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Your Questions Answered: Christmas Season Edition

A well-rounded Charlotte Mason education involves living ideas from great books, the discipline of good habits, and the atmosphere of our homes. We’d like to focus on that third aspect today.

My friend and co-worker Laura Pitney is here to talk about creating a delightful atmosphere during the Christmas season. Now, I know not all of you celebrate that holiday, but Laura’s family and my family do, so we’d just like to share some of our favorite traditions and ideas of the season. And hopefully, you’ll be able to get some ideas and encouragement for creating a special holiday atmosphere in your own home, whether Christmas-themed or otherwise.

Sonya: So let’s talk Christmas.

Laura: Okay, let’s do it.

Sonya: Some things that we have always enjoyed is having the children narrate the Christmas story from Luke 2. It started out when they were little. We have a little nativity set—I tried to get one that was family friendly, that the kids could actually play with and handle—and so they would act it out and tell the story. And then that morphed into doing it with their stuffed animals. That was getting pretty elaborate: they had a King Herod and the whole bit. And then that morphed into their doing it themselves. I remember my third daughter wasn’t very tall, wasn’t very big, because they put wings on her to be an angel and I remember her standing on the kitchen counter, saying her little piece. I don’t know how old she was. Pretty small.

Laura: And that was really safe too.

Sonya: [laughing] Yes, absolutely. As they got older, that morphed into their making a movie of it, and then we would show the movie. So they did the presentation in many kinds of ways, but in a way they were narrating. That made our Christmas time very special.

Laura: We’ve done similar to that. I have three girls, and fortunately my son doesn’t mind being in the plays as well; but during that time of year doing that particular dramatization is part of our home as well.

Sonya: Another thing that we have enjoyed is the artwork. We take a break from studying one particular artist during the month of December, and I have a book of the Life of Christ. It still has pictures from master artists, but it just goes through chronologically. So we display a different picture from a different artist each week, but we focus on the nativity scene and the reason for the Christmas season in that way.

Laura: And that’s a good, gentle touch to add to that atmosphere of the home: the focus of the season.

Sonya: Now, I know you do some beautiful decorating. That’s not my forte, so have at it.

Laura: When the first part of December rolls around, I’m really anxious to be done with school. I’m just ready for the break. I’m more excited about the times coming up with family and friends and that kind of thing. So I tend to take those last couple of weeks to our term and focus on the art projects or the handicrafts or service projects—what we can do for others around us. Last year we did yard work for a lady in our church; that was part of our service projects. We should probably help her more than just once a year, but that was purposeful for that time of year—to see a need and try to fulfill it. Some friends of mine and I, our families, all got together and did Christmas cards to send some cheer to whoever was on our list. But then, in the atmosphere of our home, I’ve had to let go of my wanting control over how my house looks, because that’s not the the important thing; it’s my kids wanting to contribute their best effort, their love for me, their love for our home. And so we’ve had pinecones lined up across our mantel that they’ve taken the time to decorate with glitter or little pompoms, and that’s their way of adding to the home. I’ve had children cut out pennant flags to stream across a window or a cabinet. We’ve had practice with place settings; they’ve made different place settings for all the family members and set the table officially (Rather than just like, “Here’s your food,” throwing it at them). It was an official place setting table runner. Years ago I wanted it all to look like a magazine, because that’s my happy place. I enjoy looking around and seeing little touches of things that bring me pleasure. But over the years it’s morphed into my children wanting to contribute, and I can’t deny them that.

Sonya: No, that brings you pleasure as well.

Laura: It does, and even the nature component—we have evergreens in our yard, cedars, Cypress, we have holly berries,—so even using the things that are growing in our yard that time of year, we bring inside as decorations. We’ve made sweet little wreathes that we hang from our light over our kitchen table. It’s the whole Little Women scenes happening in my house, which, you know, brings my heart joy. Even them taking the time to sweep off our front porch and putting some poinsettias out to make it inviting to the people who walk down our sidewalk. It radiates joy and happiness, and it’s welcoming. I feel like that’s important for my children to see, because I want them to be hospitable. I want them to want to take care of our home. It’s just that little component of atmosphere, but it’s sweet; and I think that it goes a long way, especially when you have friends and family over that time of year.

Sonya: Yes. I think what you mentioned is a key to setting that atmosphere: that the children are part of it and that their contribution is respected.

