1. We observe advent. On December 1st, we start a special family devotional in the evenings. We try for every night, but usually manage to get in about five nights per week. This year we're doing Ann Voskamp's book "The Greatest Gift." I spent a few hours making a Jesse Tree from an old pallet, and ornaments from a sliced tree branch. I used this blog post as a jumping-off point for ornament design, and then did a bunch of my own design. The pallet tree is my own original design. The kids love this time together, and I love the glimpses I get of their hearts.
2. I keep decorations simple. Each decoration in our home has a special story behind it. There are beautiful wood camels that my grandparents brought home from Israel when I was little. I inherited them, and they have a place of honor on my piano. I have four nativity sets: my Willow Tree nativity, the little set my grandparents brought me from Portugal when I was 9, my mom's childhood set, and the Little People set that my kids adore. We have our stockings. I put lighted garland everywhere. The kids have a tree with all our special family ornaments. Our new house is big enough to accommodate a second tree, so last year my Christmas gift was decorations for a beautiful "grown up" tree. White lights, crystals, and silver. It's beautiful. I also have the decorations the kids have made for me throughout the years. I love each precious item.
3. I hand craft ornaments for each of my 20 nieces and nephews and my cousins' kids (there are 11 of them). The kids love to watch my progress, and they see the love that goes into the ornaments.
4. We bake and give all throughout the month. Cookies for neighbors. Caramel popcorn for the disabled lady who lived next door to us at our last house (because she LOVES my caramel corn). Fudge for the school office staff. Gingerbread for Nana. Banana bread for the neighbor who loves banana bread. The kids are closely involved in the baking.
5. We look for events that foster family togetherness and memory making. We love to attend local festivals, concerts, and plays.
6. We have established strong traditions. Pajama ride to look at Christmas lights. Baking. Building gingerbread houses with our friends Demetri and Calista. Making teacher gifts. Mailing packages of love to our family in California and Washington. Drinking hot chocolate. Eating certain meals on certain days. Having a birthday party for my mom who died of cancer 12 years ago. Reading all our Christmas books together.
7. Keeping gifts for the kids simple. Because we have six kids and a limited income, we have to keep it simple. We do something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. I limit stockings to $10 per child (which still adds up fast). They know what to expect--not specific gifts, but categories--and it removes anxiety from Christmas.
8. The Big One, however, is keeping our focus more on the giving than the getting. On the last Saturday in November as we get ready to decorate, we deep clean the house. I assign the kids all sorts of chores. The deal is that if they work hard with cheerful hearts, I will take each of them on a shopping trip. We go to the dollar store and they can pick a gift for Daddy and a gift for each sibling. Then we go out to lunch at the food court restaurant of their choice. We get the bonus of one-on-one time, which is a hot commodity in a big family! Daddy takes them all out together to shop for dollar store gifts for me. I absolutely love seeing what they come up with. I took Snapper for her shopping trip on Saturday, and she agonized over her decisions. She ended up picking gifts that are absolutely perfect for each sibling. She is so excited to give her gifts! Shopping this way takes the focus off of stuff and money, and focuses on the heart. Christmas morning is pure delight, because the kids really are more excited to give their gifts than they are to receive.
9. On Christmas morning, we set the table for 9 instead of 8. The ninth seat is for the birthday boy, Jesus. We put out the You are Special plate, give Jesus the first cinnamon roll with a candle on it, and sing Happy Birthday. We read the Christmas story before we eat.
That's how our family celebrates. I think this is all of our favorite month of the year!