by Katie Julius
It’s supposed to be the most joyous time of the year filled with holiday cheer. Sadly, I think most parents would admit that this is actually one of the most stressful times of the year. You have holiday gatherings to attend, gifts to purchase, a home to decorate, treats to bake, special meals to plan and prep, Christmas performances to watch, and by golly, we are going to get some kind of “traditions” established that the kids will cherish and love forever. Oh—and as a homeschooling mama, we have school to squeeze in there, too!
I don’t know about you, but that all sounds a lot more weary than merry.
After several years of trying to make it all fit in, with no one truly enjoying this season, I finally came to the realization that something had to give. It was simply impossible to do school, attend all of our activities and celebrations, and take the time to properly reflect on the true meaning of all the hustle and bustle – the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
This may come as a bit of a shock to some of you, especially if you are new to homeschooling or have a more traditional approach, but we cut back on academics. As Christians, when the purpose of education is discipleship, our holiday celebrations and traditions become “school.” I certainly cannot take credit for this idea, nor what we call it (“Christmas School”). I suspect this is what unschooling is like if carried into the rest of the year. Not having to focus on fractions, the Falkland Islands, or Fitzgerald, has freed up our time to focus on our family holiday traditions and their meaning while giving us opportunities to deepen our relationships with one another.
FOR TRADITION’S SAKE
Before I get into more specifics about what this “Christmas School” looks like in our home, I want to caution you to not replace one busy thing for another. It’s so easy this time of year, especially with newfound time from putting the school books on the shelves, to now fill that time with “traditions” just for tradition’s sake. Does the activity actually have meaning for you and your family? Does it cause more stress and strife than joy? Have you always done it “just because it’s tradition”? Take a few moments before you continue the rest of this holiday season and evaluate what fills your calendar and make adjustments as necessary. Again, our children’s education is about making them disciples of Jesus, and the best way to do that is by being in relationship with them and Him.
Okay, now for the more practical side of things. What do we actually do? Well, lots! Remember that laundry list from the beginning of this article? Not only are they creating memories for our family, but there are so many learning opportunities in our everyday holiday lives.
Our family’s verse is Joshua 24:15b, “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” We make this a part of our school year-round, but especially during the holiday season. There are so many opportunities to serve your local community (think food banks, homeless shelters, the elderly in your church) as well as globally. One of our favorite service projects during this time of year is Operation Christmas Child. While my daughter is still too young to serve in the warehouse, we shop for, pack, and write letters for several boxes that will go overseas to kids who otherwise wouldn’t receive a Christmas gift this year. We go Christmas caroling with our American Heritage Girls (AHG) troop at a senior apartment complex. We place wreaths on veterans’ graves at our local cemetery. We bake treats for our seniors’ December luncheon at church. This year we are also participating in a domestic short-term mission trip to Arizona to serve for a few days at a sister church. Even if your children are still young, there is an abundance of opportunities to serve as a family this season. Your church is a great place to ask if you’re unsure where to look in your local community.
Yes, I did encourage you to evaluate the traditions you do and how you do them. I have done the same. While some of our traditions require late-night planning or are more stressful than I’d like, it’s worth it because of the joy it brings to my daughter and the memories we are making with her.
So, yes, I’m a stickler for traditions. No Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving, which is reserved for decorating our home. After the tree goes up and the star is placed on top, the new ornaments we got this year go on first and then we fill the tree with ornaments from the past that reflect our family’s memories, interests, and milestones. We do an activity advent countdown, which is really just careful planning of Christmas-related activities we already do, alongside our traditional advent candle wreath and “open the door” advent box. Our activities vary from simple (“decorate the house” or “make a Christmas craft”) to routine (“Choir Christmas Concert” or “Church Christmas Lunch”) to unique and special (“Ice Skating” or “Christmas Village”). Each of these activities brings opportunity for us to be together as a family and have conversations about what we are celebrating and why we do it the way that we do.
(If you’re interested in a list of activities we have had as part of our activity advent countdown, you can view the list we’ve compiled over the years here.)
If you’re an unschooler, you probably understand this more than I do—that life is school—and we’ve really tried to embrace that this year for the first time. However, it has taken us several years to get here (and admittedly, my husband isn’t fully on board, yet). So, if you’re looking for more structured learning opportunities, there are so many options out there!
We do incorporate traditional Christmas music and the history of the pieces into our advent season. Both my daughter and I are artists and love crafts so that also plays a big role. We found a listing on Etsy for an Advent Art Journal with 25 printable cards that each tells a part of the Christmas story with room for illustration. We print on cardstock and use a variety of media to create our journal entries. We also love incorporating both art and music together by participating in this Nutcracker art study.
A sweet tradition we started back when my daughter was celebrating her first Christmas was reading a Christmas book each night in December leading up to Christmas. My mom gifted us the books that were so lovingly wrapped. We’ve added at least one book to the box each year and they’re starting to get a little longer now that she’s getting older. The wrapping has fallen by the wayside since that was one thing that was just too much since we now have close to 40 books! See what’s in our Christmas book basket here.
While we personally have not done a Christmas unit study, if you’re looking for more structure and “academics,” there are so many out there. A popular one is Christmas Around the World. You could easily do this every year and still not make it through all the countries and their varied beautiful holiday celebrations. I’ve seen one that focuses on learning activities through Christmas cookies (yum!), a few that are historically based (Colonial or “Little House on the Prairie” era), and others that are great for families with little ones. We really enjoyed The Truth in the Tinsel when my daughter was three to six, but it can be used with kids of all ages.
The ways to celebrate Christmas really are endless. A Google or Pinterest search will yield thousands of results. However, I caution you, again, to try not to do it all. You may find ten different ideas that you love. Pick one or maybe two to try this year. Savor these moments with your children. We only have so many Christmases with them at home. Allow yourself to enjoy this season of anticipation and expectation. Don’t let that math test, spelling list, or history essay get in the way of finding joy in the midst of this holiday season.