Laura: Yes.

Sonya: Also, that little remark you made about letting go of your magazine visions; because if you hang on to those too tightly, that could skew your whole attitude and, thus, completely change the atmosphere.

Laura: Right. One of our main traditions that we do every December is—years ago, when my children were little, and I don’t even know how this really happened, but I made a full set of felt ornaments. It was when they were smaller.

Sonya: That’s something!

Laura: I don’t know how it even happened that I had time to sit down and make these ornaments, but I just whipped them up, I guess. Basically, it goes through the lineage of Christ, all through the Old Testament, leading up to His birth. So each day of December, that’s our devotion icon, if you will, that talks about the lineage of Christ leading up to His birth, then we also do His death, burial and resurrection.

Sonya: Oh, nice.

Laura: So we finish the story right then and there. But the hanging up of the ornaments once a day, it’s just a tradition that is simple. We can do it. It’s not an elaborate ordeal. As we’re sitting down for dinner, “What’s our next ornament?” And by now the kids know what they represent. But it’s such a good teaching tool.

Sonya: It is. And there’s nothing wrong with reviewing it.

Laura: Yes, we do it every year.

Sonya: Scripture is full of those feasts that happened every year and the different things that would go with them to use them as a teaching tool. So it makes all kinds of sense. Thinking of the Advent leading up, one thing we used, because I love music, was a book that went through Handel’s Messiah. You would listen to a different track of it or portion of a track (It came with a CD already put together.), and it told you a little bit about that or put an outside story to go with it. That was a special time as well.

Laura: Yes.

Sonya: I’ve also heard of some moms—I thought this was a clever idea, especially with the young children—who had several Christmas books that they love to read every December. At the beginning of the month, they will gift wrap each of those books separately. Then each day of Advent, they get to pick one book and open it to read together. So it’s not that they went out and bought 24 new books every year. It’s the same books every year.

Laura: But the anticipation of opening it.

Sonya: Yes! “Which one is it?” They could probably tell from the shape after a couple of years, but not the little ones, you know. So that’s kind of a nice idea as well.

Laura: Talking about books, one of the dilemmas I found myself in is when my older ones were my only ones, I had the time to read them these great picture books or seasonal books. But as they got older, those books just kind of stayed on the shelf. So for my younger ones that are coming along, I realized that I haven’t even read these books to them that I really invested with my older children. (They’ve moved on to different type books.) So we have this basket in our school room, which has kind of morphed into our living room now, but it’s a basket that has seasonal books in it. It’s free-reads. So for the wintertime, it may be a snow day or it might have, . . . we have a counting book that’s through nature, but it’s all about the season of winter, and then some Christmas books in there as well. Even almost through February, it holds all the winter season books; then I’ll put those back on the shelf and get out my spring books. So then all the spring seasonal books will be in that basket. So they’re kind of like the free-reads, but it also is a reminder for me to read those to my children, especially the younger ones or have an older one read to them. Because they’re a great books, but they just sit on my shelf. Then I have summer ones and then fall, Thanksgiving. It’s just an ongoing basket that is accessible and reminds me, “Oh yeah, we have these great books that go with the season.”

Sonya: That little visual cue.

Laura: Yes. And the habit of getting them out every season helps too.

Sonya: Do you have any special baking that you do?

Laura: Girl, I do not like to cook. It is one of those things that I will ration out. My mom is good with doing the holiday baking.

Sonya: So is mine.

Laura: And I have a friend who will invite the girls over, and they’ll do a whole day of cookies and stuff. So I encourage them, “Yeah, go do that!” It’s just not my happy place. I don’t love it. But the nice thing is, now that my older two have been taught baking things, (and yes, I’ve taught them some things) they can go in the kitchen and bake a batch of cookies or make a cake. So it’s nice to be able to just give them the tools and the permission: Y’all do it and then cleanup. So it does get done, but I’m not necessarily right in the middle of it.

Sonya: I think that can be encouraging for some of our readers for whom that’s not their happy place either. It seems like so much of Christmas is about food.

Laura: Yes.

Sonya: But it doesn’t have to be just the food, right? When I grew up, my mother would make Kringlers every Christmas season, because of her Danish background. Kringlers are melt-in-your-mouth, habit-forming.

Laura: I don’t know if I’ve ever had one.

