Talking to Children About the Meaning of Holidays – December 2015

Q: My young daughter uses “Christmas” to refer Santa and getting presents. She hollers, “I see Christmas!” when we pass lights on trees or pictures of Rudolph. I don’t want her to go through life knowing only the commercialism of the holiday. But we’re not very religious and we don’t go to church so I don’t even know how to start.
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A: She sounds like my child who kept asking at the third birthday party, “Where’s my birthday?” After a few confused rounds of explaining, “It’s right now! Today is your birthday,” I realized the meaning was, “When are we going to get to the presents?” Sigh. Just remember, kids are born with the survival instinct to look out for themselves first, and pretty early on this includes needs and wants. So at an early age this is normal and they’re doing just what they’re supposed to do (plus we can’t blame them for being sucked into the cultural mainstream blaring from every TV, radio, billboard, and mall speaker, not to mention peer influence, which starts much earlier than we sometimes want!). But you’re right – it’s our job to nudge them into a less self-focused existence.

Based on your question it sounds as though by “meaning of the holidays” you’re referring to the religious stories behind them, and feel a little uncertain of teaching these due to your lack of affiliation or perhaps knowledge with any specific religion. No worries! The web has many resources to teach any age group any level of depth about religious holidays. If you want to brush up on them yourself here’s a starting point for December holidays of many major religions. No matter what your religious background, it doesn’t hurt to provide your child with information about a variety of religions. Some parents are unsure of whether to share these stories as fact or fiction (Santa, anyone?). One way to phrase it is, “Some people believe…” so that you’re not calling it true or false (unless based on your beliefs you want to call it true or false, which is your choice). The child can do what they wish with the story. If your child hears these stories as fact rather than belief and that’s not your intention, introduce them to this important concept by playing Fact, Fiction, or Belief – you make a statement (the ball is round, the dog is purple, green is the best color) and they holler out if it’s fact, fiction, or belief/opinion/preference.

In general, most kids are open to exploring basic ideas of spirituality around five. Their minds are ripe for concepts and personification of good and evil which is often part of these holiday background stories. A couple of years later they are likely to bring the subject of religion up more and might even have their own thoughts about it. Take the chance to talk about the different religious beliefs of people close to you and consider having your child talk to them and learn about it from a more personal viewpoint. Around ten years of age children are able to be even more abstract and you can introduce ideas such as free will, higher power, etc. As your child moves into the teen years they will likely start to be more influenced by their peers. Stay available for discussions about these things as you remain the home base for your child to bounce major ideas off of.

In addition to whatever religious beliefs you share with your child about the holidays, share “the meaning of the holidays” the way Dr. Seuss might have wanted you to – by talking about concepts important to character and happiness (that of self and others) like gratitude, goodwill toward others, helping those in need, the significance of family, etc. Model these things and set up experiences for your child to practice them (for ideas on how to do this see our November post on teaching gratitude during the holidays). And don’t hesitate to get the popcorn and snuggle in for How the Grinch Stole Christmas – people of all ages can use a little reminding that Christmas doesn’t come from a store, and that Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.