This year, I’m sharing a bit about an Advent activity my church did last Advent during our time dedicated to children. Each Sunday of Advent, we introduced one or more figures to our Christmas story. The figures were hidden in the church each week, moving closer and closer to the Bethlehem, the manger, and the star, and children were invited to search for them after church each week, sharing where they found them with other children so that everyone could find them. If they shared the location with the adult who led children’s time that Sunday, they received a small stone with one of that week’s figures painted on it as a prize, so that by the end of Advent, they had a Holy Family + Angel nativity scene.
The Sunday after Christmas (December 27 in 2020), we sing Christmas carols for the whole service. This week, our focus for children’s time was on gift giving.
Our children span from 2-12, and some are very familiar and some very unfamiliar with the Christmas story, so I aimed for 5-8 minutes of attentive time.
I brought with me four items: a pair of shoes, a Christmas stocking, a plate with cookies and carrots, and a shoebox with grass in it. Here is a rough transcript of what I shared:
In some parts of the world, December 6 is St. Nicholas Day. Others celebrate it on December 19th, and some people don’t celebrate it at all. Did anyone put shoes [showing my shoes] out for St. Nicholas at night and find that, in the morning, they had coins in them? [Children shared what they did for St. Nicholas day.]
[Showing a plate of cookies and carrots.] Did anyone put something like this out on Christmas Eve? We put out peppernuts. What kind of cookies did you put out for Santa? [Children’s sharing.] Did anyone put out something for Santa’s reindeer?
Did of you put out stockings on Christmas Eve? This stocking is special to me, because my mother made it for my daughter, as a gift to her for her first Christmas. Do you have special stockings? [Children share about their stockings.]
[Showing the shoe box of grass.] Next week is Epiphany, when many Christians celebrate when the magi or wise men visited Jesus. In our nativity sets, we often see three magi, but the Bible actually doesn’t tell us how many came. Has anyone here ever put out a gift for the magi? [No one did.] Look what is inside this box. [Show it to children and have one of them announce that it is filled with grass.] Right, it’s grass. We traditionally show the magi traveling by camel, so children in Puerto Rico, which is part of the US, often leave a box of grass for the camels, and they get little gifts in exchange on Epiphany, which is sometimes also called Three Kings Day.
These are all examples of how we give and receive gifts at Christmas. Maybe your family has other traditions, too. Christians around the world all have different customs.
Today at church, we are having a Christmas carol hymn sing. When we sign to God, we are giving God the gift of our voices and praise. Today, we are also saying “thank you” to God for the gifts God has given us. And we’re sharing our gifts with each other, too–like the gift of playing the piano or the trumpet! God loves it when we share our gifts with each other and share our time together to say praise God for the gifts we’ve received.
I then shared that this was our final day of searching for figures for the nativity. Next week, for Epiphany, the magi would join the other figures in our creche. But today, they were still hidden. And like the magi of the story, they were coming from the East (that is, hidden on the East side of the sanctuary). When the children found them and reported back on their location, they received a small prize (in this case, $1).
***Any time you speak to children or adults about gift giving, be sensitive. Invitations to share what they received as gifts may result in comparisons that make some children feel short-changed or others embarrassed. “Did you do X?” is gentler than “Did you get any presents?”, but even this should be asked only if you know the situation of children in your presence. Children in foster care or unstable family situations may not have strong traditions.