The weeks surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas ought to be a special time of family togetherness, reflecting on the true meanings of these wonderful holidays, and teaching our children important lessons in thankfulness and God's love. Unfortunately, however, it's easy to get so caught up in everything that needs doing that we forget the things that matter most.

So how do we cut through the busyness of the holiday season and recapture the true spirit of Thanksgiving and Christmas? How do we make sure that our children understand what the holidays are all about instead of getting trapped in the commercialism with which society so often bombards us? To answer those questions, we asked the columnists and authors to share some of their favorite holiday traditions and ideas.

IDEA #1: COME YE THANKFUL PEOPLE COME

Cindy Puhek writes, "Last year my family spent the month prior to Thanksgiving learning the wonderful Puritan hymn "Come Ye Thankful People Come." We sang the hymn every night during that month's family devotions. My seven-year-old daughter learned to play a simple arrangement of the hymn on the piano to accompany us. On Thanksgiving Day, copies of the lyrics were handed out to all our guests and we sang the hymn together prior to the meal."

Other memorization ideas could include passages of Scripture that focus on thankfulness or poems about Thanksgiving or the Pilgrims.

IDEA #2: STORY WRITING

"Have children write their own thanksgiving story," suggests Gretel Deem. "Depending on the age and bent of the child, it might be fictional or non-fictional, funny or serious, long or short. They might prefer a research report or a poem. This is a great way to incorporate English, history, geography, and handwriting into a holiday-themed unit. But don't stop there. Perhaps your children would like to perform their story. Turn it into a skit and act it out with other family members on the day they gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. Or maybe they just want to read what they've written. Whatever the approach, somehow share it with others. Maybe the adults could be challenged to some on-the-spot quizzes of how much they know about the first Thanksgiving story. Turn it into a game for everyone to enjoy!"

IDEA #3: MANY THANKS!

For a writing project with a twist, Suzanne Broadhurst suggests having your kids try writing a paragraph using the words thanks, thankful, and thankfulness as many times as possible. No cheating, though--the paragraph still has to be coherent and make sense!

IDEA #4: THE BLESSING BOX

"One year," writes Tim Palla, a pastor in rural southern Ohio, "my wife, Jennifer, made a 'Blessing Box.' It was a small cardboard box that she covered with material and cut a small 3" x 1/2" opening in the top. Throughout the year, when the Lord blessed us with something special, e.g. an unexpected financial gift, an invitation to go on a trip, produce from a friend's garden, or help with a specific problem, we would record the blessings on a small piece of tablet paper. The papers would immediately be folded up and put into the Blessing Box. On Thanksgiving Day, each one of them would be taken out and read. It was great to have the reminders of how God had provided for us throughout the whole year. Those records of God's provision truly made our day a time of thanksgiving."

IDEA #5: PRESIDENTIAL PROCLAMATIONS

A number of U.S. presidents have issued Thanksgiving proclamations over the years. Cindy writes, "Before eating our Thanksgiving meal last year, we read a copy of Abraham Lincoln's 1863 'Thanksgiving Proclamation.' It was a beautiful reminder of what the holiday was really supposed to represent. A copy of this document can be obtained from www.infoplease.com/spot/tgproclamation.html."

Building on that idea, try doing some research about other presidential Thanksgiving proclamations. As a family, find and read as many as you can. Then, have your kids write a Thanksgiving Proclamation for your own family, listing reasons why you should be thankful this year. To make it more fun, they can try to imitate the formal style of the old-fashioned presidential proclamations.

IDEA #6: CRAFT TIME!

For a fun craft project that can be enjoyed by kids of all ages, try making personalized homemade placemats to use on Thanksgiving. "Make a placemat of thankful memories," says Gretel. "What do your children have to be thankful for this year? Is it a list of things? They could draw them, laminate the paper, and place it at someone's place for the special meal. Another possibility would be to have your kids illustrate favorite scenes from the story of the first Thanksgiving, and turn those into placemats."

IDEA #7: NEW USE FOR CHRISTMAS CARDS

Melanie Hexter shares this interesting idea to turn the tradition of Christmas cards into a meaningful experience for you and your family: "We save all the Christmas cards we get in the mail in a basket on our kitchen table. Each dinnertime beginning in late November, we pull one card out of the basket and pray for its sender. Sometimes we need to tell the kids who sent it or how we know the sender, or even show the kids a photo of the sender. We try to pray very specifically, based on what we know about the spiritual, physical, financial, and emotional needs of the card's sender; certainly we pray for salvation for our unsaved friends. Not until we've prayed for the sender do we throw the card away. Sometimes it takes months to make it through our stack of cards, but it's a great family prayer project."

