Memories Are Made of This: Celebrating Advent and Christmas Traditions

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See the end of this article for an Advent craft activity about making storybooks that will help young children recall the details of the Christmas story.

During Advent we prepare students to celebrate the birth of our Savior on Christmas. We pray with the Advent wreath; we trace Jesus’ genealogy and the story of salvation history through Jesse tree projects; we may even work with the kids to provide gifts or supplies for a holiday meal for a needy family in the community.

These efforts help keep students focused on the “reason for the season.” Yet, our time with the children is so brief that it is easy for them to be lured away from preparing their minds and hearts to welcome Jesus because of all the distractions this season brings: parties, shopping for and dreaming about presents they’ll give and get, decorating, holiday programs at school, visits with Santa, baking, and so forth.

Use the following ideas to keep the spotlight on celebrating the coming of the Lord.

All Advent, All the Time

Do not be tempted to “double down” by teaching a regular content chapter in your text in addition to the Advent lesson in one session. This strategy tells the kids that Advent is an afterthought and not important enough to rate a full session’s attention. Nothing can be further from the truth. Keeping in mind that your lessons need to be age-appropriate, here are a few of the concepts that can be taught during Advent:

* the story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:37)

* the story of how John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus (Matthew 3)

* the prophecies of Isaiah

* the three comings of Christ: in history (Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem); in mystery (in the Sacraments); and in majesty (the Second Coming at the end of time)

* the Hispanic tradition of Las Posadas

* the Incarnation: God’s Son becoming man in Jesus

* the names for Jesus and their significance: Messiah, Savior, Lord, Prince of Peace, Root of Jesse, Emmanuel, Son of God

* the meaning of the Advent wreath

* the people who waited faithfully for God’s promised Messiah (the Jesse tree)

* the Advent Gospels

* lessons and carols

* the traditional oplatki

* the Bambinelli Blessing

Let’s explore some of these traditions and consider how we can introduce them to our students and their families.

Lessons and Carols

This traditional service originated in the Anglican Church in 1880 and takes worshipers through nine “lessons,” including the story of the Fall, the promise of a Messiah, the Incarnation, and the Commissioning of the Disciples. Over the years, it has been adapted by other Christian denominations, including the Catholic Church.

The experience immerses participants in Scripture, song, and prayer. If your parish celebrates Lessons and Carols, ask your music director if the service has been recorded, and show one or more segments to your class.

Allow your students to experience an abbreviated version of Lessons and Carols using the outline below. Choose readers, and provide the children with copies of the words to the hymns for the lessons. After each carol, allow for a brief period of silent reflection. Conclude each segment with a spontaneous prayer or by praying together the Glory Be.

Lesson 1: Luke 1:26-38—The Announcement of the Birth of Jesus

Carol: “Hail Mary, Gentle Woman”

Lesson 2: Luke 2:1-18—The Birth of Jesus

Carol: “Silent Night”

Lesson 3: Matthew 2:1-12—The Visit of the Magi

Carol: “We Three Kings”

Lesson 4: Matthew 28:16-20—The Commissioning of the Disciples

Carol: “Joy to the World”

This version of Lessons and Carols might make a wonderful and prayerful program for

parents at your last session before the holidays. Divide the segments among the grades and

have catechists practice with the students as part of their Advent classes. Invite parents to join you in church or the hall to celebrate Lessons and Carols with their children, followed by holiday refreshments.

The Tradition of Oplatki

The sharing of love and peace is at the heart of this Slavic tradition. Catholics in Eastern European countries—especially Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic—have generously shared this tradition with friends and families of different ethnic backgrounds. The tradition can be traced back to the early Christian Church.

The word oplatki means “wafer.” The wafers, made with flour and water, are baked into a rectangle and imprinted or stamped with a Christmas image, most often the nativity.

The tradition has deep religious roots. We recall that God fed the Israelites manna in the desert. The word Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, means “house of bread.” This family ritual is closely tied to the Eucharist, in which we share the Bread of Life, the Body and Blood of Jesus. Oplatki is often called the “Bread of Love.” Just as we share in the Eucharist as one Christian family, sharing oplatki is a way of professing our love for the members of our family.

The sharing of oplatki takes place before the Christmas Eve meal. The ritual is very simple and can be done in several ways. In one option, which is how my family was introduced to the tradition, each person has his or her own wafer before beginning. Oplatki wafers are about the size of an index card.

