we need to talk Father Christmas

Well, this may be a controversial one but I think we need to talk about Father Christmas as Christian parents. It seems over the years we have been parenting to be one of those taboos that just can’t be explored openly. There is fear of children overhearing, fear of upsetting each other with different views, fear of the myth being lost and our children ‘losing the magic of Christmas’. But for me there are questions I want to grapple with as a Christian parent, and it would be so much easier if we could just talk! We are good at talking – the state of education, mainstream or homeschool, what books are most suitable or not at all suitable, what clothes shops are most ethical, what we let our kids watch on TV & why, the best diets, how to support our kids friendships etc etc, but not Father Christmas!

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So, spurred on my Miriam Gwynne’s frank and open blog about this subject last week, and how her family deal with the Father Christmas myth ( find it here ‘Why I told my Autistic Daughter there is no Santa) – I am going to be brave and continue the conversation, please join in!

Andrew & I have opted out of the Father Christmas myth as parents, we don’t talk about writing lists for him, or about his naughty or nice lists. We don’t tell our kids any of their presents are from him, and we don’t put them to bed on Christmas eve with the words ‘go to sleep or Santa won’t come’. Strangely we both were just of one mind about it, it wasn’t an agonizing decision. We simply both felt that if it was top of our parenting aims to raise children who knew Jesus was real we didn’t want to confuse things by acting as if Father Christmas was too. And that’s just our take. What’s been difficult has been feeling free to opt out in a culture which is embracing it all. Our extended family haven’t made the same choices in their families, and we haven’t yet come across many in church family who opt out either. And we certainly haven’t ever felt the need to impose our take on it as ‘the right way’ for all Christian parents. But it’s right for us, and I hope that in sharing why & how that maybe it encourages someone else by breaking the taboo.

I’ve told you what we don’t do in our family about Father Christmas but let me tell you what we do do. As you can see we do stockings, but we do it differently. We each have a stocking, including Andrew & I, and his parents who are with us for Christmas each year. And we play the Father Christmas game, which for us goes like this…

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Each year we read about St Nicholas, and talk together about how he became an example of how to share the generosity of God’s heart with others. We read the St Nicholas story about the three girls without enough food, or money for dowries, and how St Nicholas shared his plenty with them by climbing up and dropping coins down the chimney into their fireplace & stockings. There are lots of books and resources out there but we love this one.

We remember together how over the years people have remembered this kind of generosity by hanging out stockings and filling them with gifts for each other. How gift giving reminds us of God’s generosity and his greatest gift, Jesus. We talk about the Father Christmas myth that they hear about at school and in the shops, and on TV, and what a wonderfully fun idea it is. And how much fun we can have each year playing this game. (That’s the phrase we often turn to for this, we don’t believe in Father Christmas, but we do play the Father Christmas game together.)

Stocking presents are bought and made, and are little things. None of our main presents go in the stockings. We also always buy chocolate coins for every stocking linking back to the story. Over the years, out of necessity and running out of time, a much loved family tradition has evolved – the stocking shopping trip – with a set amount of time (only approx 40 mins max), a set budget (presently £6 per stocking) and having divided up into two teams we head out to fill a stocking with the most imaginative, thoughtfully chosen, value for money, funny gifts!! Whilst trying not to let the other team see you of course. Hard work but hilarious every year without fail… though the pushchair years were tense at times, it did feel as though one team always had an advantage if it wasn’t the one wriggling in and out of shops with it, and somehow or other this expedition brings out the competitive in us! (needless to say a strict yearly alternating rota formed.)

Then, when we next have a minute mini teams hide away in corners of the house with saved wrapping paper from last year wrapping up the hoard for a stocking, usually taking great care to undo any multi-packs and wrap each item separately – yes biros, paperclips, you name it. I think Andrew is responsible for this little tradition!

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On Christmas Eve itself we take turns to wear the Santa hat trying to tiptoe through the house without being spotted ‘being Santa’ and delivering a stocking to the end of someone’s bed, before we go to bed ourselves. So logistically, T often plays Santa to Nanny & Grandad, B & A play Santa to Andrew & T and I then play Santa for them while Andrew is leading the midnight service, and usually Andrew plays Santa to me, putting my full stocking on the bed before he goes out.

Then we open them in the morning, often the kids pile in with each other (T leads the waking up early nowadays) first, and then come in and jump on our bed to watch us open our stockings, and then show us all of their things (which I then have to work hard at gathering up off the bed and putting back in the right stockings to prevent wars later on in the day!). Of course it’s not over till we vote on which stocking shopping team is the winner that year (almost always not me!).