IDEA #8: TEACHING OUR CHILDREN THE REASON

FOR THE SEASON
 "We love Christmas," Cindy shares, "and try to make the most of the season to teach our children about Jesus and to reach out to others that are more open to the gospel at Christmas than at other times. Because we try to seize every teachable moment during the season, we do not have Santa Claus at our house. The kids know that the historical Saint Nicholas was a generous man who reached out to the poor, but that Christmas is all about Jesus. I don't want another story to compete with the true meaning of Christmas. We decorate our house with the goal that anyone who comes through our door will know what we are celebrating. Dozens of nativity scenes are distributed throughout the inside and outside of the house. Banners are hung on the walls that remind us of the names of Christ and the prophecies about His advent."

IDEA #9: SERVING THOSE WHO SERVE

Tamara Willey writes, "Remember our military. We may not know right now where our troops will be come Thanksgiving and Christmas, but we do know that there are men and women serving so that we can have a restful, worshipful holiday. Consider sending care packages to service members who get no mail as well as those who are already on the prayer bulletin boards. Personal words of hope from Scripture, and especially notes from children and young people, healthy and fun snacks, and pictures from home to paste on their all-neutral brown tents or walls are especially appreciated. If you would like a reply, send a Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope (SASE) with it. Also let them know that you are dependably praying for whoever the recipient of that letter is: not just a one-time prayer, but prayer for him and his whole base and mission success and wisdom for leaders and relaxation of tension between service members. Kid-made items are also fun, like homemade picture frames or prayer bracelets. You can also send booklets that are made by Christian servicemen and women for service members to encourage their faith. You can find these at your local bookstore, but keep them positive and helpful and brief. Good wholesome literature or DVDs are welcome as well--adventure and humor are good choices."

IDEA #10: BALANCING SCHOOL AND LIFE

Many homeschoolers take creative approaches to balancing schoolwork with the extra scheduling demands of the holiday season. Melanie writes, "Some years we've taken one month off from our usual studies of history, science, and language arts (no breaks for math). I let my older children each pick a topic they want to research, read about, and then work on some related project we agree upon. For example, this year they each picked out a lapbooking project from www.handsofachild.com. These unit studies come with a study guide and learner-oriented directions. Other options for your child's unit study could be a head start on a 4-H project, a unit study on a period of history or a scientist, a hands-on building or handiwork project, or even a month's worth of culinary work (meal planning, shopping, and cooking for "home economics" credit). The individualized topics mean less involvement for mom at the busy time of year and more flexibility for the children as the hectic holiday calendar fills."

IDEA #11: SHARING THE REASON

"We try to take advantage of evangelistic opportunities this time of year," Cindy says. "Plates of homemade cookies are distributed to the neighbors annually, and the kids enjoy helping with this. Cookies are baked, packaged, and frozen for weeks before Christmas in anticipation of our Christmas Eve cookie distribution. Spreading the baking out over an extended period of time makes this project reasonable even during this busy time of year."

Melanie agrees that this is a good time of the year to share the gospel with others. "Reaching out evangelistically to neighbors is something we emphasize during the holidays. Many non-Christians, who have no apparent spiritual interest most of the year, seem to at least have some spiritual sensitivity at Christmas. We've prepared gift baskets of homemade cookies and a copy of a Christian film to deliver to neighbors. We've hosted a Jesus birthday party, complete with singing, a birthday cake, crafts, and someone sharing their salvation testimony." Melanie also shares this possibility: "We are involved with reaching out in Christian love to visiting international students from a nearby college all year long, so for us that may mean a couple extra guests at our Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table. Most stateside students return home for the holidays, but due to cost and distance, that's not true for many foreign exchange students. Give your local college a call and ask for their Office of International Studies. Tell them you'd like to host a student for the holidays and see who the Lord may put in your path. It's missions without the travel!"

IDEA #12: THE ADVENT

Melissa writes, "We always read through one of Arnold Ytreeide's Advent stories (Jotham's Journey, Bartholomew's Passage, or Tabitha's Travels) daily through the advent season. The children look forward to this time and begin asking weeks beforehand when we will begin."

Cindy adds, "The Christmas before my husband and I were married, my sister presented us with an advent calendar and a book called Family Celebrations by Ann Hibbard. The calendar is a large felt tree with spots to Velcro into place 24 felt ornaments, and the patterns for these things are contained in Hibbard's book. The ornaments have pictures to symbolize the names of Christ, the prophecies He fulfilled, the Christmas story, and the gospel message. The book gives suggestions for daily Bible reading, Bible memorization, and a Christmas hymn to sing that follow the theme of each ornament. We use this calendar December 1 through December 24 for our family devotions."

Whatever your family's traditions might be, try to take some time this year to slow down and enjoy some restful time together. In the midst of all that goes on at this time of year, let's do our best not to forget what we're really celebrating this holiday season.

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Jonathan Lewis is a homeschool graduate and enjoys working with his family on Home School Enrichment Magazine. In his spare time, Jonathan can be found reading, playing chess, and spending time with his family.

This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec '07 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more information, visit http://HomeSchoolEnrichment.com