To begin, a parent breaks off a piece of his or her own wafer and gives the piece to his or her spouse or a child; the spouse or child does the same, breaking off a portion of his or her own wafer and giving it in return. The two then exchange words of love. They might also share a special memory from the past year or perhaps tell each other what they admire or respect about the other person.

Then they both eat the piece of the wafer they were given. Next, these two move on separately to other family members, exchanging pieces of their own oplatki, exchanging words of love, perhaps a special memory from the past year, perhaps telling each other what they admire or respect most about the other. The ritual continues until everyone has exchanged words of love, forgiveness, or blessing with every other member of the household and eaten the piece of wafer they received from each person.

The process is not to be rushed. Ample opportunity should be allowed for people to truly share meaningful sentiments with all family members.

Another option is to use one wafer for the entire family. One of the parents gives every family member a piece of a single oplatki, large enough so that each person can break off a small piece to share with everyone else in the group. Then the ritual begins, with the parent breaking off a piece of his or her portion of the wafer and giving it to his or her spouse or a child, as described above.

The sharing of the oplatki is a wonderful classroom activity. Gather the children in a circle and give each a wafer. Explain its significance. Invite each child to break off a piece of the oplatki and share it with a classmate. Encourage each child to name some particular talent or gift he or she sees in the classmate with whom they are sharing the oplatiki. The kids are usually shy at first, so it would be good if you would initiate the sharing with several students, speaking sincerely to them about why they are valued members of your class. The kids will follow your lead and get into the Christmas spirit quickly.

Ask your catechetical leader where you can obtain oplatki locally or order them online. Simply type “oplatki” into your search engine. Most oplatki come in individual envelopes, along with directions for use and a brief explanation of the tradition. Send your students home with oplatkis to share with their families. You’ll be surprised how quickly this will become a “must do” tradition among parish families!

Bambinelli Blessing

Bambinelli is the Italian name for the figurine of Jesus that we display in our Christmas crèche under the tree. On Christmas Eve in 1223, St. Francis of Assisi began the custom of the Christmas crèche by having the people of his town in Greccio, Italy, create a living nativity scene, complete with men and women and animals taking the parts of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, angels, and the manger animals. It is believed that a real infant was placed in the manger to represent Jesus.

During his homily, St. Francis preached about the mystery and miracle of the Incarnation. From that night on, the tradition of having a crèche in the home grew. In time, children were invited to bring the figure of the Baby Jesus—the Bambinelli— to church to be blessed before it was placed in the crib on Christmas morning by the youngest child.

Why not begin this tradition in your parish? It is a wonderful opportunity to bring families together the week before Christmas for a brief prayer service and an opportunity to give children a meaningful role in preparing for Christmas.

The Christmas Card Storybooks: An Advent Activity to Share with Young Children


* a large variety of religious Christmas cards depicting different elements of the nativity story

You can use the front panel of new cards or used cards that have been donated by families and friends. Each child will need three or four cards with different Christmas scenes. For example, the angels announcing the good news to the shepherds; a manger scene; Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem; the visit of the magi; etc.

* light-colored construction paper, cut in half

Before class, use a hole punch to place five holes evenly spaced along the long side of each piece of construction paper.

* 18’ to 24” lengths of yarn, one for each child

* paste or glue sticks

* crayons

* hole punch

Note: You may want to consider inviting junior high students to visit your class to help the children with this project.


1. Tell the children that they are going to be making Christmas card storybooks for their families.

2. Review with the class the Christmas story.

3. Allow the children to choose three or four cards to use to illustrate their storybooks. Make sure they choose pictures that depict different elements of the Christmas story.

4. Have the children glue their pictures to the construction-paper pages, taking care to place the pictures so that the holes on the page are on the left-hand side. Have them leave enough room at the bottom of each page to write a description of what is happening in the picture. (For example: The angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds.)

5. Be sure to have students add a cover page and a blank page at the end.

6. Show the children how to assemble the pages and to thread the yarn through the holes. Demonstrate how to tie the yarn off with knots at the bottom of the storybook.

7. Have the children title their story. For example: “A Christmas Story” or “Jesus Is Born” or some other appropriate title.

8. Have the children write a brief description of the scene depicted on each page (see #4).

9. Invite the children to conclude their storybooks by writing a Christmas message of love to their parents on the last page.

Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, has worked in Catholic publishing for over 25 years as a national speaker and writer, building on a wealth of experience in the religious formation of children and catechists in both parish and Catholic school programs.

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This article is from our Catechist magazine archives.

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