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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pray more than a shopping list

Either intentionally or unintentionally, we may communicate to out children a definite set of ‘rules’ about prayer: what their bodies should do, what their words should say, and what content is acceptable. This set up implies to our children that we can succeed or fail at how we perform the act of praying. That’s a big pressure when the God of the universe is the audience!

(Parenting children for a life of faith, Rachel Turner, p63)

Don’t know about yours, but at the moment my 3 are in a bit of a routine when it comes to praying – one we have kind of ‘coached them’ into. Pretty much set length ‘shopping-list’ prayers bringing to God a good balance of their own needs and those of family & occasionally further afield. But it can feel rattled off, well rehearsed at times and at the moment T is opting out. So when I was reading these words of Rachel Turners stuck me. She’s right of course, in trying to ‘be good christian parents’ we have taught them a ‘correct’ template for prayer I suppose.  And there’s some good in that – it is a framework that they can always fall back on in times when praying is hard. But having a ‘correct’ way means our children are coming to talk to God from a very particular unconscious perspective – that God is a slot machine you have to have the correct change for?, that if you don’t see the answer you’re imagining from God that you didn’t pray it right?, that God is fearsome and only listens to perfect prayers?, or that he’s not interested in small talk with us just wanting to get the business done?

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None of those perspectives fit the way God reveals himself to us. He says ‘call me Father’, Jesus says when you talk to God say ‘Daddy…’! That’s intimate, and caring. That’s personal. The father child relationship is an everyday one – what I mean is that at it’s best (deliberately in bold!) it’s a relationship that gets involved in all aspects of our lives, it’s the type of relationship where life becomes an intertwined shared experience. Daddy and child. The child looks up to the Dad and hangs on his every word – the Daddy dotes on his child, treasuring every shared moment, every conversation no matter what its about.

“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?” (Matt 6:5 MSG)

Wanting children to have a safe place to encounter God is a right desire. My initial response to that desire, though, was to put myself between God and children. I was the safety gate. Since I saw this tendency in myself, I’ve changed the boundaries. I don’t want to be the safety gate between God and children. I want to be the steward – the one who guides a child into the presence of God and stands guard to protect their time and space as they interact. I want to be the one who walks with the child away from that encounter and helps him to process the way it changes his situation and life.

(Parenting children for a life of faith. Rachel Turner, p 66)

I don’t need to protect my children from God – he’s their loving Father, he knows and loves them better than I do! I don’t need to help my children to formulate ‘perfect’ prayers. I need to guide them into their Daddy’s presence, and model for them how all of life – the wiggles, giggles, moans, frustrations, worries and wonderings – is on the table when we chat with God.

I guess for us part of that process is practicing and modelling those kinds of relationships within the family home. Talking together about stuff; being a family that shares joys and struggles together, and talks about questions, dreams, ideas. Part of that will mean Andrew & I intentionally choosing very open ended questions and conversation starters – or we’ll just get a one word answer.

Communication with our family and friends is filled with half spoken thoughts, ponderings, funny stories and really deep sharing. We often speak from the heart about what is going on with us… In relationship we share the little things in life because, eventually, big things come along, and we need to know that the other person in that relationship cares about and can handle both.

(Parenting children for a life of faith, Rachel Turner, p69)

To help this begin to be a bit more intentional I have had some fun and made some conversation starter stones (a bit like my happy chatting lollipop sticks but very much open ended). I am hoping they will encourage us to do more talking about feelings and abstract things as a family, but I also hope they can be useful in prayer too. Choose a stone, read and let it be the beginning of a chat with God, or a picture or letter for God. They are made by cutting small shapes out of thin patterned paper, writing on a simple open question or the start of a sentence and then sticking them onto the stone with PVA glue. Then seal the paper with more PVA glue just over the top. I have deliberately kept mine very small, with teeny tiny writing – T especially loves finding tiny writing & working it out – and loves magnifying glasses!

 “What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right? And God cares what happens to it even more than you do. He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail—even numbering the hairs on your head! … You’re worth more than a million canaries.” (Matt 10:29-31 MSG)

Also for us I think it means continuing intentional work about naming and recognising emotions in ourselves (we’re then planning to continue building on that self awareness towards recognising and acknowledging emotions in others).  Recognising (and so naming) emotions is something we usually learn by inference, but neither of my girls do their learning from inference, which means unravelling and naming physical sensations/tone of voice/body language/facial expressions intentionally together and then putting together a picture of each emotion as they experience it, and then how we might look for those clues in others – or slightly different clues – lets face it we don’t all present emotions in exactly the same way… goodness this could (probably will!) take years!!

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” 1 Pet 5:7 (NIV)

 

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peacemaking

I’ve been searching out some ideas and books to use to start conversations about peace as Remembrance Day approaches.

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Peace is a tricky word, a big concept to pin down. I guess our first thought this week is to think of peace as time without conflict or war. But there can be a huge range of different experiences and quality of life even in times and places without war in this world. Can peace be fully expressed when there is still poverty, a huge gulf between the rich and the poor, injustice, inequality of respect and of opportunities, oppressive relationships and so on, and when our way of living brings harm to the environment and so also harm to others – and in all of this hurt and damage to our relationship with our Creator. Is there a fuller, deeper peace to long for, a wholeness for the world to talk about and dream of with my children?

Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want. (Amos 5:23-25 MSG)

 

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever. (Isaiah 9:5-7 NIV)

  • Meaningful Mama has put together a good starting place list of books about peace for children, from all sorts of cultural and religious backgrounds. Some of these will definitely promote discussion in our house.
  • Finding out about poppies, and about Remembrance Day: The British Legion has information about red poppies here, and the Quakers about white poppies here.
  • Yummy Mummy Club have some easy red poppy craft ideas.
  • Inner Child Fun have some lovely ideas for peace dove crafts, I especially wonder if the hand-print dove would start interesting discussions about how our hands, our actions can be peacemaking.
  • dove of peaceOne of the designs in my contemplative colouring book  ‘Angels Singing’  reflects on the verse from Isaiah about Jesus being the Prince of Peace, the bringer and establisher of peace. We used it in our school outreach today to create space for dreaming about peace, what it would look like, and round the edges we wrote our prayers and longings for the things we want to see healed and changed. One student rather poignantly added a poppy into the dove’s beak – wish I had taken a photo to show you!
  • We might try writing a prayer for peace together as a family using the letters of PEACE, or maybe writing a sentence for each of the senses ‘Peace looks like…’, ‘peace feels like…’ etc. and using them in prayer perhaps with a phrase like ‘Jesus help us be peacemakers’ to repeat together in between reading out the sentences.

 

 

 

 

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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