Celebrating Advent and Christmas Purposefully

14 Apr

We have been working out the last several years how to celebrate major holidays in a manner that focuses us on the glory of God, and sets aside the self-centered hype of the traditions and culture around us.

Christmas time has been the hardest holiday to do that. There is so much cultural emphasis on it, so many cultural traditions and expectations tied to it here. Most of them have nothing to do with Jesus, few of them seek to glorify God at all.

We don’t put up Christmas lights. We don’t use a Christmas tree. We don’t give gifts. We don’t host Christmas parties. Not that any of those things are bad in themselves. If you do them as a Christian, you’re not some kind of “sub-spiritual” person.

After all, the lights of Christmas were once to remember that Jesus, the Light of the World, came to us. And Martin Luther supposedly thought the evergreen tree was a wonderful way to use God’s creation as a reminder that He came to give us life.

However, it’s so easy for these things to get mixed up in things that actually detract from the work of Jesus and the glory of God, that we choose to opt out of them during the Christmas season.

So here’s a list (and some pictures) of ways we have found to celebrate the season.

1) Make and use a Jesse Tree

My #1 favorite thing we have done so far is make a Jesse Tree to use during Advent. Right now, this is a poster for us, since we don’t have anywhere to put a “branch” tree, and I’m a little leery with toddlers around, to have anything more substantial. I found the scripture readings and ideas for symbols here, but the RCA site and CatholicCulture.org have some good ideas, too. The RCA (Reformed Church in America) even has an instructional on how to host an intergenerational Advent-Jesse Tree party!

Here’s what our tree looks like –


If you Google search images for Jesse Tree, you will find a wide variation of ways to creatively make your own Jesse Tree. Some pictures will even come from sites with DIY instructions. One such place, Domestic-Church.com, has DIY instructions here. I found my symbols one by one as free clip art, in Google images. Trust me, that was tedious!

One of the main reasons I love using the Jesse Tree for Advent (besides the fact that it gives us a way to celebrate the season every day, not just on Sundays) is that with a well designed scripture reading schedule, we actually walk through the main stories of the Bible in a month. Genesis to Jesus. And it gives us a GREAT overview of the whole story of Jesus, how He is the main character of the Old (not just the New) Testament.

2) 12 Days of Christmas Calendar

I don’t have a picture of this. Hopefully, in the near future, I’ll get one uploaded. If not, I’ll at least try to get the documents I used for this uploaded.

But, the long and short of it is, I found instructions for Noel Piper’s “Noel Calendar” and altered it a bit so that it fit into 12 days — the 12 days after Christmas, between Christmas Day and Epiphany (Dec. 26th – Jan. 6th). Then on the back of our Jesse Tree poster, I made our 12 Days of Christmas calendar, where bit by bit we build a “nativity” scene. I really love this because it extends the Christmas season so that after Dec. 25, there’s no huge “let down”. Over the course of 12 days, we cumulatively recite the story of Jesus’ birth. Each day is a short “prose” summary of an event in the story. This activity is simple, short, and repetitive — a really excellent way to help young children memorize the events surrounding the birth of Jesus.

If you’d like the original story to work with, until I can get my altered version up, here it is on Noel Piper’s blog.

3) Make a Nativity

Every year since our oldest son was born, we have made a nativity.

Year 1 – Sock doll nativity characters (so far, we have Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, a Shepherd, one Sheep, an Angel, and 3 Wisemen). Our boys LOVE playing with these little sock people. They are soft, simple, washable, chewable, throwable, and generally indestructible. 🙂 (Sorry, no picture of this yet, either.)

Year 2 – Salt Dough nativity — this was fun to make and paint. Just FYI, don’t try to put it outside for decoration. The squirrels ate baby Jesus and thought the Wisemen were pretty tasty, too!!





I used just a basic salt dough recipe, shaped individual pieces, baked them in the oven, painted everything with a white craft acrylic paint as a base for the colored acrylic paints, hot glued everything together, and finished everything off with a clear coat of acrylic sealer once I finished painting everything. We collected twigs in our yard, and hot glued those together to form the “manger” and “stable” for our nativity scene.

Year 3 – Gingerbread Nativity — the demise of baby Jesus and the Wisemen from our salt dough nativity gave me an idea for the next year. An edible nativity! So, we made up some gingerbread dough, shaped it by hand (or if you have small cookie cutter shapes, you could use those – boy, girl, sheep and other nativity scene animals), and baked up our cookies. Then we colored some vanilla icing (or you can make your own) and iced up our cookies. (Tip: When coloring icing, especially homemade butter-based icing, use Wilton gel colors, not liquid cheap food coloring. The icing colors look grainy otherwise.) I used the lid to a glass Pyrex bowl as the base for our nativity, so I could seal the glass bowl over the top and keep our cookies around for a few weeks before we had to eat them.


Sorry the picture isn’t more clear, but you probably get the idea that decorating cookies with a 2 or 3 year old isn’t going to produce the most artistically appealing set of cookies you’ve ever seen. But they sure tasted yummy, even after a week and a half under the glass!!!

Here’s a picture of another attempt at a “prettier” gingerbread nativity


Year 4 – Woodblock Nativity — I found the idea to make a woodblock nativity here. Actually, if you Google images for “woodblock nativity”, you will find literally hundreds of ideas and variations! Here’s another one I really liked.

And here’s what ours looks like.


I cut out small squares of paper, drew the characters on them with thin-tip Sharpies, pulled out our old set of alphabet woodblocks, painted a faded side with white acrylic paint, and then used Mod Podge to glue/paint them on the blocks after the white side dried. I think for next year, I will add the matching “word” and “scripture” on the blocks, like at yellowspool.com.

Year 5Toilet Paper Roll Nativity — we haven’t done this yet, it’s my craft for this next year. But I thought this was just a brilliant idea to do with our 4 year old. And I’m sure his little brother, who will be 2 by then, will enjoy it very much, too.

4) Learn one old (before 1960) and one “new” (in the last 50 years) Christmas hymns or Christ-centere carols — learn them, start to finish, every verse. Sing them as often as you get the chance — while making Christmas cookies, or decorating the house, or dancing around the living room, at night before bed, during family worship, riding in the car, or whenever you need something to do. Try to pick ones that are rich in theology (say, “Hark the Herald” or “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”), tell some of the story of Jesus’ birth (“O Little Town of Bethlehem” or “Mary, Did You Know”), and are fun to sing (“Angels We Have Heard On High” or “Hark How the Bells”). When you run out of traditional ones, have fun finding and learning traditional Christmas songs from other cultures.

5) Try once or twice a week making a special traditional Christmas time food from another country. Christmas has long been celebrated worldwide, so it’s a great time branch out for a taste of international flavors in music, customs, and foods. Go here for some ideas of what you can try. Pray for the countries you “sample”, that Jesus would be known and worshipped there as their greatest treasure.


I hope you found these ideas helpful. I’ll be adding to them from year to year. You can pretty much do these just about anywhere. Next blog, I’ll give ideas of things we’ve done locally and for decorations, since we like to keep things simple for the Christmas season.



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