With Christmas music playing in stores even before Thanksgiving arrives and commercials reminding us how many shopping days are left before Christmas, Advent seems to have been usurped by advertisers. We, as Catholic parents, need to work harder than in years past to help our children remember “the reason for the season.” Making crafts can help.
Educators have long recognized that hands-on activities aid in the learning process, and recent research confirms that kinesthetic learning lays down additional pathways in the brain, improving retention and recall. So by teaching your children truths of the faith through arts and crafts, you’ll be helping them internalize the lessons and create a strong foundation that they can draw on in later life.
Advent and Christmas are full of symbolism and meaning, giving you the opportunity to choose from a wide variety of spiritual lessons. Consider some of the following suggestions and crafts, and let this be a springboard to help you use hands-on activities for other liturgical seasons and truths of the Faith.
Jesus Is the Reason for the Season
In our highly commercialized world, it’s easy for children to think that the reason for the season is getting presents! It has become almost taboo to mention Jesus, even in innocent, family-oriented Christmas movies that talk about “the magic of Christmas.”
Besides reading your children the story of Christmas from the Bible and Christmas picture books, make your own manger scene and tell the story of the birth of Christ using your own figurines. Then have your children tell the story back to you. Let them play with their manger scene and add to it as Advent progresses. More sheep? Why not? Does the stable have any neighboring houses? And don’t forget to make the Wise Men so they’ll be ready to arrive on the Epiphany!
Consider creating family traditions with your own child-friendly manger scene. A beloved tradition in my house has been to put the Wise Men in a room far from the crèche. Starting on Christmas, we move them a little closer each day until they arrive at the stable on the Feast of the Epiphany. Tangible activities like this build excitement as the feasts of the season approach.
God Keeps His Promises—Even If It Seems to Take a While
God first promised a Savior in the Garden of Eden after the Fall:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”Genesis 3:15
But it would take thousands of years before we were ready to receive the fulfillment of the promise. Advent is a great time to help children learn the value of waiting.
The word “advent” comes from the Latin word advenire which means “to come” or “to arrive.” During Advent, while we await the arrival of our Savior on Christmas, we can talk to our children about the many reminders God provided his people as they waited, which gave them hope that the Savior would still come.
The most familiar symbol of waiting is the Advent wreath. The circle represents perfection and eternity, and the green symbolizes the everlasting life that Jesus came to give us. Violet candles symbolize preparation and repentance, and the one pink candle for the third week of Advent reminds us that we should remain joyful as the time of Jesus approaches.
A more recent symbol that is gaining popularity is the Jesse Tree. This is a terrific way to teach the history of salvation to your children. Each day the children place some sort of ornament on a tree of some kind (it could even be a branch from outside). Each symbol represents different people or events throughout the Old Testament that led up to Christ. It is richly symbolic and filled with opportunities to teach your children of the loving guidance of God through the ages, even when things looked dark. You can purchase pre-made Jesse Tree kits if you want, but when the children make their own ornaments and you talk to them about the characters or read them a Bible story while they’re working, you will more deeply ingrain the lesson and create wonderful memories.
Name of Jesus Chain
A new twist on the old construction paper chain is to make a Name of Jesus chain. The Bible uses many different names for Jesus, for example, Immanuel, Prince of Peace, and Bread of Life. Each name of Jesus tells us something more about him. Write the names on strips of paper, turn them into a chain, then have the children tear off one piece each day as Christmas approaches. Take some time to talk about what each name tells you about Jesus.
We Give Because God First Gave to Us
Why do we give gifts at Christmas in the first place? Because God first gave to us, and he gave the greatest gift of all—himself. We give gifts in imitation of him. Store-bought presents are fine, but how much are we giving of ourselves with these gifts? Help your children recognize that the very best gifts can’t be bought in a store.
Brainstorm with your children ways they can help each other or gifts they can give to others. You can take any approach that is appropriate for your situation and the ages of your children. For younger ones, help them think of little things they can do for each other, like picking up toys that someone else left out without being asked. For older children, you might want to think about some charitable works, such as giving a favorite toy to a needy child or helping at a homeless shelter.
Put ideas in a common jar and let the children pull from it each day. Older children might choose to make their own private list and keep their own private jars. This helps them internalize the idea that they must personally take responsibility for living out the life of Christ in their own lives.
Saints of the Advent Season Are Our Examples
An Advent calendar that includes the feasts of the major saints can give your children examples of people who have lived out the life of Christ in their own lives. Some key feasts of Advent that you may want to highlight are St. Nicholas (December 6), the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8), St. Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 9, 12), and St. Lucy (December 13). Tell your children the stories of these saints while they draw or make ornaments that symbolize them.
Adjust Lessons to Your Children
For very young children, let the craft be the lesson, giving them simple explanations. For instance, “Do you know why we use green for the Advent wreath? Because green is the symbol of life, and Jesus came so we can live with him forever in heaven.”
Ask older children deeper questions appropriate to their age: “Why is green the symbol of life?” “What does everlasting life mean if we all have to die?” “What does penitential mean?” Open-ended questions help children exercise higher order thinking skills and give you opportunities to discuss deeper truths with them.
By making crafts with your children, you will not only help them learn the Faith, you will foster an atmosphere of dialogue that will continue as they grow older and will underscore another important lesson—that the home is the domestic church and is the primary institution, designed by God, for passing on the Faith to the next generation.
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Jeannette Williams is the part-time communications coordinator of St. Jude Church and Shrine in Chalfont, Pennsylvania and a freelance writer and blogger. The mother of six, she homeschooled the first five through high school in the classical tradition, while the youngest now attends a new classical high school, Martin Saints, in Oreland, Pennsylvania. Jeannette’s greatest passion, besides her family, is to study the Catholic Faith and share it with others. When she’s not writing, Jeannette enjoys studying Spanish and Japanese, gardening, and spending time with her husband and children.