5 Ways We Simplify Christmas… with small children

posted by Andrea | 12/5/2016
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I wasn’t planning to do a post about “simplifying Christmas”, but after receiving an astonishing number of emails, comments, and Facebook messages requesting this post, I decided to share 5 things we do (or rather DON’T do) to simplify our holiday season.

I’m specifically focusing on how we keep things simple with 3 small children — but I think many of the ideas would work for families with older children as well.

1. We limit gifts.

“Gifts” is one of my top love languages,  so I have no desire to remove gift-giving from the holiday season; however that doesn’t mean I need to save up every little thing I buy throughout the year and unload it all at Christmas. There is no need for more than a few gifts per child — especially when they are little. And there is certainly no need to spend massive amounts of money on gifts just because the calendar says it’s Dec. 25.

Yes, my kids love opening gifts, and gift-giving is a fun part of the Christmas season, but my children would be thrilled with a couple toys, a nice long roll of bubble wrap, and some candy! (I actually thought about getting them bubble wrap this year, but I realized I would go insane if I had to listen to them pop it all day long.)

The reason I choose to limit gifts is partially because I don’t want massive amount of extra stuff in my home, but mainly because I don’t want the holiday season to turn into a huge anticipatory event, where everyone is simply waiting for piles of gifts to unwrap.

In fact, I purposely give my children little “gifts” all year long so gift giving and receiving becomes a regular part of our lives (not just something we obsess over during the holidays).

If my kids actually “need” something during the year (new socks, a winter coat, new markers to replace the ones that dried up), I just wait until I find a good deal, buy it, and give it to them at a time that makes sense (maybe for a special reward or a fun treat during the year).

I even let them have a few special things they simply “want” at various points during the year — a little toy, book, or movie from the thrift store, new-to-them clothing from thredUP or a garage sale, a chance to pick out something at the dollar store, etc.

Another way we “limit gifts” and simplify our Christmas is by choosing NOT to give gifts to EVERYONE. We buy/make gifts for our own family, Dave’s parents, my parents, the kids’ 3 cousins, and our mail lady (because she delivers A LOT of mail and packages to our house!)

We will most likely do something small for Nora’s 2 teachers, but we don’t do gifts for friends, neighbors, aunts, uncles, coworkers, or anyone from church.

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2. We limit decorations.

Before I had young children in my home, I decorated every single room in my home with festive Christmas decorations — and I got so much joy from it. I enjoyed the process of decorating, I enjoyed finding “just the right thing” to complete a room, and I enjoyed living with the festive decor for 6 weeks every year.

I suspect I will enjoy decorating for Christmas more as my children get a bit older — but for now, too many decorations just creates more mess and stress in our home as the kids get into everything and usually end up breaking something or hurting themselves.

We put our tree up and we get out both our nativity scenes (the wooden one Dave’s grandma made us and one Little People’s set for the kids) and that’s it. My children are absolutely THRILLED with this and our house seems extremely festive since we keep the tree lights on all day long.

We also play Christmas music almost every day and light cinnamon scented candles when we eat (both of which my children are fascinated with).

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3. We limit traditions.

I realize some of you are probably rolling your eyes by now, thinking I must be the “Scroogiest” mom around, but I promise, our entire family thoroughly enjoys the holiday season, even without a laundry list of traditions we do simply because we’ve always done them.

We don’t cut down a tree and document the entire event on social media, we don’t always put our tree up on the same day, we don’t bake certain things on certain days, we don’t do Elf on a Shelf, we don’t do special books every night, we don’t do an Advent calendar, we don’t get new pajamas on Christmas Eve, we don’t drive around and look at the lights, we don’t go out for fancy hot chocolate and coffee, we don’t decorate sugar cookies with our grandmas.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t even think of one single Christmas tradition that we “always do every year”.

Even sending out our yearly holiday cards isn’t always done at Christmas time. I’ve done it at Thanksgiving, after the New Year, and once even on Valentine’s Day just to be different.

Maybe that sounds awful and sad to some of you — but to me, it feels extremely freeing! Yes, these traditions are all fun (I honestly don’t think it’s bad if you do any of them) but they just don’t seem necessary for me.

Without them, I am free to do WHATEVER fun holiday things I want to do with my family WHENEVER I want to do them. And if we don’t want to do them, that’s fine too. We are not locked into anything, but rather free to do what fits with the time and energy we have.

It’s amazing! 

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4. We limit activities.

Dave and I are at the age where we not only have our own children to spend time with, but also both of our immediate families, and all 4 of our extended families. We also still enjoy getting together with college friends for our annual “Ugly Sweater Party” (note: we did this WAY before it was trendy!)

Because of all these people and parties, we sometimes have to pick and choose… and just say ‘no’ when something doesn’t work for us. Of course, we always attend each of our immediate family parties, but we don’t always make it to our extended family parties now that we are grown and have our own family and schedule. That’s OK.

We also don’t always do something with Dave’s staff, and there are several church events we don’t attend because they are later in the evening when our kids would normally be in bed.

Yes, I realize the holiday season is a great time to reconnect with family and friends — but since Dave and I both have strong introverted tendencies and our children go to bed really early, we realize that everyone is happier and healthier if we aren’t over-committed with events and activities all season long (even if they are fun and exciting events and activities).

There will most likely be a time for more holiday events and activities once our children are older, don’t take naps, can stay up later, etc… now is NOT that time for our family!

