I have hesitated to write about this because often people think, “Celebrate all twelve days of Christmas! Sounds like too much.” And I’m no expert, nor would I set myself up as an example. On the other hand, we really did this, all those years, learning as we went, so maybe you’d like to know…
I’m going to tell you what our family did to celebrate all twelve days of Christmas, thanks to the Chief insisting on us living our Advent, my first three children being born in December, and living on one income with all that implies.
And I am going to give you suggestions for your shopping (since, like me, you probably didn’t DIY everything starting last January, nor did you thrift any of it — but next year you will and so will I).
The gift-giving questions in my inbox can be more or less summed up by this one from dear Shawna:
Christmas is coming and I’m dreading the stress and expense. Then there’s the “hangover” that follows the spending. I have 7 children (Ages 17 – 7 months) and even with the idea of magi gifts (3: one to read: one desired; one needed) [editor’s note: we’ve also seen 4, which includes one to wear] it’s expensive. Plus the children are so fixated on the gifts that they fail to understand the gift of Christ as the real reason for Christmas. Additionally the well thought out and hard earned gifts are frequently forgotten shortly after Christmas day. We do a traveling nativity, we do sacrifices, we attend Mass. How do we simplify Christmas and make it meaningful and affordable?
The way our society celebrates Christmas really does put a lot of burden on the parents to be magical and fulfill every wish of their child — even if the child doesn’t seem all that interested in our contortions at the end of the day because others swooped in with far more enchanting gifts — or he actually just liked the box the gift came in.
Like a lot of other things (unsupervised play for children, less pressure for outside activities, lower college tuition), if more people had more children, gift-giving wouldn’t seem so high stakes. Well. We just have to do what we can, keeping in mind that children are hard-wired to find just about everything magical, if only we could just relax a bit…
I’ve found that living liturgically, as always, contains the key to the answer, which, however, must be put into practice in the context of our own family with its likes, dislikes, and particular unique ways of doing things.
In other words, Christmas is a great time for us parents to rely a bit more on the grace of our own family life and a bit less on comparisons with other people — and thus, with the utmost naturalness, to begin to teach our children to do the same (and isn’t that the point?).
What if we, having lived Advent, also live Christmas? Which is a season? I’m going to take it for granted that we are on board with the concept of gift-giving being appropriate at Christmas time (because gifts and Christmas are delightful and magical, don’t have time to explain why) — but we are indeed overwhelmed. Let’s try spreading things out a bit and not burdening that one day with all the “magic.”
This is what we did about celebrating all twelve days of Christmas — and we really did these things!
So on Christmas Day itself, the children open their one (1) count ’em ONE Santa present (and their other presents from guests and in their stockings, because we did not have the good sense to do stockings on the Feast of St. Nick back in the day when we should have been foreseeing this craziness) (in my defense, was having babies).
In the stockings are maybe socks, a tangerine at the foot (do collect them after a day or two to avoid yuck), a bunch of special candies, and some fun little toys.
With seven children (in your case and mine), that is already a boatload of presents!
Then in the following days gift-giving arranges itself.
Pro-tip: Make a chart or, what I did, use a long strip of paper (such as adding-machine paper because this was before we learned to Pinterest everything up) and have all the Days with their gift/activity written down and posted for all to see. Wish I had taken a picture of it! It was cute. This builds anticipation and keeps you on track. Don’t be scared.
The key is this: Half the things you were going to do anyway and (almost) half are actually quite peaceful. But you are spreading them out over the days rather than dumping them all at once into one day, or making them something separate, like vacation activities. If there is a need (and winter is coming, so yes), give the mittens and hats on the Feast of St. Nicholas. Give pjs and nightgowns on Christmas Eve Day.
Let me give you a typical scenario at our house (you must adjust according to your particulars and the day of the week):
2nd Day of Christmas: Visiting extended family with inevitable gift-giving. Or — and this became a real tradition with us — making gingerbread houses. Turns out that this “little project” we always think we are going to do is a full-on day-long (at least) extravaganza of marathon baking, decorating, and general sugar-coating of the kitchen. Since we had the birthdays during Advent, I somehow got the idea to do this
after Christmas in the Christmas season. As the kids got older, our modest efforts became “gingerbread villages,” “gingerbread forts,” and “gingerbread Fenway parks.” (Bonus: the candy is all on deep discount.)
- You will need Gingerbread Family Set cookie cutters, but beware: it’s only the beginning! (For instance, that church had a stained glass window and flying buttresses.)
3rd Day: A whole-family present like a board game that all can play (it’s okay if the littles aren’t absolutely included in this — they don’t really care/can be on someone’s “team” until they go play with cars) or a special piece for the Brio train, Lego, or Playmobil collection. This latter gift (say, a train bridge) results in the pulling out of the bin and the communal building of a fabulous new track. In other words, you are renewing interest in old toys with one gift for everyone.
Now is the time to put the bee in your relatives’ bonnets about these items. You know the ones I mean: The well-meaning people in your life who shower you with things you don’t want and toys that are inappropriate. These toys I’m suggesting are still in my toy closet after all these years because they are awesome. See if you can gently nudge your nemeses to give the family one of the pricier of the following things instead of their own dreaded selections:
- Brio (quality substitutes are fine, eg Melissa & Doug or Ikea): starter set; expansion pack; the sort of piece that makes them pull the bin out.
- We also like these people for general doll-house play: Arshiner Happy Doll Family of 6 People.
- Also the ever-charming Calico Critters.