So why do it all this way, it’s not an easy way in the midst of others who don’t – especially with our forthright and often brutally honest children?

These are the things that have motivated us;

  • If we live and act that Father Christmas is real, and also that Jesus is real, how can we expect our children not to equate them? When they work out Father Christmas isn’t real will they also be working on the assumption that Jesus isn’t?
  • We didn’t want to lie to our children, and it seemed to us too difficult to maintain such a well formed myth without lying.
  • We didn’t feel comfortable with the concept of the naughty/nice list, the idea that receiving a gift is something you have to deserve or earn, and that in theory some are never going to be good enough… God doesn’t show us this kind of generosity, in fact quite the opposite, so to embed this thought into out family culture in this yearly tradition seemed unhelpful to us.
  • We were keen to make family traditions that spoke of Christmas being for everyone, not just the children, and for us we were aware how the Father Christmas myth brings with it the idea that the ‘magic’ goes when you reach an age to see through it.
  • For us the ‘magic of Christmas’ comes from the gift of Jesus, so we thought to ourselves that opting out of the Father Christmas myth should not take it away. In fact maybe by not buying into it we would be freeing ourselves to receive the joy of Jesus in new ways.

Unwittingly, looking back with hindsight, having got to know our wonderfully quirky children over many years now, we can see how our opting out has been so good for us as a family, we have not had to worry about the anxiety that would have come from the myth as Miriam Gwynne describes in her post, and we will not face the task of unravelling and unlearning things that aren’t truly the heart of Christmas – for which I am very very thankful…

Now over to you, I’d genuinely love to know what you do, and what you think…

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No! I won’t go!

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No doubt about it, our life is muddly, messy, noisy, untidy, often draining, and requires a heap of hard work! Last week we had a week away together in York. We have stayed in the same holiday rent for a few visits now – things are so much easier when the basics are familiar and we can ‘quickly’ (for us) get into holiday-in-York routines.

Of course, even the best plans aren’t fool proof though, and of course there were hiccups – like forgetting to put T’s camp bed into the car and having to find a new one there. New may look exactly the same but feel completely different, and there was something about this camp bed that meant T fell out of it more than she managed to stay in! Ah well, our double seemed large enough to tuck her into every night.

 

Maybe in part because of the new bed the night before T woke on the Sunday adamant that she could not, would not go to church. We had talked about the church we always go to when we are there, we had remembered together what it looked like, what the services were like, and that last time I had gone out to a group with T so she hadn’t had to be on her own. But despite our best efforts she would not budge.

So everyone else got ready, and went off with Andrew and I stayed with T. Even as they were putting shoes on and chatting about what they might say if someone asked them if they wanted to go out to a youth group T was loudly determined, and anxious. So as the door shut I was clung to – needed for full on reassurance.

After tight squeezy cuddles to bring some calm and a renewed sense of safety we opted for colouring and a cuppa. I had packed the colouring book edition of the Mick Inkpen Bible stories so we got it out and read and chatted as we coloured in together. T was thrilled to be allowed to use my special pens, but I suspect even more thrilled to have my full attention.

What had begun as a challenging and quite frustrating morning – it’s not all that often I get to sit in church with Andrew, and I had been looking forward to it to be honest – began to feel like a very tiny oasis after the busyness of packing and getting away. In that short lived calm and conversation, pondering a Bible story together, I was gently reminded yet again of the truth of ‘God with us’ – in the muddle and the frustration. The true constant in life.

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The calm faded quicker than it had come and we negotiated to a different activity and eventually to a favourite film so I could finally get to the bathroom – after which of course B & A came back with Andrew and it was definitely that ‘lead up to lunchtime’ type of family time!

It was a needed reminder of God’s faithful presence, always ready- no matter what is going on. A family week away is definitely a chance to practice the habit of remembering and turning my attention to God’s presence in the muddle of everyday (and every night!)…

 

such a good idea

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It seemed such a good idea – pumpkin carving whilst talking together about how Jesus picks each one of us, cleans out all the yucky bits in our hearts, and fills us up with his light…

Sounded perfect in my head as I had run through it in my mind.

What could go wrong?!

 

Whether we just happened upon the wrong moment, or it was just never going to be a winner I don’t know… but it did not go to plan.

