by Julie Coffman Hester
I have a problem with elves. Apart from Will Ferrell in the movie “Elf,” and Hermey the dentist in the Rudolph movie, I could do without them.
My last run-in with an elf was at a community tree lighting ceremony. The church my husband pastored was in charge of the Nativity scene, complete with a live baby Jesus and a handsome wise man and shepherd to whom I was related. Our young daughter and I enjoyed the scene but with so much else to see, her dad and brother in costume only kept her interest for so long. Choirs and dance troupes entertained. Long lines formed for free hot chocolate and wagon rides around the square. Santa arrived on a fire truck and took up residence at the end of the longest line of the night. At my daughter’s insistence, we waited our turn, only to be hustled at the end by a persistent elf offering a candy cane who wanted us to buy a picture with Santa. I declined, my daughter sulked and westrolled back to the Nativity to check on our holy family.
In an evening full of lines and waiting, with significant local church participation, I noticed there was no line to see Jesus. Sure, they had a steady stream of visitors at the Nativity. Little ones were invited to come close and kneel down. But my grumpy side wondered: Why is the baby not the focus of the longest line out here? If the story matters, why not line your children up to come close to the stunning sight of God with us and give thanks? Doesn’t the story of the most transformative birth in human history beat free hot chocolate and a candy cane from an elf?
I hear concerns from parents every year: How do we keep the focus on what really matters at Christmas amid the commercialism of the season? How do we make it about more than the toys? Keeping the biblical narrative central at Christmas can sound like yet another thing Christian parents ought to be doing. What if instead of adding to our to-do lists with all new Nativity-inspired activities, we thought about infusing what we already do with the story of God? And what if the church helped?
In her book “Formational Children’s Ministry,” Ivy Beckwith describes three powerful ways that children’s spiritual imaginations are nurtured: story, ritual and relationships. The Advent/Christmas season is full of opportunities to engage children in all three.
From the beginning, the people of God have used stories to pass on the faith. From the command in Deuteronomy 6 to talk of God at home and away, to Joshua’s call to tell the story of the stones piled by the river Jordan, to the ritual retelling of God at work in the Passover, to Jesus’ own use of stories to illuminate the kingdom of God, to Christmas and Easter … we’ve been telling these amazing stories for millennia. But there are always other narratives at work. Secular Christmas stories are a powerful force. I mentioned two already and you probably knew exactly the movie elves I had in mind. My family loves all the classic Christmas movies. They tell stories we happily revisit together. How do we keep the focus on God’s story at Christmas when there are so many other compelling narratives (perhaps especially the one that involves elves at the North Pole)?
Start with reading the story of Jesus’ birth as a family. You are probably already reading bedtime stories during Advent. Replace them for the season with God’s story. Borrow Christmas storybooks from the library and read a new one each night. Or, read old favorites over again. Let the story of the baby in the manger be the one your family hears the most during the season. Churches can help by giving or recommending good children’s Bible stories or pointing towards other resources.
Keep the story visible. Decorate with the story, with Nativity or Chrismon ornaments on your tree and at least as many angels as elves. Find a prominent place at home for a Nativity set, especially one that children can touch. The story of God breaking into the world is not a hands-off kind of story. It invites us to come close and participate. Start Mary, Joseph and the Magi in different rooms during Advent, moving them closer each night. Invite plastic dinosaurs and Lego figures to join the shepherds around the newborn baby. Everyone is welcome at the manger. Put the Elf on the Shelf at the manger (Do you know about this genius fear-based marketing phenomenon?) and he’ll be too busy worshipping to fly back to the North Pole to tattle on children. Better yet, replace him with some Magi your children have to find in the house every day. Tweak the Christmas rituals you are already doing to highlight the story of Jesus.
I’m around church people so much that I forget Advent is countercultural. One year, I went to a craft store the day before Advent started and asked about Advent wreath supplies. The manager looked puzzled, then brought out a huge box labeled “Advent candles.” “I wasn’t sure what these were,” she said. “So I was waiting to put them out.” I told her she might want to go ahead and get them on the shelves. I hope some other people came looking for them too. Getting Advent wreath materials and calendars in homes, with suggestions for using them, is another gift that churches can provide.
Beckwith says, “The rituals we do with God at the center shape our understanding of who God is and what God values.” I would add: They also shape our children’s understanding of what our family values. Practicing Advent at home sets us apart. We are waiting, not for December 25th and the after-Christmas sales, but for light to shine in the darkness and the Son of God to show up. Advent and its rituals of marking time teach us how to wait, watch, trust and hope. Pinterest is full of ideas for how to make Advent calendars, but we don’t need to craft something spectacular; even an Advent calendar app that children can click on each day works. Bonus points if you find one with the story of Jesus in it, not just snowflakes and elves.
Research shows that shared intergenerational faith experiences at church and at home help form faith that sticks. Churches can strengthen relationships with opportunities for generations to come together to prepare, remember, worship and serve. At home, parents can focus on relationships as they move through the season. Open Christmas cards together with children, and say a prayer for each family and friend. Give gifts of time spent together instead of something from a store. Give three gifts to children like the Magi did and talk about why. Shop for gifts for Angel Tree (a faith-based program that provides Christmas gifts to children whose parents are in prison) together but don’t talk about how we are helping people who can’t afford presents. Instead, recall how God uses ordinary people to show God’s love: a young girl named Mary and the shepherds who told everyone about the baby. Talk about the innkeeper (we’re not doing advanced critical exegesis at the moment): He found a space for Mary and Joseph and shared what he had with them. Talk about how God is at work in our acts of faithfulness and giving to others.
My children, now 18 and 15, list our important family Christmas traditions as these: the wooden Nativity set (story!); opening one present on Christmas Eve, the family Advent wreath, Advent calendars — especially from their German cousins with really good chocolate inside (rituals!); a special family memorial ornament that always goes on our tree first, and eating Chinese food together at some point on Christmas Eve (relationships!). This is a pretty good list for a clergy couple family. We got Advent rituals and the story of Jesus in there. There are family connections there. Worship was a given. I knew we’d done something right last year when the most complicated two-church-Christmas-Eve-schedule yet meant all four of us couldn’t eat together. In between our son running the soundboard at one church and our daughter playing Mary in another church, they took themselves out for Chinese food without missing a beat. They wrapped up story, ritual and relationships in one Christmas Eve meal of sesame chicken. It was my favorite part of Christmas last year, and I wasn’t even there. (Neither were any elves.)
JULIE COFFMAN HESTER is associate pastor for children and their families at Myers Park Presbyterian Church. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband Dan, who is a United Methodist pastor, and their two children.