The first Christmas after we were married, I was working at a parish, developing a curriculum for children with autism and intellectual disabilities. At the heart of the curriculum was the belief that these children deserved to have the faith presented to them, in all of its rich fullness. To help them enter in to the mystery of the Incarnation and salvation history, I painted a set of Jesse Tree ornaments for the Advent unit. While I was working on the project, I painted a second set for my own new little family.
The Jesse Tree (for those of you unfamiliar with this practice) is a series of scriptural reflections, one for each day of the Advent season. Each scriptural reflection shares the story of a significant patriarch, matriarch, or event from the Old Testament. Typically, families will hang one ornament on a branch of their Christmas tree or a simple tree branch, with a picture or symbol of the story for the day. The name comes from chapter 11 of the book of Isaiah, a foretelling of the coming of Christ. Verse 1 says that, “…a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” The shoot, of course, referring to Christ. The Jesse Tree is the “family tree” of Jesus.
That first Advent together, still childless, my husband and I read all of the Scriptures for the Jesse Tree, including some incredibly lengthy passages. Although we were both working on our Masters degrees in theology at the time, we found stories in the pages of the Old Testament that we had never heard before. When Christmas Eve finally came, our hearts were ready, and I’ll never forget kneeling before our simple candlelit creche, praying in anticipation of celebrating the coming of the Christ.
Fast forward six years and two children later, and we deeply desire to share that same sense of wonder with our own children. Although our Jesse tree prayers are shorter and punctuated with cries of, “Is it my turn to blow out the candle? Can I blow out the candle now?” they are still an important part of our Advent celebration.
Recently, though, we realized that something was missing from our celebration of Christmas Eve and day. In the excitement of early parenthood, we’d made our first few Christmases as a family too busy, and had slowly began to buy into the belief that our children needed beautiful presents to be excited by Christmas morning. Every year, I would struggle and try to resist the urge to buy totally unnecessary gifts, in order to make Christmas exciting for them. This year we are trying to simplify, travel less, and have more time for quiet in our home.
This argument is one that I often hear from fellow parents: the mystery of Christmas is beautiful, is incredible, and is deep – perhaps too deep for our children to grasp. In the meantime, we can give them presents, so that they learn about how Jesus was a present to us. We can hang up our stockings for good old St. Nick, and we can help our children get excited for Christmas by sharing all of our favorite family traditions with them. The hope is that if we share this all with them now, they will remember Christmas as an exciting time, and will still feel that way when they’re old enough to understand the real excitement of Christmas.
In the interest of full disclosure, our children received gifts on Christmas morning. St. Nick left chocolate coins in their shoes on his feastday and will be filling some stockings on Christmas morning. And yes, we do have some beautiful family traditions that we enjoy sharing with them. All of these things are good things, and should certainly be a part of a Christmas celebration.
We underestimate our children when we assume that they can’t grasp the full richness of the Incarnation. No one understands the wonder of a new baby more than a little child. Little children are excited when their mother or a friend’s mother is expecting a baby. (We have several friends who are currently expecting, so I speak from firsthand experience.) Their excitement over a newborn, and their possessiveness of a new brother or sister is passionate to a fault. Even toddlers quickly learn to say and point out “baby,” and coo and giggle over infants in imitation of their parents.
It is innate in our nature to fall in love with babies, and to find them exciting. This is especially the case when it comes to children. To add to this reality, children naturally have a deep sense of wonder. Mysteries are not lost on them, but are perhaps better appreciated by them than by anyone else.
Children are also far more intelligent and open to learning about the faith than we give them credit for. One of my favorite children’s faith formation programs is the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which relies heavily on inspiration from Montessori methodology. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd uses a child’s sense of wonder and desire for beauty and order, in order to teach them the faith. It also resolves to not water down the content of the teachings of the faith. Children are capable of learning the teachings of our faith!
Our children are capable of understanding deep teachings and profound mysteries. They, like us, can embrace and enjoy the fun traditions around Christmas, but our practice of Christmas must not stop there. They can experience the wonder of a tiny baby born long ago, a baby who was the Son of God made man. They can join us in a prayer of enthroning the Christ child. They can attend midnight Mass with us, or pray the Christmas proclamation with us on Christmas morning. They can read the story of the nativity from the Scriptures with us, or read a picture book that uses the words of Scripture (although not a Catholic one, this is the one that I loved as a child).
Perhaps the sweetest, simplest practice is teaching your little ones to venerate a statue of the Christ child, by visiting the manger after Mass or at home, and gently kissing the baby Jesus. Invite them to imagine what it would have been like, to have been there, and invite them to pray, “Oh, baby Jesus, who became a child like me, I love you!”
There is something beautiful about twinkling Christmas lights, something wonderful and mysterious about so much love and joy breaking in to a dark time of year. But all the wonder and joy means nothing, if we fail to let our little ones experience the Light of the world, who scatters the darkness of fear and sin. Nothing replaces the wonder of a God who is great enough to create the whole universe, yet chooses to become a tiny baby for love of us.