Article Dec 13, 2018

How holiday family traditions help teach our children

“Yes!” We high-fived each other as we surprised our children with another annual night out in the “Minivan Express.” For many years, we’ve laid a “golden ticket” on our kids’ pillows to find as they climbed into bed. Much like The Polar Express movie, we have a tradition of punching their ticket, piling in the car in our pajamas, sipping some hot cocoa, and driving around to see Christmas lights after bedtime. As our children have grown older, it has become much harder to surprise them, but we have managed to get creative and find a new way each year.

The value of traditions

Traditions can be simply light-hearted and fun, like our Polar Express shenanigans, but most traditions have a meaningful purpose behind them as they require thoughtfulness, planning, and repetition. Through traditions, we pass on our greatest treasures. We pass on family heirlooms or family recipes to be enjoyed and valued by the next generation. And if we treasure Christ, we will establish traditions that will instill biblical truths in our families through thoughtful planning and practice.

In Treasuring God in our Traditions, Noel Piper categorizes traditions into two kinds: everyday and especially.[1] Christmas traditions are traditions that are centered “especially” around celebrating the birth of Christ. Piper writes, “When a level of significance is added to the ordinary repetitions of life, a tradition is created.” As Christians, we should strive to make our Christmas celebrations significant and purposeful. The world around us makes it easy to forget, to become lazy, or to allow Christmas be an oasis of nothing. And much like the Israelites, we are a forgetful people..

In the Old Testament, one of the ways the Lord “catechized,” or instructed, his ancient people in his ways was by commanding the annual celebration of feasts, like the Passover, which functioned as yearly reminders of the mighty works of the God.

“And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exo. 12:26-27)

Answering the ‘why’ questions

As we seek to catechize our own children with the wonderful works of God in Christ, we need to have a response ready when they ask, “Why do we do this?” We can help them see how both the silly and the sacred traditions point to Christ and remind us of what he has done and what he will do.

Piper writes: “If we want our children to know him, it’s not enough just to be ‘doing’ the right activities or using the symbolism of God’s Word and work. We must remember to be ‘talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise’ (Deuteronomy 11:19).”[2] It is easy for our traditions to become unfocused or insignificant, so we should strive to make them thoughtful and purposeful.

Our traditions

Over the years, we have established several Christmas traditions that we treasure as a family. Some are fun. Some are meaningful. Others are practical and allow us to have time together as a family. Some were passed on to us, and some are shared with our church family. I want to share a few with you in the hopes that it will encourage you to create some of your own.

  • My husband created a daily advent reading for our family. He combined readings from The Jesus Story Book Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones with elements of the Jesse Tree and biblical theology. Each day also has a hymn to sing. We have these readings printed out and bound in a comb binder, and our children have drawn pictures as they listen or take turns reading. They also find the wooden ornament that corresponds with the daily reading and hang it on our Jesse Tree (a small artificial Christmas tree). It is a treasure to look back at their little drawings from the early years.
  • We watch The First Noel (Exclaim Entertainment) or The Promise: Birth of the Messiah (Glorious Films) or another movie depicting the birth of Christ. Our children have a snack that looks like the nativity. I use pretzel rods and make them into the shape into a stable flat onto a plate. I cut a star out of a slice of cheese and give them a hotdog wrapped in a crescent roll shaped like baby Jesus surrounded by shredded cheese “hay.”
  • Our church gathers on a Sunday evening for a night of hymns and carols.
  • We meet up with church members to visit our older members who are not able to attend our services and sing carols with them.
  • I wrap each family members’ gifts in a different wrapping paper in the weeks leading up to Christmas. They are not labeled with names. On Christmas morning, I fill clear plastic ornaments with a scrap of each paper and everyone then discovers which gifts belong to them when they find the clear ornament with their name on it. This is a time-saver for me and allows me to avoid wrapping gifts all in one night, thus giving me more time with our family. (And our children can’t easily figure out whose gifts are whose and spoil the surprise!)
  • We love to make “monkey-bread” (cinnamon and sugar biscuits in a muffin tin) that resembles the shape of a camel’s nose to enjoy while reading Humphrey’s First Christmas by Carol Heyer.
  • My husband and I put one dollar for each year of our child’s age in their stocking. My mom and dad started this tradition, and we have passed it on for fun.
  • We give our children an ornament each year that encapsulates the year for them. It could be a soccer ball for winning a soccer tournament or a Statue of Liberty ornament to commemorate their first trip to NYC. These ornaments are sweet to reflect on each year as they are unpacked and hung on the tree, but they will also be passed along when our children get married or leave the home.

Even when times are hard, circumstances are difficult, or we find ourselves in the midst of change, traditions can serve as an anchor and constant reminder of what is most significant and important. We may feel like it is not worth it, or we may feel like hypocrites if our hearts aren’t aligned. We may even feel like we are just going through the motions, but it is often better to keep thoughtful, meaningful traditions “somehow rather than not at all.”[3] Through our wavering seasons, unfaithful hearts, and half-done traditions, we recognize and experience the faithfulness of our God (Jos. 1:5).

Noel Piper said it best, “But how much more of God there is to find when we are on the lookout, when we shape our ‘everyday’ and our ‘especially’ around him. God will show himself in special and new ways when we celebrate him. He will use our celebrations, our traditions, to stoke our heart’s fire for him.”[4]


  1. ^ Noel Piper, Treasuring God In Our Traditions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 25.
  2. ^ Piper, 104.
  3. ^ Piper, 36.
  4. ^ Piper, 104.