As we cut the lid and looked inside my gentle chatting was drowned out by expressions of disgust.

‘Yuck! It smells!’

 

 

The scraping and cutting out of the flesh inside which I had imagined to be a sensory treat turned instead into something that seemed horrifying to T. So disgusting she didn’t want to join in at all.

I let her have a go at taking pictures for me, but even that got too much and pretty soon instead of us talking together calmly about how Jesus makes us clean on the inside I found myself trying to manage a volatile few minutes as T tried to take pictures of everyone and everything! She finished off by taking yet more incredible selfies, with each face more and more exaggerated. Of course when I had finished and washed my hands, we needed to put the phone down have a look at the pumpkin and decide how to carve it.

Let’s just say, I had to go and hunt for my phone! Then before carving I had to take a walk in the garden and find and cajole T back into the house.

When I finally got her in, she made an escape upstairs and I was left carving (‘cos I have to finish what I’ve started at this point). Hope you appreciate my efforts – I opted for an unusually optimistic slogan, which seemed bold given the circumstances. It will certainly be something to reflect on… and yes I’ve been told, holes in pumpkins ‘aren’t meant to be that big Mummy’ – I’ll do better (if there’s ever a) next time!

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admin

 

So, we’ve been back from our camping just over a week now and the dining room is now about a third full of stuff rather than so full you couldn’t get in like it was a week ago. Feels frustratingly slow progress though.

Trouble is I clean, sort, tidy away and then turn around to find other explosions of stuff happening everywhere else! (just this morning A ran over a new bottle of shower gel on the stairs, so I need to add ‘vax the carpet’ to the long to-do-list) Not to mention the explosions of emotion – sibling negotiating, stress from the change in routine, overtired but fighting it, meltdowns and the odd paddy (often ask myself why on earth we need those – this family are just so very talented at full on meltdowns, you know, the ones which are non verbal, aggressive, out of control, last hours, exhausting!).

So with the constant spiraling housework situation, and the constant emotional/behavioral trouble shooting, not so good sleep and a whole church service to prep thrown in it’s been a long week. We also tried a new discipline – a Sabbath time together – last Friday eve through to Saturday lunch. When we have fallen into a pattern I’ll let you know how it’s going.

I’ve also been aware of all the admin that goes with our family life. This week has been particularly busy with it and it brings a very particular tiredness with it.

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There are the forms to fill in for big organisations – for health professionals or DWP which inevitably mean going through a process of putting down in words the hardest bits of our family life – the unseen bits. The negatives, the ‘deficiencies’ (I’d like to see them as differences but to live in the culture we are in these are things that become obstacles in an inflexible system). These forms are asking for evidence, they feel cold, I fill them in feeling I’m having to put my children into a box just as I’m struggling to fit adequate explanations into little boxes on paper. These neat little boxes are an isolated snap shot of a bigger, vibrant picture, but this is not the place for the strengths. It is an emotionally draining process, but the support and opportunities we hope for as we fill them in make it a necessary one.

 

There is research to do – to prepare and resource myself for the academic term ahead. This week I have spent some time reading up anything I can about how to teach exam techniques – is this seemingly instinctive skill (as we seamlessly transfer knowledge we have often learnt from inference over many years of education from the lesson context into the exam room) something that can be broken down into steps or rules that can be taught? What are the ‘rules’ that unlock the meaning of an essay question? How can I teach how to find the question in amongst all the words? Do these questions have a knock on effect on how I need to be supporting the process of learning how to read for meaning while T is still an early reader? I also need to find out how to explain what ‘revision’ might actually look like in practice. How do others do it? What might work for us? Can we find ways we are comfortable with if we really think outside the box. How does B learn best, remember things best? How can I best help her to find a pattern that will be manageable, and how can I best prompt and support her getting into the rhythm of it. And yes, I am aware that my research as I sit waiting for people to settle to sleep is one thing, that hard bit will be sharing what I find out!

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There’s also ongoing admin that gets revisited in the breaks. The visual timetables, the looking for the right visual timetable app (still haven’t found one we’re happy with), the updating of the behaviour agreements which get carefully discussed with each separately and agreed on (including appropriate consequences if we go beyond 3), signed and displayed. We use the 1,2,3 magic style agreements to work on 3 behaviours only at any given time. All other difficult behaviours we try to distract away from and prevent, but the 3 we agree to work on together we try to consistently work on in a ‘zero tolerance’ way till they improve. Really good to see improvements in the ones we had been working on last term… we no longer need ‘hiding the hairbrush’ on the agreement! We also have agreed parental controls limiting the time spent on computers in term time, but these will be looked over nearer the end of the holidays.