- Board games: I just played Ticket To Ride for the first time — really fun! I only wonder why they made the cards so unnecessarily small; I know the Chief will be annoyed by having to peer the entire time. Otherwise, a good game. We also enjoy Dominion.
In the evening, we might have had a simple supper and gone caroling, which usually astonished people because they thought Christmas was over.
4th Day: (Remember, they are on vacation here.) Museum trip, Nutcracker, or ice skating — yes, we were going to do some of this anyway. Scout out the free/discount day.
5th Day: Open the box a far-off relative sent (which you cleverly did not put out on Christmas Day). Or do jigsaw puzzles. It’s good to have a quiet day in here… and, it’s okay, by the way, to have one day be more for the older kids/adults and one day more for the younger kids. It’s okay. Children learn to enjoy each other’s enjoyment. They have things to do on their own. This is all good.
6th Day: For many years we lived not far from an amazing book store, The New England Mobile Book Fair. On a day during Christmas we would plan an afternoon to browse. With seven kids? Yes, with seven kids –it’s that kind of place (I mean, I don’t know what the staff thought but it’s sort of a warehouse and I have no shame). I would get lost in the remainders section; the older kids would hunt down Tintin books; the Chief would find his favorite publisher (the books are somewhat maddeningly arranged by publisher) and settle down; the younger kids would sort of run in between us. Baby on someone’s hip. Park the toddler in the cart with a board book. Everyone could get a book or two.
If you don’t have a bookstore near you, this is the day to give the books you ordered. (Unless someone really wished for a certain book on Christmas Day, you save them for their own day so they don’t get lost in the dazzle of the toys.)
Shawna responded to my email with thanks — and the idea of beginning a read-aloud the day after Christmas, which I love:
- Dangerous Journey (which I see is back in print! Huzzah!) — Best read-aloud ever. I posted about this book in The Library Project. Peruse other titles in the read-aloud category for other ideas.
7th Day: This is actually New Year’s Eve. I suggest a party for reasons I explain in this post. Maybe you have a family tradition on this day, like eating Chinese food — go for it as a Day of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. When the kids were under 14, we would often bundle them up for a trip — on the train! — into Boston for “First Night” — a city-wide celebration of winter activities, all free. We’d eat street food and get really cold. That we didn’t do the more sophisticated concert/party/midnight revelry things was never even on the kids’ radar. It’s dark by 4 and to them, it’s late.
At our New Year’s Eve party that we inaugurated in later years, we would feature smashing and eating the gingerbread creations. Schedule this in so that you don’t make the mistake either of eating them right away (unseemly) or leaving them too long (gross).
8th Day: New Year’s Day, Feast of the Mother of God: Mass (it’s a holy day of obligation), family movie. In the years that we did First Night on New Year’s Eve, we had a party with a family or two on this day, very relaxed and enjoyable.
- It’s A Wonderful Life
- Kit Kittredge
- The movie of Tintin is cute
- Here’s one for the very littles: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
9th Day: Enjoy that box of candy that keeps getting overlooked. (Or smash and eat gingerbread creations.)
10th Day: Family walk (one of these days is bound to be mild[er]!) — bundle up and get out there!
11th Day: Reading day. (Anything can be a Day of Christmas! Just give it a name! Nap day!!) Other thoughts: Really delving into that one gift (like Axis & Allies) that takes forever to figure out and set up; visiting an elderly relative who is just a bit far away; breakfast for supper; making a model or doing a craft; assembling the bike or what have you.
12th Day: The Epiphany. Bake a crown cake. Optional but highly recommended: Giving your gifts to each other and to the children — vs. the one Santa gift you gave on Christmas Day, remember? Often I would buy these on deep clearance at some point during the week, having now ascertained what each child actually wanted (because that’s how it the magic/burden nexus works). Or not.
(Edited to add: As I said, this post reflects what we actually did — including me getting confused about what day the Epiphany falls on! So to be clear, it’s January 6th. The 12th Day is the Vigil of “Little Christmas.” And further, the Church (in the Novus Ordo calendar) celebrates the Epiphany on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas. So I very much would choose when we would celebrate based on the day of the week and what the family at large was doing. For instance, if the 12th Day fell on a Sunday — making the 6th a Monday, we’d do our Little Christmas on the 12th Day. If January 6 was on Saturday, we’d do it then. If I was going crazy with everyone’s schedule, we’d do it on the 2nd Sunday, somewhat over the protests of the Chief, who nevertheless realized I was hanging by a thread. This is called rolling with the punches.)
My list is based on my family having been thrown very much on its own resources. But it might be that you are in a community or large extended family that supplies many activities of its own. Any special thing on that day is the gift for that day! Any particular interest your family has could be encouraged in this season! See how it works?
And do you see that it frees up Christmas Day itself to be calmer?
If you are thinking, “Well, no,” I offer the following testimonial from Rosie: “I always felt that my one Santa gift was magical; I secretly thought my friends were deprived because they didn’t celebrate Little Christmas (Twelfth Day).” “The stockings were the best and most fun,” I remember Nick saying, not long ago.
I haven’t surveyed them all — I’m a little afraid to, because I always feel that I didn’t do a good job and that the magic wasn’t there. We parents are hard on ourselves… But Rosie encouraged me to tell you all about this, so I am.
Remember, on Christmas morning, gather the waiting children and say a little prayer at the creche where you’ve secretly put Baby Jesus in the manger after they went to bed on Christmas Eve. After the Christmas Mass, whether it was at Midnight or during the day, don’t worry that you are not being religious enough. The feast is meant to be worship and [then] celebration. Just enjoy the day together… and all the other days in this season of grace.
My little Advent series so far: