Advent and Christmas are very special seasons, and offer terrific opportunities to grow in and live our faith as Catholics. Often though, both seasons seem to be celebrated by moms more than dads. And while there is nothing wrong with that, as a single father of two kids, one boy and one girl, it occurred to me that our traditions may be a bit different. Specifically, many of our traditions have a more male bent about them. Over the years, I have read many articles about how to celebrate the holidays with kids, but I have not seen many about traditions and events geared toward things to do with dads. In the present article I am going to focus on ideas which favor things that fathers can do with their kids that are meant to supplement—not replace—the many things they may already do with their moms.
Advent and Christmas: The Reason for the Season
Let us start with the basics, which revolve around the reason for the season. While we spend the majority of our time after Thanksgiving preparing for Christmas Day, with shopping and other, the actual opening of gifts usually lasts between 7 and 18 minutes, depending on the number of kids. With that reality in mind it is incumbent upon every dad to lead their children in faith during a time of year that has tragically become more and more secular and materialistic. Sadly, kids are being exposed to constant advertisements across all media formats. As at least one study* has shown, the overwhelming majority of kids get their faith primarily from their fathers. Thus, fathers need to take the role of leading their kids’ spiritual lives, especially during this time of year. Christmas for kids should be about much more than the 7-18 minutes they spend messing up the living room while opening gifts.
As Father John Cyr stated so well on his Facebook page, “Parents, most children will forget what you gave them for Christmas. One of the best memories every child has is seeing their parents pray at home, going to church, and helping the poor. Make Christmas memorable.” That means going to Mass together, praying together, going to Confession and Adoration as a family, engaging in charitable acts alongside one another, and generally witnessing good, wholesome Christian values in keeping with the spirit and blessing of Christ’s birth. Assuming most dads reading this are on the right track with regard to their faith, and are practicing it with their children, let me make some other suggestions.
We tend to decorate for Christmas around Gaudete Sunday at our house, as the season transitions from Advent into Christmas. Thus, before then, we are able to help others decorate and prepare who are a little less patient in their zeal to get started. For instance, last weekend we started at grandma’s house, which has become a decorating tradition in itself. The guys retrieve and bring into the house all of the decoration boxes. We then tackle the tree, all lights, light testing, bulb replacement, strand replacement, outdoor lighting, install various timers, and make sure everything works just right. And sometimes we take it all down and start over. The guys also watch televised football games as we work, and throw around the football during breaks. The older guys might consume an adult beverage or three over those few hours, while the moms “sip” wine. When we are all done, we usually have dinner together. Grandma’s decorating day is a fun filled, dads-lead event, and has become a wonderful tradition which includes three generations of family.
Advent: Time for Charity
Another thoughtful and charitable dad-lead activity is helping neighbors with their lights, particularly people who have difficulty with agility or reaching heights. For a few years my son and I have helped neighbors put lights all around their houses, using a ladder to reach the lofty places, and typically climbing on the roof. We also help coordinate the power distribution (find the requisite outlets) and allocate the appropriate alternating current transmission devices (extension cords). It is all very, very complicated and high-tech to the uninitiated, and something guys typically enjoy more in my experience. While we are doing that, my daughter is usually helping the neighbors decorate the inside, and likely enjoying more than her fair share of cookies.
Though we no longer do this one since we have moved to Phoenix, we used to shovel the snow for older/elderly neighbors, or offer to do other things for them. It is important to express love toward our fellow man, and we can show it by helping them do tasks they may be unable to do themselves, and especially during a season when others might be lonely and longing for companionship. Kids benefit from seeing dads helping others and witnessing kindness. The best of men humble themselves as servant leaders, as Christ did.
During the Advent season we also have worked at St. Vincent de Paul and another food bank in our area, preparing food boxes and delivering them. The boxes can sometimes be hefty, so they are great for guys to carry and deliver to needy families. It allows the kids to be involved in charitable giving, and lets them meet good people who maybe just need a little help to get through an economic rough patch, which anyone can experience. We have always found it to be a rewarding experience.
After my daughter’s heart surgery in 2012, we also began to participate in Phoenix Children’s Hospital’s Ignite Hope Walk each year. It is a 2 mile walk from downtown Phoenix to Children’s Hospital, where we wave to, encourage, and celebrate the holidays with the many kids looking out the windows from their hospital rooms. This event, which started in 2011, was inspiring to my daughter as she recovered, so now we participate each year as a family and raise funds for other kids’ medical needs. I know other families who do similar things for soldiers to show their gratitude for their sacrifices, and that too is a thoughtful idea.
