In a large family, Christmas can be tricky. Our family wants to keep the focus on Christ and we don't want to let Christmas get too materialistic or commercialized. Also, with 8 people opening gifts on Christmas morning, we can not just let everyone tear in. Well, we could let everyone tear in, but past experience has shown that the situation quickly dissolves into tears, tantrums and frustration and that is just my reaction. No, Christmas in a large family requires either a little organization or a lot of parental patience. The parental units in this family use up astronomical amounts of patience every day and would like to enjoy Christmas too, so we go with a little organization.
We have little traditions that are special to us. All of the children open a new pair of pajamas after Christmas Eve services, which is just a nice way to start Christmas fun that night and it helps get everyone excited about going to bed. We run a young adult ministry and the children help us put together college care packages at the very beginning of December. We also have each child put together an Operation Christmas Child Shoebox. They pick out all the things to put in and pack the box, with lots of parental assistance. This year we add the tradition of packing care packages for my brothers, one in the Air Force and one in the Marines, about to go out on his first deployment.
We feel these things help our family focus on the idea of Christ's arrival on Christmas morning being less about getting presents and more about giving. He came to die for us so that we could have the ultimate gifts, forgiveness for all of our sins and eternal life in Heaven. Having the children focus on serving others at Christmas time helps them to realize how blessed they are to have their house, family, toys, clothes and food. I think it has also helped curb the tendency toward "gimmies" in our children.
We also have done some kind of advent activity most years. One year I painted a Jesse Tree on our sliding glass door. www.jesse-trees.com/what-is-a-jesse-tree.html Every day we put an ornament up that was supposed to help us remember the story of Jesus' birth, death on the cross and resurrection. One year we just read a little bit about Jesus' life every day and opened one door on a traditional advent calendar. One year we did nothing at all because I never got my act together. This year, I think we will be doing this Names of Jesus activity -www.easyfunschool.com/article1679.html I think I may paint another tree on the sliding glass door, or, if I really get it together, I will pain the tree on felt and these ornaments can be attached to felt and it will be a great big Felt Board activity! YES! No! I have a newborn, I will probably just paint a simple tree trunk and branches on the sliding glass door, print the ornaments on simple paper and tape them up on the door. By the end of December, the ornaments will be tattered from being caught in the door over and over again. Whatever, we will have done something.
Presents can be a problem in a family with this many children. I want my children to give each other something. I know they want to give, too. However, if every sibling in this family gives every sibling a present, plus presents from parents, grandparents and friends, it is a bit much. Plus, the children all have limited incomes. Actually, they have no incomes at all. All the money they "make" comes from the money Dan makes. In the past, we have taken two children at a time to Five Below, the Dollar Store, Target, Big Lots, Walmart or some other inexpensive place to buy a gift for each of their siblings. This meant either each sibling was getting cheap junk that would be tossed in the trash by the end of the year or we spent a LOT of money.
Last year, I had each sibling make something for the other. That was sweet, lovely, a lot of work and somewhat unsuccessful. Ethan hand stitched teddy bears out of fleece for all of his siblings and every one of those teddy bears fell apart by the end of January. Jacob made crayons for all the siblings and those were fairly successful, but a bit of a mess. Really, J peeled and sorted the crayons and I was the one that did the rest. I can't really remember what I had Amelia do, so that speaks loudly, I suppose, of how successful it was. We are not totally giving up on the idea of hand made gifts. I think it is a great idea to have older children hand make things for their siblings. However, this year, I have a newborn and not enough time or energy to do the whole hand made Christmas idea.
This year, we drew names. I knew we would get to that eventually. I envisioned all of our children grown, married, with children of their own tossing all those many names into a hat and each person playing "Santa" for whoever they picked. As Dan and I were contemplating our budget for Christmas this year and the quality of gifts given in previous years, we decided the time for picking names was now. The only thing is, how do you get each child out to shop for their buddy without that buddy finding out and without having to take 5 or 6 separate trips. When it takes 30 minutes to get to a shopping place, you have to combine trips and no way was I adding one more stop to my grocery trip that many times! Thankfully, it ended up that all the boys are giving gifts to girls and vice versa. That was not engineered by us, it is just how the names were pulled. Whew. We will do two trips, one for the boys, with daddy, and they will buy all the girls gifts, including mine and the same for the girls, shopping with mommy. Easy.
