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My friend Amy Scott Robinson is one of the deepest, most poetic Christian storytellers and writers that I know. She’s the author of the marvellous Gladstone Tales, the first of which I reviewed right here.
As a mum-of-two and established author, Amy has a busy life, so I was excited to catch up with her recently to ask what can we do during Advent to focus our households on Jesus in the hectic lead up to Christmas. I love her family Advent ideas, and hope they give you loads of good ideas too.
Advent Activities for Families
Lucy: Amy, I know that you and I both love Advent as a season to lead our families in preparation and waiting for Jesus – but you’re a heck of a lot more organised about it than I am! Can you share some of your family traditions over Advent and beyond?
Amy: Yes, I have been known to jokingly call myself ‘Mrs Advent’ because of the way I accumulate traditions for the season! Here are just a couple.
The way we use our Christmas nativity scene mixes traditions from the Spanish Posada and the French Santons de Noel, and we use Playmobil figures which are easy to get hold of.
At the beginning of Advent, we set up an empty stable, perhaps a few animals. Then, every night, I add a couple more to the scene – sheep and shepherds on the ‘hills’ (shelves) or a woman feeding chickens. The children love to spot who has arrived each morning.
Midway through Advent, Mary, Joseph and the donkey begin a journey, beginning upstairs and every day moving to a new surface, visiting every room of the house. Only on Christmas Eve do they finally arrive in the growing stable scene, and after Midnight Mass I pop baby Jesus into the manger.
It doesn’t stop there, though: the scene continues to grow through the twelve days of Christmas, and expands into a modern festive scene, reminding us that the stable is at the centre of everything we’re doing and celebrating. And the wise men begin a similar journey through the house to arrive at Epiphany on January 6th.
We also have an Advent wreath, the German tradition of lighting an extra candle every Sunday of Advent, with a special song that goes with each candle. And we have a Jesse tree to tell the whole story from Creation to the birth of Jesus. Despite the fact that I literally once wrote a book about how to do this as a family, I have to admit that it’s the one that tends to get pushed out – every year, I hope that we’ll be able to focus on it a little more.
Lucy, when you adopted your sons, did they come into your family with their own expectations and experiences of the Christmas season? Perhaps they were too little to have their own ideas of what should happen, but how did you introduce them to your family traditions while honouring their background?
Lucy: At 14 months old, they didn’t really have any expectations – but the lovely thing was that the day they officially moved in was December 1st! So we have a new tradition of beginning December remembering their homecoming, to us, and our ultimate homecoming to heaven. There are so many parallels between Advent and adoption – I blogged about this a few years ago, and it’s now become the first devotion in Redeeming Advent.
Your traditions sound incredible, and I’d love to steal all your ideas! Ours seem very loose by comparison, but we try and stay flexible with four kids, PTA events (I’m currently Chair) as well as all the usual December craziness.
I’m all about using the more secular festivities, the things we might be doing anyway, to point to Jesus. We start by making a Christmas pudding together on Stir-Up Sunday, which is the last Sunday before Advent. We try and encourage our kids (and us) to pray as we take turns to stir it!
I made a felt Advent calendar a few years ago, and am pretty gobsmacked that it’s still in one piece and being used – the children take it in turns to pull out a new character each day. We use an Advent candle too.
We also have an Advent basket, which is an easy tradition for any family to start and continue, as it just gets pulled out each year.
The house gets decorated gradually from the start of Advent, and the tree comes mid-December. Our decorations are mainly things which point to the Christmas story: stars, hearts, lights, angels and so on – although as the kids get older, more Santas and snowmen are drifting in…!
What do you do in the lead up to Christmas?
Lucy: It can be so difficult to maintain our focus on Jesus at what is such a distracting time of year. How do you navigate this with your family, Amy?
Amy: There are two things which help, and neither of them, I’m afraid, is any kind of spiritual discipline. They’re both circumstance.
Firstly, we, like you, are a vicaring family, so most of the things we find ourselves doing during the festive season are centred around church activities.
Secondly, my daughter is autistic, and we have always kept the other things to a minimum – not from a desire to do more Jesus stuff than anything else, but because there’s only a certain amount of changes to routine and extra outings she can handle, and it’s the Jesus-related ones that tend to be obligatory!
The hardest thing to navigate, I think, can be school relationships in a secular environment where everything is Santa and the horrible, hideous elf on the shelf (I’m sorry. Do you have one?!)
Lucy: No we don’t. Insult away!
Amy: Urgh, I really don’t like them! Both the skewing of the season to be ALL about Santa/presents and the nasty idea of something spying on children and reporting back – I really want to reject that link between being ‘good’ and getting gifts.
I try to have conversations about these things with my children, treading a careful line between ‘we believe this’ and ‘but your friends might not, so don’t say it to them’ – not an easy task with an autistic child who sees these things in black and white and thinks people should know if they’re ‘wrong’!
But it’s hard sometimes to know what they’ve come across at school, and sometimes they’ll repeat some misconception and surprise me, while at other times I’ll make a big thing of trying to explain a concept that hadn’t even occurred to them.
How do you deal with Santa as a Christian family?
Amy: A few years ago, I ended up writing a poem and posting it on social media, about Santa, St Nicholas and the grace of God, which turned out to be very popular – so I can’t be the only one struggling to get the balance right!
Lucy: I loved your poem, as it encapsulated (and even refreshed) how we ‘do’ Santa at home with our family. (I hope you’ll release it as a picture book one day…pretty please??)
Amy: I have been ‘in talks’ about doing so. I shall say no more…just yet! I saw in your book that you have a great take on Santa, too – can you tell me more about that?
Lucy: We love to teach about St Nicholas. You get researching and you find this awesome saint, a radical God-fearer who lived simply and had very little, yet gave sacrificially, both materially and spiritually. He poured out his life for the community God called him to serve, and I think he is such a great role model to remember at Christmas.
We have a couple of good storybooks about St Nicholas that we share with our kids. In answer to the question ‘Is Santa real?’, we say ‘Well he was a real person, who loved Jesus and was generous to the poor – but he’s died now, and we remember him through Santa!’.
We do small-scale stuff like writing letters to ‘Santa’ and hanging up stockings and leaving out mince pies (or, to be honest, any scraps of food we can find on the evening of the 24th!), but otherwise Santa isn’t a major part of our festivities.
I can relate to what you say about keeping normal routines going as much as possible through December for your autistic daughter. My twins are adopted, and you and I have spoken before of some of the similarities between autism and attachment disorder: a fear of transition and change, for example.
(Check out the Four Types of Attachment Styles if you’re new to this.)
But all of us struggle with different things at different times – none of us are perfect. At Christmas we celebrate the good news of Immanuel, God with us. What hope does this offer our children, do you think, when they find life difficult?
Amy: I think it’s so important for children that at Christmas, we celebrate and remember Jesus as a child. Even though we don’t have stories about his childhood between baby and 12 year old, we still know that he had to grow up and experience the same frustrations, fears and feelings that every child knows.
Victorian writers of Christmas carols liked to focus on the fact that Jesus was a perfect child, which is perhaps less helpful to our children today! All the same, the message of ‘tears and smiles like us he knew’, taken out of its twee setting, is important. He was human. He was here. God really did become one of us. He knows what it’s like to be little.
Lucy: What an encouraging thought for our little people this Christmas. Thanks Amy!