Creating Meaning, Embracing Joy: 6 Christmas Ideas from our Family to Yours

They took every single Christmas gift, that night our home was burglarized just before Christmas in 2012. Our house was ransacked… but the memory that stands out to all of us most vividly is all of those Christmas presents… gone.

The following year, 2013, the news came just before Thanksgiving: my husband Brian’s workplace would close its doors in December.

In 2012, when word went around about the burglary, packages, gift cards, and cash gifts began to pour in from friends, neighbors, even strangers. Our own Christmas was so provided for that we had to pass significant gifts on to others with much greater needs than ours. Our kids, though, were deeply impacted by the experience of being on such a bountiful receiving end. “Mom,” declared one of my sons, “I think we’re rich in friends.

In 2013, with discretionary money low, we tightened our belts and exchanged “gifts of service” to each other. We raided the account we have set aside for “giving to others”, and we secretly bought each other gifts like soccer balls for kids in Africa, physical therapy for kids in Eastern Europe, school fees for girls in Asia, tailored as personally to others’ hearts and interests as possible. That Christmas when we exchanged our gifts, our kids declared it their favorite Christmas ever.

2014 was a normal year. The number of gifts under the tree looked normal again. But in my journal that year I recorded this:

“By the grace of God something most not-normal has happened through those last two Christmases — our kids have learned to take extravagant delight in all of the details of Christmas that are NOT about receiving. They have learned gratitude for small things, and the pleasure of seeing others’ enjoyment. And they’ve also learned to receive a gift as it is intended when given… as an expression of the love of the giver — Once again, hard things and disappointments have brought forth fruit that looks like compassion and joy. Lounging on the floor with them, watching this play out… this may just have been MY favorite Christmas.

Christmas for us is not December 25, but a month-long flurry of lights and music that begins officially the day after Thanksgiving and doesn’t end until the sad day when the now-turned-fire-hazard tree finally comes down in January. The Zinns LOVE Christmas. Year after year though, as the planning and the activity begin to kick into gear, Brian and I talk and pray and wrestle with the questions — “HOW do we engage all of this fun… AND help our children to be freed from that icy grip of materialism? HOW do we cut through the exhilarating exhaustion and teach ourselves of the God who speaks in stillness? And HOW do we never, never lose our wonder that Almighty God would take on flesh and draw us near?”

We never get those answers completely right.

Prayer and intentionality are powerful though – and over the years their imprint can look like some great ideas. So, from our house to yours, here are some ways the Zinns have found to make Christmas meaningful:

1. Build your family identity – Make some traditions

Here’s the deal with traditions. They create expectations and they can take hard work to pull off. But when the Christmas presents have all been stolen and your house has been ransacked, or that salary just disappeared, or many far worse things happen that send life spinning, traditions have a way of giving a sense of stability, helping us feel like we still know which step to take next. They create a sense of family or community identity that lets us say to each other “No matter what happens, some things are still true… and you belong here.”

Your traditions can look like your family – and they don’t have to involve much money. The specifics of the tradition are much less important than just the fact that you are building them.

Many things change from Christmas to Christmas, but in the Zinn house, these are some of the things that stay the same:

  • A family outing to the local tree farm on the day after Thanksgiving (usually with everyone bundled up in rain gear).
  • Everyone crowded around the Christmas tree, hanging all those kid-made and souvenir ornaments, telling and retelling the stories of different Christmases. (“Mom! These shouldn’t be called Christmas Trees! They should be called Memory Trees – because every one of these ornaments has a memory!”)
  • Sitting together to frost those piles of best-sugar-cookies-ever that Brian’s mom ships to us each year.
  • Watching “Elf” – because you have never fully appreciated how funny that movie is until you’ve seen it with our son Tillman!
  • Candlelit Christmas Eve services with our much-loved church family.
  • “Happy Birthday Jesus” coffee cake, after reading the Christmas story in the book of Luke on Christmas morning, complete with a candle and a rousing song of “happy birthday”. Little kids love this – and then even teenagers don’t want it to stop…
  • Advent Time. This one needs its own section. See below

*And for those of you in the years of labor-intensive babies and preschoolers — or moody teenagers — here’s the twinkle-eyed word my mama gave me years ago when I bemoaned to her of how worn out I was after a particular “fun” outing: “Oh honey! The goal wasn’t for you to have fun today. The goal is to build your family — and you know what… you do that, and you’ll end up having a whole lot of fun along the way.” She was 100% right!