I don't believe in asking children to make Christmas lists. First of all, the children change their lists as often as Brett Favre changes his retirement decisions (Oh, yes! A sports reference, albeit an old one.) Second, what if there is no way on God's green earth I am going to give my child anything on their list? Seriously, what if all Amelia wants is a pony for Christmas? We don't have the money or acreage for such an animal and Miriam is petrified of anything with 4 legs. So, rather than having each child make a list for themselves, I am having each child make a list of what they think each sibling would like to have. Aha, getting them to think of others first. Plus, this gives each person at least 4 ideas of what their buddy might like to have. It also will teach them to be grateful for the thought, attention and love that each of their siblings put into picking out a gift for them. We can also increase the amount each child spends. Instead of spending, lets say $5 on each of 5 siblings, they can spend $25 on one sibling and get something a little nicer. I am excited to see how this all turns out.
All of that helps keep our minds and hearts focused on the reason for the season, but the day itself can still be hectic without a few tools in place. First off, we have a baby gate at the top of our stairs. It is not used every night, unless we have a toddler who has free roam at night. However, it is always closed and locked on Christmas Eve. The children know they are not to go downstairs without us, but the gate helps them remember. We all go downstairs together. Okay, technically, I go first so that I can get photos of them coming down the stairs on Christmas morning.
Our Christmas Stockings are actually tools too. Dan and I recognized early on that our children really want to open all of their gift immediately, but they really need to eat something first. The stockings are a compromise. They usually include, healthy protein heavy trail mix, granola cereal bars, an apple, banana and orange, a few packets of hot cocoa or herbal tea, a little Christmas Candy and a few small toys. The children can open these things immediately and eat a few things and play with their few toys while Dan and I get breakfast started. We have scrambled eggs, cinnamon rolls and coffee, tea or hot chocolate for breakfast, then we open the rest of the gifts. This way, nobody is hungry and irrational while we open gifts, but they do get the immediate gratification of opening something.
We also designate Christmas Elves. One Elf takes care of the trash, one reads the tag, one delivers the gift to the proper recipient, one Elf keeps track of what was given for thank you notes, and one Elf helps the youngest child open their gifts. Generally, the older children have the jobs of reading tags and helping the littlest one open their gifts. Dan and I keep the thank you list. The littlest ones stay near us and the middle ones take turns delivering gifts to the recipient or taking care of trash. We only open one gift at a time, that way Dan and I can keep track of what was given. We do not open the packaging, just unwrap the gift. We have found, if toys are opened and played with while unwrapping is still happening, it is a certainty that parts will be lost. So, toys stay in the packaging until all unwrapping is done. We try to take turns opening gifts, but sometimes one of the children will get two or three gifts in a row because that is just how they are arranged under the tree. When it is time to open the actual packaging, Dan and I do that, again, to make sure no parts are lost.
Christmas toys stay in the living room for about a week or so. By the end of a week, I am usually ready to start finding permanent homes for these toys. That means, if we have not recently done a toy purge, we do one while Dan is home.
The last tradition of this holiday season, is to give one last, small gift to each other on Epiphany. This is the day we celebrate the wise men coming to visit the infant Jesus and presenting him with Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh. Of course, Jesus was not a new born when the Three Wise Guys (per Ethan, age 6) finally found their way to him, he was probably 2 or 3 and, I doubt he appreciated those gifts very much. He probably was more interested in the boxes they came in and/or whether they had good throwing or chewing value. Just my thoughts on the matter. However, I am certain that Mary and Joseph treasured those gifts greatly as yet another sign of the majesty of their son and the amazing things that were to come.
It does seem to require a little more work to have a fun Christmas in a large family, especially when the children are still young. However, there is nothing like the fun of all these children learning about and celebrating this most important season, all at home together. It is worth the work.