My challenge as a Christian parent is to offset some of the mooshy, glitter-covered Santa fest with some real spiritual stuff. What do I mean by that? Basically, I want the Advent and Christmas period to be a time when we reconnect with the nativity story in a fresh way. I want us to have moments of pause and prayer, and of connection with each other and God. I want us to use this time of plenty to be generous and bless the people around us. So, what can we do?

Repeat the good bits

All good traditions are simple enough to be easily repeated. This might be something seemingly ‘unspiritual’, such as going to choose the Christmas tree together or going for a drive or walk to see some Christmas lights. However, activities that give us special moments together are precious and build relationships in which faith can flourish.

I get the same Christmas books and toys out each Advent, plus a few new bits I might have bought in the January sales. Somehow, having these same items that have been packed away for most of the year makes them familiar and new at the same time. This allows us to build on our experiences and theological ‘work’ from the last year.

Doing what you enjoy and inviting other family members to join you is a great way of growing faith together 

Do stuff you enjoy together

I love doing craft activities, so in November I usually put together a box of things we can use to make paper chains, Christmas cards and so on. We don’t have to do them all at once or even the whole range, but I find putting a box of different things out inspires my children’s creativity.

When they were babies and toddlers, I put together a sensory box of Christmassy things, such as bells, tinsel and a wrapping station, with paper and bits of tape on the side of a box so they could wrap keyrings as presents for family members. Doing what you enjoy and inviting other family members to join you is a great way of growing faith together. What do you love doing? Do that, bring Jesus into it and invite your children to join you if they would like to.

Find an old but new way to explore the story

I love nativity sets, and I find they are an easy way to ‘play the story’. You can have a nativity set out for open-ended play. Younger children (and some older ones) will enjoy using cloth and dressing-up props to role-play the story or create a play. Older children might like to use the nativity set or other toys, such as Lego, to make a book or film of the story. You might want to get new bits out each week as you read the story. I usually add a different nativity set each week (spot the nativity- set-aholic!).

We often use Playmobil to ‘play’ the story, which is a great way of wondering in a Godly Play sort of way. For example, I might say: “I wonder how many shepherds there were”, “I wonder if they all went to Bethlehem to see the baby”, “I wonder where Jesus was actually born”, “I wonder where you might be in this story” or “I wonder which part of this story you like most”.

I’ve noticed that by setting things up, then stepping back and watching, it’s often possible to see the children’s answers to some of these questions through their play. For example, one year my 18-month-old kept getting Mary to pick up the baby and would then gently kiss the baby. She couldn’t use words or write down her emerging theology, but she clearly understood that this was a special baby who needed his mother to take care of him. What an amazing understanding of God with us: a special baby like no other who was so vulnerable he needed a mother.

Another year my 3-year-old kept playing with the shepherds, sheep and angels, bringing other characters from other sets in to join them. She repeated this particular part of the story many times in different ways, obviously processing something. Again, she couldn’t explain, and I didn’t ask what she was doing. I was just thankful that it was such an accessible way for her to connect with this huge faith story.

This year I am thinking of doing a Christmas Bible story / nativity set version of The Elf on the Shelf, moving the nativity characters around the house and letting them ‘play’ with the other toys. I thought I could print sections of the Bible story onto rolled-up pieces of paper and have various nativity characters in a different place each morning, with one holding a story scroll. Sometimes the other toys might dress up as characters in the nativity story or try to join in somehow (climbing inside Mary and Joseph’s luggage, for example). I’m keen to keep it fairly simple and easy to set up, as I won’t do it each day if it’s too much. (You can see if I end up doing this on my GodVenture Facebook page.)

In a few years’ time I hope to explore the names of Jesus with them, dipping into things they may have learnt about during the year, and tying together different elements of his character and the purpose of his birth.

Bless other people

One of the things I struggle with is how, especially for children, Christmas is often about the gifts they will receive rather than those they will give. At least once every December a random stranger will ask my children what Santa is bringing them (we don’t do Santa, so this always leads to a strange conversation!).

I love finding ways to bless other people during Advent, a little like the 40Acts generosity challenge during Lent. Again, it needs to be doable, so when my children were tiny I simply encouraged them to make or wrap presents for family members. Now they are primary age they can think of people they would like to bless, for example people who are less fortunate than them or whose work is largely unheralded.

This could be as simple as leaving a note and a chocolate bar for the person who brings the post or having a box of chocolates near the door and giving one to each delivery man. It could be creating something to send to a sponsor child or to someone working abroad in mission work, or linking up with others to do something meaningful for homeless people or those in need locally. I have a friend who makes pizzas with her children and gives them to the homeless people in her nearby city, having taken orders from them the day before! What a wonderful way to bless them and to give her children a hands-on way of blessing others.

Don’t try to do everything!

Christmas is an easy time to become swamped, so get your bold hat on and work out what you want to do and what you’re going to say a kind but firm no to. This way you’ll be able to really focus on what you want to, which is probably spending quality time together connecting with God.