What are some of the inexpensive, build-your-family (or community!) Christmas traditions in your life?

2. Create quiet – right in the middle of the noise

The night of that burglary, with the police now gone and the house a torn-apart disaster around us, we looked at each other wide-eyed, wondering where to start – and in that moment, we made a decision. We left the mess just as it was and plopped down on the floor together to do what we do every evening in December: we call it Advent Time, and we knew that night, it would be what our souls needed as nothing else would.

Okay, take the “every evening” comment with a healthy grain of salt. “Every evening” is…ahem… the goal. Yeah… we never come close. But we certainly come closer than we would if there was no goal!

Here’s what Advent Time looks like in the Zinn house:

  • We have a setup of 25 candles, and we light an additional candle each evening of December. As the candles are being lit, we recite together these two verses (initially we read them, until everyone can say them together):
    • “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made and without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
    • “Jesus said: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
  • We read a short passage of Scripture or an Advent devotional. The first chapters of Matthew and Luke are great Nativity story passages, but we’ve also used that time to read prophecies from the Old Testament, or Jesus’ declarations about himself in the Gospels. Lots of options. Youversion has some great, free Advent devotional material you can use. Children’s Bible picture books make great material for littler ones.
  • We each share one “thankful” from that particular day. Or we use Ann Voskamp’s December Joy Dare for some creative thankful ideas!
  • We sing a sacred Christmas song.
  • We close by each praying for one person outside of our family.

It’s about 20 minutes … unless we all end up mesmerized by the candlelight and the company and have a hard time pulling ourselves away from that living room floor…

Full disclosure: we have started many an Advent Time cranky and irritable, tired and overwhelmed by the demands of the day and the season. We have wrangled kids and groused at them when we shouldn’t have. We have practically pulled teeth sometimes to get a sullen adolescent to find a “thankful” to express that wasn’t said every night before or just spoken by someone else. And sometimes, the silliness just completely takes over…

But you know what? “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” And without fail, something very much like light, very much like life penetrates my weary soul.

And our kids have come to insist on these evenings.

What are some of the ways you are intentionally creating quiet space for your family or community in the press of the season?

3. Practice generosity – and teach it to your family

The materialistic press of Christmas is no secret, and was one of the first concerns my husband and I had early on in our kid-raising. It doesn’t take much (nothing, maybe?) for a kid to get completely me-focused. Actually, it doesn’t take much for me to get completely me-focused, either…

Generosity is a high value in the Zinn house, and is something we practice all year long through the “tithe” and other giving opportunities. However, we recognize that the extra cultural emphasis on materialism at Christmas requires an extra Zinn-family emphasis on generosity in order to counter the greed-beast in our own hearts.

There are endless ways to do this. Again, the important thing is not how you practice generosity, but that you practice generosity – and that you do it as a family.

Here are some ways we’ve tackled this over the years:

  • Little kids can start by learning that Christmas is about giving, not just receiving. For a number of years, we took our little ones to the Dollar Store so they could shop for other members of the family. For some of us, thinking of others comes harder than for others – and this is a great, simple way to practice.
  • Now that our kids are older, we require that they save for Christmas and that they each shop with their own money (with an agreed-upon budget amount) for family members. They learn the reality of sacrificial giving… something good for them to remember as they make their own wishlists. And they have had so much fun teaming up with each other so they could afford to get higher-value gifts that they know someone is really wanting!
  • We have often had a “Jesus stocking” that we designate for family members to secretly put cash into – however much they want. At Christmas, we open the stocking, count the money and decide together as a family what special act of generosity we will do together. The year of the burglary, the fact that the “Jesus stocking” was NOT stolen was a point of enthusiastic celebration for our kids!
  • Generosity is not just about money. It’s also about time and relationship. We have often looked for some way to serve together at Christmas. For several years, we have provided kids’ activities for a local Christmas party in a neighborhood with some intense needs – and by serving repeatedly in the same place, we have built some great relationships!

What are some of the ways that your family is intentionally teaching each other generosity at Christmas?

4. Make room at the table

While we usually only saw him in stained and crumpled clothes, with ragged beard and unkempt hair, he arrived at our home last Christmas morning clean shaven, in a carefully pressed, buttoned shirt. Our neighbor, “The Old Indian” as he called himself, had been continually deteriorating each year we’d known him – and was about as alone as a man could be. He and another neighbor were joining us for a late Christmas breakfast, and this tough old man got misty-eyed as we lounged around the table.

“I can’t remember the last time I celebrated Christmas with someone.”

