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Thanksgiving is just a day away (are you ready?) and the Christmas season officially begins with Black Friday, right? Wrong. You know that song, The Twelve Days of Christmas? Well, the first day starts with Christmas Day. So the season that retailers call Christmas is more traditionally known as Advent, the anticipation of the birth of Jesus.

Each year I have high hopes of imbuing our holiday celebrations with meaning and helping our kids to better understand our faith (we’re Catholic). But it can be extremely hard when you’re competing with Santa Claus on every corner and the mainstream idea that it’s really about buying stuff. We observe Advent every year, lighting the candle of the week each night on our wreath, but this year I hope to do a little more to help our kids experience the anticipation of Christ rather than opening a bunch of presents. Here are some of the ways I hope to accomplish that:

Decorating slowly.  I’m all for Christmas decorations. I love the smell of a real pine tree, the lights, and hanging cute wreaths. But once upon a time, people didn’t decorate until Christmas. Nowadays everything’s up before Thanksgiving and down before New Year’s. Traditionally the Christmas season runs until the Epiphany (about eleven days after Christmas). So we’ll buy our tree sometime towards the beginning of December, and decorate it a little each week, but I think we’ll save the lights until Christmas day itself, as a visual reminder of what we’re really celebrating.

St. Nicholas rather than Santa Claus. Whether you believe in saints or not, the secular Santa Claus was based on an historical person. We’ve celebrated St. Nicholas day in past years (the kids leave their shoes out with a carrot or apple for his donkey), but have always put out stockings on Christmas Eve as well. This year, I think we’ll stick with St. Nicholas day (December 6) and forgo Santa Claus. Not that we’ve ever been real adamant about telling or not telling the kids that Santa is real, but we’ve definitely given mixed messages about our values. We can still celebrate the story of St. Nick while focusing less on making our gimme-gimme lists for Santa. The St. Nicholas Center is a great website for more ideas about celebrating St. Nicholas day with your kids.

Making handmade gifts. Most of the time I’ll come up with some sort of crafty gift to make with the kids for our extended family, but this year we’re planning to make gifts for each other. The kids are already excited about planning what they want to make each other (with a little guidance and help from mom and dad of course). And it will help them focus more on giving while also toning down the commercialism of Christmas.

Limiting Christmas commercials. In line with making gifts, I’m also pitching out the giant pile of toy ads jumping out of our newspaper and mailbox (or even the one hanging on our front door today!). I’ve noticed that when the older ones were younger, they were happy and content to open only one or two gifts during birthdays and Christmas. But we insist on getting them tons of stuff and asking them to list off the things they want–of course they’re going to want more if we tell them to! Save yourself the trouble and protect their eyes and hearts from all the junk the world tells us we have to have!

Bake a birthday cake. We are celebrating one important birthday after all. We haven’t done this before, but I couldn’t think of a better way to show children who we’re really celebrating on the big day. And better yet, maybe even thinking of a gift or two we can give Jesus–nothing store bought, of course.

What about you? How do you make the holidays meaningful in your home?