Christmas can be a time of existential angst. Think of Charlie Brown, dwarfed by a forest of shining, soulless metal trees and appalled by Snoopy’s decked-out doghouse. Just as the heroes of Charles Schulz’s holiday classic wrestled with the meaning of Christmas, so too do families today.
The struggle can be even more difficult when a family isn’t particularly religious or doesn’t have strong ethnic traditions from which to draw. How do you extract meaningful experiences from a season that seems bent on mindless consumption and empty gestures?
Kimberly Christensen has an answer. Before the holidays get underway, the mother of two sits down with her husband, David, to make thoughtful choices about how they’ll spend their time and money.
“We try to separate the meaningful from the consumer blare,” said Christensen, who lives in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood.
Getting children to think about something other than presents is “a tremendous challenge we all face with kids,” said Liliana Lengua, a psychology professor and director of the University of Washington’s Center for Child and Family Well-Being.
The Christensen family is embracing intentional parenting, a way to raise children that emphasizes making decisions thoughtfully rather than through rote reaction, Lengua said.
Research shows that the routines families establish, such as eating dinner together, are vital for children’s social and emotional development, she said. That extends to the holidays, when families can create their own traditions with activities like viewing holiday lights, baking and decorating — or whatever activity fits a family’s values or philosophy.
The rituals and traditions families establish are what strengthen bonds and build positive relationships.
“What we tend to remember often are the things we did, the rituals and habits, that one special event that happened,” Lengua said. “These are the things that establish our emotional connection to our family.”
The unique part of being human is a self-awareness that leads us to look for meaning in our lives, said Jana Mohr Lone, a UW professor and director of the school’s Center for Philosophy for Children.
Rituals and traditions are important because they help us acknowledge a moment, rather than continually rushing through life, she said. To encourage reflection in children, ask them questions such as “What are the things that matter most about this holiday?” or “Does it make you happier to give or receive?”
The Christensens talk to their kids, Soren, 10, and Aniela, 7, about the meaning of the season. They prioritize activities so they can slow down and relish each experience.
Kimberly Christensen created an Advent calendar that reveals not candy, but a daily activity such as reading a book together, calling someone to say “I love you,” or buying hot cocoa for a stranger.
They put together care packages that include gloves, socks and snacks that they keep in the car and give out to people in need.
The family schedules time for cozy, casual evenings together, and Christensen makes sure the activities span the season, not just one day.
“It helps us celebrate fun and family time,” she said, “and sometimes that’s the reason for doing it, not just because it’s Christmas.”