And I prayed in that moment: May I never complain of the busy-ness of this season again.

Over the years, we have found late-morning Christmas breakfast a relatively easy way to invite people to join us for Christmas. “Breakfast” communicates FAR lower formality or family expectations than does “Dinner,” and people have always implicitly understood that a breakfast invitation did not extend to the entire day (unlike dinner, which can say “stay until we all say good night”). We’re usually done with Christmas morning family festivities by the time guests arrive – but the years when we weren’t… well, it’s good for all of us to practice patience.

For many of us, the Christmas season is full of joy – and the greatest trial is the press of the tasks. But we have found, again and again and again, that all around us there are people for whom Christmas has little to no joy because they are so alone. If we can be creative and flexible, we can find ways to make room for others and still leave room for our own families.

What ways have you found to make room at the table for others during the Christmas season?

5. Throw parties

Do you know that one of the ways children celebrate Christmas in Mexico – and other parts of Latin America – is with piñatas? I spent some years as an elementary Spanish teacher, and it didn’t take long for me to figure out that there are few things kids love to combine more than Christmas and piñatas.

For a good stretch of years, while my kids were in elementary and middle school, we threw “Happy Birthday Jesus” parties for our kids’ public school friends from every kind of background. We packed the house with craziness, girls and boys all together with Christmas crafts and games.

One game was always a “Christmas story” skit, where we had kids draw from a hat the names of characters from the story of Jesus’ birth – and then provided the kids with newspapers and masking tape with which to create costumes for themselves. A narrator (in later years, one of my kids) told the story while each person or group acted out their part as they heard themselves called. Absolutely hilarious.

Sacrilege? I am convinced that Jesus grinned along with us, and took joy in the curious conversations that emerged: “So, who’s David?” Or “If Joseph was Jesus’ father, does that mean Joseph is God?” Or that deeply meaningful comment: “I’ve never heard this story before.”

When you top the party off with a cake, candle and rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday”, and a piñata-finale (even more loved by the kids with Mexican heritage!), you have a recipe for a whole lot of fun.

And I can’t even tell you how often we had parents who didn’t know Jesus decide to stay for the whole thing, just to see what it was all about. Talk about an easy opening for a gospel conversation!

Have you found ways to add meaning to your Christmas through a party?? I’d love to hear!

6. Make space for Jesus to create meaning for YOU!

So this one is last – but it’s the piece on which all the rest of these ideas depend. All this talk of meaning and joy and fun is not to deny for an instant that Christmas can be exhausting, stressful, disappointing, even sad.

Your best shot at creating meaning during the Christmas season for your family and community? Intentionally making space to allow Jesus to create meaning for you.

I have to stop right here. If you do not have a relationship with Jesus that is real and personal, it all starts there. I don’t mean you know about him, or that you’ve been a decent person, or that you’ve walked through churchy rituals. I mean that you share his heart. If you haven’t ever started that journey – or you walked away from it – this article is a beautiful description of how to take those steps.

Nothing you do for your family will matter nearly as much as the person that you are. Building meaning for your family or community will just turn into more expectations and pressure and busy-ness — unless Jesus himself is supplying your strength and compassion and joy. And over and over, he does exactly that when we take some quiet moments and read and reflect on his words to us in the Bible.

For a wealth of free Advent devotionals and Bible reading plans, check out these at www.youversion.com. There is also a beautiful Facebook Group you can check out called “The Word Together.” Again, the particular plan you use matters FAR less than that you actually take the time to connect with Jesus’ heart.

Here’s the deal, friend: If you do NOTHING else of this list of ideas this Christmas, do THIS. Make time to hear from Jesus, to let him shape your heart.

Remember: Nothing you do for your family will matter nearly as much as the person you are.

What are some of the ways that you are making space for Jesus to create meaning for you personally in this season?

A Final Note:

Life is full of seasons. Not just the holidays, but the rhythms of different stages of kids and work and life. Our current family season includes four high-school wrestlers and a wrestling coach — which means December in our home at this stage looks a lot like… wrestling. Some of the ideas you’re seeing here are happening in the Zinn home this year – and some are not. And that’s great!

These are ideas, not expectations. Your job – and mine – is to build meaning and joy that fit with the place in life that God has us NOW. This means it’s an ever-changing journey, full of creativity and adventure. So get rid of any sense of pressure – and embrace the JOY of this particular place, this particular season.

And because the journey is ever-changing, I’d love to hear about the ways YOU create meaning and embrace joy in this season!