Advent: Project Christmas Tree
Acquiring the Christmas tree can be made into a memorable annual tradition. If you decide to cut one down in the woods, it can be a fun family adventure, especially trekking through the snow on mountain roads and trails. It brings back a little of the history and magic of the season, and makes for an enjoyable family experience. While in the woods the guys focus on locating the correctly-sized tree. Once found, we then employ the axe or saw to cut it down and affix it to the automobile. If the tree is bought from a lot, the guys still make it a mission to find the perfect tree. No matter where from it is acquired, picking the perfect tree does have two components all men must consider: First, the tree has to be majestic enough to fill the space for which it is intended. Sorry Charlie Brown, but your tree will not fly. And second, it must please the ladies in the house, lest the boys have to drive it back and pick another. Yes, that has been done a few times in family history, though not by me, thankfully.
At our house, once the tree is home, we notch the bottom to ensure it can take on water in the stand. Then we place in the stand, tighten it, make sure it is straight, add water, and apply the lights. After the lights are up and they pass the “squint test,” we build the train track around the tree and test it out. My kids usually deliver some ornaments via train, and most even arrive unbroken. Decorating the tree and the rest of the house follows in earnest.
Advent: Having Play and Downtime with Children
Having snowball fights and building snowmen should be a legal requirement when snow is available. Caution should be taken when both kids are athletes, however, and can throw harder and more accurately than dad. This usually starts around third grade.
Watching Christmas movies can be fun as well. Miracle on 34th Street, with Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, and It’s A Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, are terrific movies with strong characters not often found in the goofy Christmas movies made in the last few decades.
Building a fire is also a perfect father-lead activity and a valuable skill that will last a lifetime. It brings warmth and cheer (and S’mores!) during the holidays, and the knowledge will forever be useful in the outdoors.
A perfect gift idea is for dads to give their kids some sort of tool to go in to their previously given toolbox. And if you have not given a toolbox yet, start there. My dad filled our boxes over the years to where most of my siblings were given the appropriate tools to fix just about anything to which they set their minds. Not only are we handy around the house, but we have saved many thousands of dollars fixing things on our own. Who does not want a person like that around? Working with our hands and heads is something most guys love to do and those opportunities should not be overlooked as our kids grow.
In Phoenix many years ago, a friend started the “Men’s Night Out,” which is a night designed for shopping for our loved ones. Though kids do not generally participate in that particular event, there is no reason why some dads cannot get together and take the kids out shopping for relatives and friends, and make a fun night of it for themselves and their kids.
Advent and Christmas: Serving God
Ushering and altar serving at the various Masses are very special traditions. Most parishes have additional Masses, and certainly more people coming to Mass at Christmas, so there is usually something one can do to assist their pastor and parish. Attending a certain Mass time can itself be a tradition to keep. Whether it is the Family Mass at four o’clock on Christmas Eve or the Midnight Mass early Christmas morning, opportunities abound to start the holy day off appropriately, praising our Lord with our families.
I have listed only a few of the many things dads can do to instill some dad oriented traditions during the Advent and Christmas seasons. And while many may seem like work, when done with a loving father and kids together in the spirit of Christmas, they really are not work at all. The fact is that most dads need to complete many of the tasks anyhow, so it comes down to whether or not they are willing to include their kids, teach them something, and share in the joy of the holiday season. There are many more traditions which can be added, and of course dads can and should certainly join in all the other family traditions.
Family traditions are important because they contribute to a family’s culture and children’s sense of belonging. Whether joyful, spiritual, or charitable, they work to reinforce values and allow us to celebrate over and over the things that really matter, such as faith and family. Ultimately, traditions bring us together, and provide lasting memories which bond us to the generations before us, and leave indelible footsteps to follow for those following behind. Whatever your Christmas traditions, do as Father Cyr says and make Christmas Christ-centered and memorable. May God bless you and your families this Christmas.
* “The Demographic Characteristics of the Linguistic and Religious Groups in Switzerland” by Werner Haug and Phillipe Warner of the Federal Statistical Office, Neuchatel.