Once again the holidays are upon us, and for many, it’s a season of mixed feelings. The joyful memories of our childhood celebrations get dampened somewhat by sheer busyness, what with travel, cooking, shopping and family visits. Some Christians even downplay holidays, concerned that the world’s materialism may have robbed the meaning from the season. Yet the Bible shows us the real purpose of celebration, and with some planning and forethought, we can rekindle the joy and holiness of these special times for our families – and have a lot of fun too.

The key is to recall what holidays represent – they are the holy days of our year, times which we set aside for the purposes of remembering. While the Bible doesn’t command us to celebrate December 25 or the fourth Thursday in November, and in fact one is only a tradition and the other came from a presidential decree, we can still approach them with a Biblical mindset.

Take, for example, the holy days of the Bible. Besides observing the Sabbath and new moons, Israel was instructed to celebrate on several other occasions during each year. The Passover commemorated God’s liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The Day of Atonement was a solemn occasion to recall the nation’s sinfulness and pray for God’s mercy. The Feast of Purim, added later by the Jews themselves, celebrated the valor of Esther in protecting her people from genocide under Persian rule.

When you look at the list, some days were somber, some were festive, and some were almost playful. Some holidays were commanded by God, while others were civic events instituted by the people. What’s common to all of them? They were all days of remembrance. At the very first Passover, God told the Jews through Moses how to keep the holiday in generations to come:

And ye shall observe this thing for an ordinance to thee and to thy sons for ever. And it shall come to pass, when ye come to the land which the LORD will give you, according as He hath promised, that ye shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses. – Exodus 12:24 -27

The Biblical holidays included fellowship, rituals, special foods, and stories that were to be told. In our modern holidays, we can adopt these ancient Biblical attitudes and make our special days a time for celebrating and teaching for the glory of God! For many of us, the whole point of homeschooling is to disciple our children. The holidays can be powerful allies in winning our children’s hearts.

It is crucially important that we tell the stories, to remind our children why we celebrate. The Fourth of July is observed almost universally in the United States, but studies suggest our children have a foggy view of why Independence Day means more than hot dogs and fireworks at the beach. Memorial Day has become a day at the lake, Christmas seems all about Santa Claus and shopping, and Easter looks like springtime, candy and rabbits. Where are the real stories?

At Christmas, for instance, we always take time to read through the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel and many other passages to explain why Christ was born. We watch a dramatic film about the life of Martin Luther and talk about his death-defying stand for Biblical truth on Reformation Day. In the days leading up to the holiday, we sing the songs of the season; most hymnbooks have separate sections for Advent, Easter and Thanksgiving making them easy to find.

Christian holidays have obvious spiritual meaning, but even civic holidays are opportunities to rejoice in God’s providential care. On July 4, for instance, we read the Declaration of Independence and discuss why it became necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” and how solemn it was for the Founders to pledge one another “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” On New Year’s Day, we take time to remember as a family what God has done in our lives over the past year and to share our hopes for the new year. Certainly we enjoy the days off and take part in the parades, picnics and other fun available, but we make sure that our family knows the purpose for each of the festivities!

Beyond the teaching, what about our family’s unique celebrations? How do we make the holidays not only educational but especially joyful for our children? Often, it’s the little things that happen year after year that really settle in our children’s hearts.

On birthdays, for example, we let the child choose the family’s menu for the whole day – simple or elaborate. It may be as straightforward as eggs and bacon and pancakes for breakfast, to a full-blown Indian curry or Cajun seafood for dinner! This rather simple tradition has become a favorite for our boys. A few years ago, we had an incredible opportunity to travel to Asia. One of our sons celebrated his tenth birthday walking on the Great Wall of China – how neat is that? But at the end of the day, all excited and worn out with the exotic things he’d seen and done, he turned to us and asked, “When we get home, can I still have a day to choose the menu?”

In our family, we make a big deal over Christmas. We’ve got a full house, with eight children from toddler to adult, plus grandmothers who live near enough to join in the fun, so we couldn’t afford to go whole-hog materialistic even if we wanted to! Instead of buying and getting, we focus on the meaning of the holiday and the celebration itself.

Food is a big part of our celebration. We have a list of cookies, candy, and special treats that we make only at this time of year. The smell of cloves or fudge immediately takes us into happy memories of home, no matter where we wander. The cookies that Grandpa used to make (what a stiff dough!) and Granny’s blonde fruitcake are like signposts for the coming celebration, and we use the time baking them to tell the children stories about their grandparents in heaven.

Melanie’s family always made a party out of Christmas Eve; we’ve taken that idea and expanded it, laying out a buffet-style spread of treats and hors d’oeuvres in the dining room, bringing out the Christmas dishes and turning a blind eye to just how much the children might eat this evening. We sing Christmas songs and read the Christmas story together. It’s great fun, and it’s also a chance to teach our children how to behave at a formal reception. Being able to balance a plate on your knee and still eat politely is a social skill!

It also shows our children that their parents are willing to bring out the “company dishes” and polish up the silver even if there’s no “company” coming. Being together as just our family is reason enough!

Often in December we’ll invite another family or two over for a caroling party. We have a collection of old hymnbooks given to us by a church when they replaced theirs. We’ll troop out through the neighborhood and share the joy and Good News with anyone who answers their door. When we’re out of breath, we come back home and continue the fellowship indoors with Christmas cookies, snacks and hot Christmas tea. It doesn’t have to be elaborate – as Charlie Brown’s friend said on another occasion, it just has to be sincere. Besides teaching and traditions, we want to keep the holidays special and build the anticipation.

In our family’s hometown, there used to be a tradition of cooking barbecue and hash for the Fourth. It takes a lot of time to slow cook all that pork and beef, and folks only did it once a year when they had time off from work. As people found more leisure and disposable income, though, the home-cooked holiday food became a year-round staple in local restaurants. While we enjoy eating hash whenever we feel like it, it’s lost its significance as a holiday treat.

We try to keep certain things protected from the same fate. We don’t sing carols in July, as much as we love them; if one of the children breaks out in a chorus of “Joy to the World” on the way home from the pool, we’ll gently remind him or her, “That’s Christmas music; we need to save that for Christmas!” We may have turkey from time to time, but we don’t do a full Thanksgiving style spread until the end of November.

That allows us to build anticipation. When Mama gets out the cloves and pineapple juice and the great big pot for tea, the children know they’re gearing up for Christmas. When we start teaching “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” to the youngest child, they know Easter is drawing near.

Why is this important? Because beyond the teaching and fellowship, holidays can serve as anchors to home in our children’s hearts. By reminding them of the joys they experienced growing up in a Christian home, these memories can also bring back the truths we taught and encourage their faith in times to come. As Theodore Kuyler wrote, “Everything that attracts our children to their homes is very apt to be, in the end, an attraction toward heaven.”

Copyright 2010, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the 2010 Holiday Supplement of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.

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Hal and Melanie Young are the parents of eight and the authors of Raising Real Men: Surviving, Teaching and Appreciating Boys, the story of what God taught them through His gift of six sons in a row.