Sonya: Oh, girl! And then we would also make candy cane cookies. You make a strip of red and a strip of white, and you twist them together and you make them into a candy cane and bake them. And when they came out, while they were still warm, you crush up a bunch of candy canes or peppermint candies and sugar and sprinkled it on top. They were delicious, but so labor intensive, they were only done once a year. And so our family did those for a while, but then my kids were diagnosed with different ailments and we had to make changes in their diets. At least two of them had to go gluten free. It is really hard to make Kringlers and candy-cane cookies when you’re gluten free. So many of the Christmas cookies had to be set aside. We didn’t want them to have to put the work into it and not be able to eat it, and we didn’t want to eat it in front of them. So I just say that to encourage our viewers. Maybe baking is not your happy place, or maybe there are other circumstances that have had to push the baking element to the side, but there are still plenty of other things we can do all together to create that atmosphere in our home.

Laura: We always try to learn a Christmas hymn. (I hate to call them just Christmas hymns, because I know we should celebrate it all year round. But you know, that’s just what they’re labeled.) But we really try to focus on one that honors Christ’s birth—Joy to the World, that kind of genre of hymns. It’s always fun, because now we know quite a few of them, so we can go Christmas caroling. We did that this past year with a lady in our church who lives in a community that is all elderly people—like a 55-and-older community kind of thing. So we asked if a few of us moms could go and sing to her neighbors—

Sonya: With your kids too—

Laura: With the kids, yes. (Singing is not my thing either; I’m not really sure what my thing is.) So we got permission to take our kids to her house and to her neighborhood. So she’s on her little golf cart, telling us where to go because she wanted us to sing specifically to the people she knew in her neighborhood. So we’re just enjoying ourselves, but after the first few houses, I’m huffing and puffing because we’re walking, following the golf cart. Next time I need to do some exercise ahead of time to get prepared.

Sonya: Get your stamina up to do the Christmas carols.

Laura: To sing and walk at the same time. But it was a fun memory, you know; it was fun. And of course, they all had little treats for them and really loved the time. It was beautiful to see the kids, to see that return on investment almost immediately—the joy and the different children’s faces. They were singing their hearts out with the hymns that they have learned. Even if we were out of breath.

Sonya: Another thing I like to do with Christmas carols is that sometimes I can find good books that tell the story behind them. I have a really nice one that tells how Silent Night, Holy Night started: how the organ broke down and they couldn’t use it for the Christmas Eve service; and so the gentleman wrote this song and did it with a guitar, very peaceful; and it just took off from there. Those ideas also make for such sweet times. I really like how the ideas that we’ve shared are not expensive. They’re not elaborate, but they can contribute so much to the atmosphere of our homes. I think we need to be careful, especially during holiday season, that we don’t get caught up in the busyness, in the stress, in the expensiveness that can occur. If we can make our homes a center of harmony and peace and joy, that’s what the kids are going to remember.

Laura: Yes. That’s what we want them to remember.

Sonya: It is. And we’ll be enriched, as well.

How about you, do you have a special Christmas holiday idea or tradition that you would like to share with others? Maybe some of your favorite Christmas read-alouds for the whole family. Go ahead and leave those in the comments, so we can share those ideas with each other.

11 Responses to “Your Questions Answered: Christmas Season Edition”

  1. Pam December 2, 2019 at 10:09 am #

    If possible, please share a link to the Handel’s Messiah book and music recording that was mentioned. It sounds wonderful!

    • Sonya Shafer December 2, 2019 at 12:50 pm #

      The Handel’s Messiah Family Advent Reader by Donna W. Payne and Fran Lenzo. It looks like it might be out of print now, but here’s a link to it on Amazon so you can at least see it.

  2. Pam December 2, 2019 at 10:10 am #

    Also, links to book titles such as the one mentioned about the story behind Silent Night, Holy Night and others. Thank you!

  3. Amy December 2, 2019 at 12:37 pm #

    This is great! I always want to focus less on “school” and do more homey Christmasy things during December and this is very inspiring. That said, I have middle schoolers & a high schooler and I’m always afraid that I’m doing them a disservice by taking some “official” school work off of their plate to replace it with the Christmasy things. As a result, I tend not to. Reality is, I end up feeling guilty either way! Darned if you do, darned if you don’t sorta thing. Help?

