The Challenges of Teaching Children about Christmas

Father Anthony J. Salim
Pastor, Saint Joseph Church, Olean, NY

As a pastor and a catechist for many years, I know that trying to educate children properly about the meaning of Christmas is challenging. This is so for many reasons. 

  • For one thing, speaking to children of several age groups about Christmas—or any other truth of our Faith—in a one-size-fits-all article demands that we nevertheless respect the specific levels of ability to learn that vary with the ages of the learners. You don’t teach a kindergartner as you would a fourth-grader or an eighth-grader. So right off the bat the topic of this piece will take this challenge into account. 
  • Also, when reflecting on the truths about the Incarnation and the Nativity, we are dealing with subjects that are central to our faith yet not always easy to explain—in fact, to any age group.
  • We in the Western world, especially the United States, have for a very long time now have been influenced by the very commercialized view of a secular Christmas, without Christ.

On the other hand, Christmas and all it involves is especially attractive to children, and we find them eager to learn more about it. Good-willed parents, relatives and guardians of children will want to present the proper mind of the Church in teaching about this beautiful feast and season.

For this reason, I have chosen to write each section of this article in two parts: the first for the education of the adult learner and second, recommendations for sharing the ideas with the children in their care. In this way, I hope that the interchange will benefit all.

Christmas Is Above All a Sacred Event

For adults. In recent years there has been a rather public debate about whether Christmas should be called a “holiday” or a “holy day.” The reality is that for Christian people it is both, especially when Christmas and New Year’s Day (also a holy day) are spoken about together. The real issue is how to convey the holiness of Christmas to children. When this is seen properly, much of what accompanies the celebration of the feast and the season are not in fact contradictory. Back in the day, Christian people spoke of “Keeping Christ in Christmas.” After all, the very word “Christmas” says it all.

For the children. Therefore, if children see that Christmas is indeed first about the Birth of Jesus Christ, then many other things we do to celebrate—such as putting up and decorating a tree—may be encouraged. In fact, adults can effectively strike a balance between the sacred vision of Christmas and the best of the secular expression without succumbing to a purely material or commercial scene. For several years, I put a banner across my front porch railing that says, “Happy Birthday, Jesus,” for the many young people who pass my house on the way each day on the way to the local high school and elementary schools. Children should also be taught that it is more proper to wish others a “Merry Christmas” and not simply “Happy Holiday.”

Our Liturgical Year

For adults.Of course, at the heart of the Maronite Catholic Christian celebration of Christmas is the Liturgical Year. For some years now, the annual unfolding of the Liturgical Year has thankfully become familiar. The Season of “Happy Announcements” that center on the Lectionary Bible Readings show us how God worked intimately in the lives of the family of Jesus. These lead us to the great announcement of the angels at his Birth. The Liturgy for the Nativity speaks of giving glory to God and engendering hope to Believers, indeed, to the world. Importantly, it must be stated here that as wonderful as Christmas is, the greatest feast in the Christian Churches, including our own Maronite Church, is Easter. This must also be borne in minds as we educate our children.

For the children. Children must be taught that everything we do comes from hearing and reading God’s Word. This ought to be done frequently, even daily, at home, but especially every weekend as they are brought to church for worship. When I was a child, very often my parents asked me and my siblings in the car on the ride home what the Gospel was about and what the priest said about it. During the Season of Announcement, doing something like this can serve an announcement and preparation for the actual celebration. This may also happen in the Sunday School religious education classes as well.

Jesus Came to Save Us

For adults. In John 3:16 we read: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” This verse reveals something very important about God’s Plan for the world in sending God’s divine Son to become the human Jesus: to save us from sin. To express this, theology uses the term “soteriology,” a word based on the Greek word soter, meaning “savior.” Thus, we can describe Christmas as the Birth of the Messiah. The prayer before the Last Supper words in the Anaphoraof St. Peter expresses it well: “You are holy, O God the Father, and abundant in mercy. Because of your love for us, you sent your Son into the world and he became flesh of the Virgin Mary for our salvation.” 

And again, in the familiar words often chanted in the Liturgy:

You have united, O Lord, 
your divinity with our humanity
and our humanity with your divinity,
your life with our mortality
and our mortality with your life.
You have assumed what is ours
and you have given us what is yours
for the life and salvation of our souls.
To you be glory for ever.

For the children. From a very early age children can tell right from wrong, and as they grow, this sense of sin becomes more obvious. They need to be told that if they admit their sins and ask Jesus to forgive them, especially in confession, God will forgive them. And this is what Jesus was born to do: to save us from our sins and make a way for us to become united to the Lord.

The Incarnation

For adults. From the beginning of its existence, the Church commemorates as a matter of faith this becoming human of the Divine Word in the body of Mary as the Incarnation. This term comes from the Latin word carno, which means “flesh.” We are told by the Bible that this happened by the power of the Holy Spirit, who overshadowed Mary, causing the Eternal Word to become the human Being known as Jesus. We might think of it as God speaking to humanity and that Word materializing in Mary. We might also think of this event as the creation of the humanity of God. Jesus remained God even as he lived out his sinless human life among us—a true mystery. And in fact, we ought to see the Incarnation (Announcement to the Virgin) and the Nativity (Christmas) as intimately linked.

For the children.Although the idea of the Incarnation is difficult for children to understand, they are able to grasp that God our Heavenly Father loves us more than we can know, and that he wanted to share himself with us in the Gift that is Jesus. When we see Jesus, we see the Heavenly Father’s goodness and love. See John 14:9—Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

The Holy Family

For adults. The Nativity shows us in a poignant way the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We especially see the Spotless Virgin Mary, who is called Theotokosin Greek, “God-bearer” and Oom Allahin Arabic, “Mother of God.” St. Ephrem had a special love for the Virgin Mary, and this is seen in his famous “Hymns on the Nativity.” Many of his liturgical poems, called memrayend with a prayer to the Holy Virgin. We also see Righteous Joseph, who although not the biological father of Jesus, acted as such. Both Mary and Joseph are invoked repeatedly in the Christmas “Novena.” At our Initiation (Baptism and Chrismation) we become members of God’s spiritual family.

For the children.Many children can relate to the reality of the family at Christmas. They are called to relate to the Holy Family as models for our lives and to appreciate God’s Family here on earth, the Church.

Santa Claus Is Really St. Nicholas

For adults. In many ways the figure of Santa Claus is one of the obstacles to trying to get our children to see Christmas as a more spiritual than secular experience. Santa is in so many ways the embodiment of Christmas for children. Every parent knows how difficult it is to see a child in the struggle to realize that Santa isn’t a real person, despite the fact that he can be seen everywhere, and that the child, up to a point, can even sit on Santa’s knee and tell him what he or she wants for Christmas. Fortunately, in one way or another, the child eventually grows out of the myth of Santa. The origin of Santa Claus, nevertheless is probably real: St. Nicholas. Saint Nicholas of Myra (traditionally 15 March 270 – 6 December 343, Feast Day, 6 November), was an early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek city of Myra in Asia Minor. He is said to have been a generous giver of gifts and help to the poor. 

For the children. Once children have given up the myth of Santa, they can be told the story of St. Nicholas, helper of the poor. They can also be told the value of giving gifts. In fact, some families encourage the making of gifts. Also, because our current celebration of the commercial aspect of Christmas, children need to have smaller expectations about gifts. They can even be told that the best gifts are giving love and being kind and caring.

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