family to tell the story of a God who loves us so much that he came to live among us (Luke 2). Nothing is more heartwarming than knowing that the babe in a manger grew up to be the Savior of the world (John 3). Nothing is more crucial than understanding that this Savior suffered for us on a cross, rose from the dead and will return one day to set the world aright.

When we tell this story, we teach our children the true meaning of Christmas. We teach them that they can and should trust Christ. As Sally Lloyd-Jones puts it, Jesus’ love is a “never stopping, never giving up, unbreakable, always and forever love.”

When God chose to be born as a child, he was also choosing a way of life in which one day he would suffer and die on a cross to pay the penalty for our sins. If he is willing to suffer on our behalf, we and our children can trust him with our circumstances and concerns.

So, let’s teach our children about Jesus, encouraging them to tap into the deep reservoirs of his love so that his love will flow through us toward others. God’s gift to us is that he was willing to be born in a stable, wrapped in rough cloth, and cradled in a feeding trough. There was no depth too low, no distance too far, no sacrifice too great.

With Jesus as our example, we can learn to value others instead of self, to give rather than take, to sacrifice rather than hoard.

Tell the Santa story in a way that connects to the Christmas story.

Even though the Santa myth is not true in the same way the Christmas story is true, we can tell the Santa story in a way that helps our children understand certain realities about God and ourselves.

By allowing our children to imagine a Santa who travels from the North Pole to offer presents even to children who do not deserve them, we can draw an analogy with God who came from heaven to Earth to give us what we could never earn or deserve.

By telling the myth of St. Nicholas, who loved the children and gave them presents without expecting anything in return, we help their little hearts understand that God gives himself to us even though we really have nothing to give in return.

So, instead of replacing the Santa story with cold hard facts (Santa does not exist!) or letting corporations hijack Christmas by turning it into a retail event, we can use it as a warm and wonderful resource to teach our children truths about God and ourselves.

Start some simple traditions that enact the meaning of Christmas.

As we center our family’s Christmas on the Jesus story and illustrate it with the Santa story, we can take advantage of an invaluable opportunity to build family traditions and create memories that flow from the meaning of Christmas.

Think about it. It would be odd, wouldn’t it, if our Christmas stories focused on loving and sacrificing while our Christmas habits focused exclusively on hoarding and consuming?

So, let’s focus on loving others and serving them. Buy a gift for a needy child in another country. Invite a lonely neighbor into your home for a Christmas celebration. Sing carols at a homeless shelter or senior citizen’s home. Participate in an Angel Tree ministry for children whose parents are incarcerated. Make Christmas gifts or ornaments for an elderly person whose children live far away.

The specific activities don’t matter as much as the big point: we want to create traditions that focus on Christ and allow us to be conduits of his love for others.

The truth is that the holidays rarely live up to the expectations we set in our minds and imaginations. There will be mess ups in the kitchen, arguments with family members, last minute changes. But that’s OK.

Instead of aspiring to the type of “perfect” Christmas that puts its hopes in elaborate decorations, plentiful gifts, or perfect family conditions, let’s make it simpler and better. Let’s focus on celebrating the babe from Bethlehem, enjoying the Santa story, and starting family traditions that embody the meaning of Christmas.