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I also want to think about what pattern or book we are going to use next for regular Bible reading and reflection with each of them this coming term and get into a pattern with them. I quite enjoy the way we often need to be creative to make this manageable but the process of choosing the right thing together and enthusing takes time and is a bit fraught at times so I need to begin…

Anyway – it all has to be done… but right now, I’ve been ‘called away’ ( ie: pulled from my chair and demanded) to be the teacher again for T’s dolls Annie and Lucy who happen to be dairy and gluten intolerant, struggle with being left and come with a whole heap of admin of their own!! But it’s ok, I’m meticulously told the script and stage directions as we go so at least I know what I’m doing – it also helps that we’re now a few days into the game so I’m getting the hang of it – and finding I’m having to be corrected slightly less often!!

 

Summer Festival

 

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a little patch of blue sky was spotted during the week!

For the last few years we have been going to the Christian summer festival, New Wine. Last Year I was reflecting on how important it has become for us as a family because it is a week of intensive community with our church family (both locally and families who camp with us from other churches). The week following New Wine we meet up with parts of our extended family for another week of camping in lovely Somerset. Inevitably we get chatting about the Christian festivals we each go to, some to Spring Harvest, Word Alive, some to Keswick. This year we chatted a fair amount about the logistics of taking our families – all in some way shaped by additional needs – to such large, noisy, intensive festivals. On paper it sounds mildly ridiculous to attempt such a thing, so what does it work out like in practice?

These are some of the ways we as a family handle the logistics of camping, being in community, going to the meetings and events, sleeping, eating, staying clean enough… and growing in our faith:

Eating

When we first began the adventure of camping the eating side of things was actually really difficult. B has not ever found eating easy, her diet at that time was really very restricted and her usual routine involved managing to eat just enough sitting on her own with the TV on simply to dampen the stress and panic enough to face the food. So eating while camping was tough for her. Most of her ‘safe foods’ were possible to store and prep in a tent so that was something, but of course no TV, no space, family and wider church community right there all the time.

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Plus whenever a bug, fly or wasp came even remotely near her she was panicked. So at first food was eaten (or looked at) rather stressfully outside with the rest of us, but by the end of each mealtime B was usually quite distressed and sitting in the bedroom, zipped in on her own. Over the years this level of stress about camping mealtimes has eased a little and most of the time B manages to join us and eat something. I think in part this is a reflection of a wider change about how B is coping with meals together all the time. Needless to say wasps are still a problem! This year with 5 adults around our table we still had a bit of a job dealing efficiently with them and keeping the meal on track!

As a church group we eat together in ‘family clusters’ – so everyone is included, and supported. This year we had the joy of 3 extra adults eating with us. All known really well by our kids, and all extremely accepting and patient of how our family life happens. Their help was invaluable at mealtimes, getting the food started when Andrew or I were still walking back after fetching T from a group, helping involve the kids in washing up and generally keeping us cheery throughout even the most dysfunctional moments, and bringing the first evening meal so we didn’t need to cook after putting up the tent and sorting the kids out on the day we arrived.

We have a menu that we only have to tweak each year as dietary needs change, and alongside the menu we have 3 shopping lists! One is a list of what needs to be prepared or bought and packed to take with us (we prep 2 main meals in advance and take them frozen.). The second is a shopping list for Andrew to fetch while I register the kids with their groups after the tent has gone up on arrival day. The third is to be bought on the day off, including things to take to the BBQ with our whole church group that evening.

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a bit wet for BBQ but great food & company! (Thank you A.Wall for the photo)

Sleeping

What can I say??? We’re not naturally great at sleeping anyway! This year though we all slept in the same bedroom section and I think, miraculously, we possibly got more sleep than usual!

Washing

There are shower blocks dotted about the showground where New Wine is held. There are also sinks in all the loo blocks which lots of people use for washing faces and doing teeth though we do that in the tent where it’s less crowded and distracting. The showers are quite small and there is almost always a queue, it’s also fair to say that they are a little hit and miss – usually a mixture of hot moments with unpredictable cold ones thrown in. This year we also faced the challenge of some of the showers losing water pressure – not easy with shampoo already applied but only a dribble of water running down the wall to rinse with!