    • Sonya Shafer December 3, 2019 at 10:27 am #

      I think it comes down to how you have laid out your schedule of school days for the year. If you’re working off a 36-week school year, you should be able to grab a calendar and determine when that year’s work should be done with various options for breaks. Does that make sense?

      For example, if you started the first week in September, you’ve finished 13 weeks of schoolwork by the end of November. That leaves 23 weeks to go. If you count the number of weeks until the end of May, there are 26. That gives you 3 weeks of wiggle room. You could take 2 weeks off for Christmasy things and still have 1 week during the spring and be done by the end of May. If you started earlier, want to end later, or are schooling year-round, you have even more options.

      So I guess I would recommend that you look at the big picture on a calendar and see what options you have. Then you might present those options to your high schooler to choose from. Does he want to be finished by the end of May? Since most of his work is independent, he can continue on with many of his studies even if you and the younger ones take more time off. So help him determine how he wants to lay out the rest of his year of work in order to accomplish everything.

      Then along with that idea, let me also encourage you that many of the Christmasy things can be counted for schoolwork: decorating (art), caroling (music), presentations and plays at church (drama), baking (home ec. and science), reading (literature). So don’t consider it a total non-schoolwork season. 🙂

  4. Natalie December 2, 2019 at 5:14 pm #

    I loved reading about your families’ traditions! Handel’s Messiah is one of my favorite pieces of classical music – I might try to hunt down a copy of that out of print Advent reader, just to better appreciate it!

    As a Jewish family, our Chanukah traditions are:
    1) making our menorah’s candles using beeswax kits
    2) enjoying a different fried food every night
    3) attending our synagogue’s communal lighting party
    4) baking olive oil cakes as gifts for friends and neighbors
    5) learning traditional songs like Maoz Tzor, S’vivon, and modern hits from Matisyahu, the Maccabeats, etc
    6) talking about the miracle performed for us then and what miracles we see today in our lives
    7) decorating with blue and white lights, as well as candles, all throughout the home
    8) discussing what it means to be proud of our Jewish identity, especially as a minority group in a non-Jewish country.

    May you have a meaningful Advent season and joyous Christmas!

  5. Kristi December 3, 2019 at 1:51 am #

    May you please share the name of the book that depicts the life of Christ by the great artists? Thank you.

    • Sonya Shafer December 3, 2019 at 10:32 am #

      That’s an old Reader’s Digest book that I think I inherited from someone. It’s called The Story of Jesus. The pictures are not large, but I enjoy them as a change of pace.

  6. Janelle December 5, 2019 at 10:49 pm #

    I love this! Today I was stressed and grouchy, and I needed this reminder to take note of our home atmosphere! I often feel like I need to push through as much of December as possible, because we often have unexpected surgeries or guests, so I can’t plan out that schedule ahead like others do. BUT I am convicted about the atmosphere!
    Our usual traditions are that wonderful book-advent you mentioned, Sonya, where we open one wrapped book and read it together each morning, by the fire and the tree. 🙂 In the evenings we read a story from the Jesus Storybook Bible, and hang a corresponding ornament. Super simple, super special.
    We are Christians, but we enjoy reading some Hanukkah books and making latkes and applesauce too 🙂 It doesn’t always work out, but we love caroling and Operation Christmas Child boxes too.
    I really want to work on finding a service project as well as some artsy projects!
    Thanks for your wonderful podcasts! I enjoy them very much.

  7. Janelle December 5, 2019 at 11:08 pm #

    Some of our very favorite Christmas/winter books are:
    -Song of the Stars (Sally Lloyd Jones)
    -Apple Tree Christmas (Trinka Hakes Noble)
    -The Little Drummer Boy (Ezra Jack Keats)
    -The Snowy Day (Ezra Jack Keats)
    -The Christmas Farm (Mary Lyn Ray)
    -Boxes for Katje (Candace Fleming)
    -The Christmas Pageant (Jacqueline Rogers)
    -Hannah’s Bookmobile Christmas (Sally Derby)
    -The Christmas Day Kitten (James Herriot)
    -Latkes and Applesauce (Fran Manushkin)
    -Mr Putter and Tabby Bake the Cake (Cynthia Rylant)
    -The Christmas Tapestry (Patricia Polacco)
    -An Orange for Frankie (Patricia Polacco)
    -Christmas Stories from Grandma’s Attic (Arleta Richardson)

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