When B, A & T were small enough we took a large-ish flexi bucket for baths in the tent. It was a bit of a slow process heating a few kettles to add to cold water to get the temp right, but it was clean, enough room for me to help, and no queuing, as they grew a small paddling pool also came in handy in a similar way. Now they are all too big, but we have managed finding times to use the showers and have coped. And with T this year I simply haven’t pushed it – baby wipes took care of it! There is a disability accessible shower on site, with enough room for a parent to help a larger child. We may well look into using that next time.

I take travel hand wash detergent with us and try to wash tea towels and any other essentials on the afternoon of the day off. This year was so wet I didn’t get the chance – nothing would have dried. But of course the wet, and the festival mud created a lot of washing, and ‘Our Place’ (New Wine’s inclusion teams) came to the rescue washing the things we really needed – especially T’s ‘apple blanky’ when it was dropped in a puddle.

Meetings

There are kids groups right through from baby to late teens, and registration forms are taken between certain times on arrival day, and the kids are given wrist bands. Most of the groups have a couple of sessions each day, babies fewer and older teens more choices but a similar amount of time.

There is a thorough system of dropping off and collecting, with more than one check of your ID, the handover card you gave in that day, and the child’s wristband. It takes a bit of time but works well. T didn’t like the wristband at all this year, and kept taking it off and ‘putting it somewhere safe’ – so on a couple of the days that she went to her group we had to get her an alternative, approved ID badge from the admin team at the back of the venue.

The groups are very busy and so they are quite noisy even without the music & use of microphones. There are stage lights and live worship bands, and in the younger groups often team in costume for the upfront parts of the session. Kids are in smaller groups with team looking after them and always get dropped off and picked up in that same place with those team members. For the younger groups the sessions are very tightly structured and include upfront storytelling, silly games and worship and prayer and also active games. craft and chat in the smaller groups.

This year T struggled again and we were so very thankful for the Our Place team. Our Place have team in every venue supporting children to help them join in with their group. They also have a break out space near the side or back for times when kids need to escape or some calming down space. They have fidgets, a visual timetable and ear defenders at the ready! We needed support at drop off, and T needed support during the sessions she attended. Our Place also have a separate kids, youth and adult venue that is open a bit later than the others as a safe haven for those who can’t settle or who can’t manage a whole session. T loved the kids venue and most evenings we went there rather than her group having used all her energy up during the rest of the day.

Some mornings were also just too much and we took T with us to the main arena. Getting out my emergency distractions and other little games that I always have to hand.

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B, A & T all have boxes or tins in their rooms where we put all the little oddmenty toys – from those fast food freebies, to the one off homemade and all things small and unique. I pack up a small bag of these when we go for days out or away for longer like these weeks. I also like to have bubbles (the small tubes sold as party favours are great), fidgets, little notebooks and pens (the ones with multiple colours in just one pen are my favourite – space is of the essence, I have to carry it everywhere!). This year A & I turned a little mint tin into a habitat for a tiny dinosaur complete with rocks trees and volcano – a whole world in a tiny portable tin – perfect!

It sometimes feels frustrating that it’s not straight forward getting to sessions I want to get to – this year I didn’t make it to many things in the evenings at all – but over the years I have found these times when I take a little one to an alternative venue (either Our Place, or Stepping Stones when T was little – a large play space, with tea coffee and the main arena being shown live on a screen) to be full of valuable conversation, chances to connect with other parents often feeling the same frustration and the team in these venues just as ready to pray with you and to talk discipleship!

Our Place run seminars for parents in the mornings which have been a place of gentle challenge (ok sometimes challenge never feels gentle!) encouragement and prayerful support. I have grown such a lot in my faith as I have been a part of the Our Place family network. The encouragement and safety of the space they provide has helped me to go on wrestling, to dare to step out and step up, to trust and hope in deeper ways as we share experience together, know that whoever we sit with or pray with there is understanding and acceptance. This year we looked together at the story of Ruth and reflected together on feeling uprooted, the frustration and pot-boundness circumstances can sometimes make us feel; how God provides, often through the support and help of others – like Ruth’s Boaz; and how God turns the situation right around breaking the chains around those women and leading them to fruitfulness. Plenty for me to treasure and to keep on reflecting on in the midst of piles of muddy washing, a garden that has grown quite a bit while we were away, a tent in need of drying, camping gear to put away, a house that is in disarray and trying to help the kids adjust to down time at home, while Andrew goes back to work!