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5. We limit expectations.

One thing that has always bothered me about the holiday season is the tips to ‘simplify’ accompanied by glossy photos of glamorously decorated homes, chef-inspired menus, drool-worthy desserts, kids in matching pj’s decorating bakery-style Christmas cookies, picture-perfect parties, and the light dusting of snow that makes everything look so much more festive.

That’s not real — and it’s certainly not “simple”. 

I appreciate that all our family and friend parties are super casual — no formal attire, no fancy decorations, no silly games, no expensive gifts, no gourmet foods, and no stress.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize that we basically treat the holiday season like any other time of year — just with a little extra festiveness, a pretty Christmas tree, a special program at church, and a few fun holiday parties.

Because of this, we don’t have huge expectations that everything needs to be perfect or extra-special all season long. We just do the same things we do all year long and add in a few extra things here and there. No big deal.

Even from a religious standpoint (which is the main focus for us anyway) we don’t do things much differently than the rest of the year. We have an extra church service on Christmas morning, we get to play with our Nativity set every day, and this year, Nora is old enough to be in the children’s program at church (she’s a sheep!) — but other than that, it’s “business as usual” around our house.

Yes, it’s true that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” but He’s also the reason for every day all year long — so even though we thoroughly enjoy and celebrate the religious aspects of Christmas, we don’t put a lot of pressure on ourselves to “do more” with our kids. We often read the Christmas story all year long as it’s one of my kids’ favorites (who can blame them!) We also regularly sing Christmas carols and watch Christmas movies throughout the year, and Nora has a special “Baby Jesus” book we read all year long.

 

As I mentioned above, this is how WE simplify OUR Christmas with SMALL children.

My perspective is obviously that of a mom with 3 young children, so I realize these tips and ideas might not work for every family — especially those with older children. In fact, I’m fairly confident we will probably enjoy more Christmas activities and traditions once our children are a bit older (I hope we will still be able to limit our gifts and our expectations though!)

That said, I do think this post contains tips, info, and at least a few bits of helpful information for anyone looking to simplify their holiday season — no matter what your age, occupation, family status, state of life, etc.

I love Christmas and I love simple living — so far, I think I can have them both!

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41 comments

  1. Tina

    12/09/2016

    Last year at work we were talking about Christmas gifts and I remember one of my coworkers talking about how each year each of her two kids gets 3 gifts for Christmas because Jesus only got 3 gifts and why should the kids get more presents than Jesus did. This really put a limit on how much was spent on gifting to the kids each year.

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  2. Shelley

    12/09/2016

    LOVE this post!! Have a wonderful, stress-free, family-centered Christmas “season!” (oooh…and I love Heidi’s comments below mine here, too!!)

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  3. Heidi

    12/06/2016

    This year, we’re keeping things more simple with more experiences and less “junk”. We’re doing a Polar Express train ride instead of toys, giving subscriptions for various people- even making my grandfather (who is a widower) a BUNCH of individually sized freezer meals instead of another random gift.

    I think the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve realized that it’s not necessarily the TRADITIONS that I love but the predictability of it all. I just want to know there’s a plan to make it less stressful- I don’t mind too much that it might not be the same plan as last year. 🙂

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  4. Erin

    12/06/2016

    Because of my husband’s job as a pastor, our December has to be a little busier. Now that we have three kids, we really simplified everything else this month. We have traditions, but we hold them loosely. For instance, we have gone to a local zoo the Sunday after Thanksgiving to look at their lights display, but this year, Thanksgiving weekend was busy and we decided it was better for our family to have a quiet day than cram just one more thing into that weekend. It was so freeing to even give just that one tradition up for this year!

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes, something so small — but a huge relief to not have one more thing on your to-do list! Glad you were able to enjoy a little extra time at home this year!

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  5. Amy

    12/06/2016

    Andrea, my favorite on this list is #3! We have some traditions, but not an insane amount to HAVE to keep up with. The tradition that we share as a family is decorating the tree and our home for Christmas on Thanksgiving, Usually my husband and daughter do the most of it while I cook, and I “jump in” when I can, There are more things that just my daughter and I do together, That may seem strange to some, but my daughter and I have more in common I suppose than what my husband would be interested in, although, he did participate in the ornament decorating we did last year! Some things my daughter and I do are listening to Christmas music anytime we are in the car, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (followed by the Dog show!) make Christmas cookies and other holiday treats (Chex Lemon Buddies are a staple!), an advent calendar (because her great aunt would always send her one when she was little so we carried on the tradition). those are just the ones we do EVERY YEAR. There are other things we may do if we want, but I think we’ve got a good amount.

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  6. Tara

    12/05/2016

    Keeping things simple for the holidays is so lovely. My family all gets together for Thanksgiving an Christmas. We all live within an hour of each other and take turns hosting. I don’t love almost always traveling on a holiday. It creates a rush on Christmas morning to prepare the dish we’re bringing and get the kids ready and everything packed in including the small handful of presents for my neice and nephews. I try to have as much ready as I can, but it still feels a bit stressful. One year we stayed home to celebrate with just our household because of illness. My introverted self loved it. Still, once we arrive at the big gathering on any holiday I find I enjoy being with everyone so much we end up being the last to leave. We do have wonderful family and lots of fun together. Makes the stress of packing it all up in the morning seem worth it. Remind me of that on Christmas morning though. 😉

    Also, I wanted to note that I think your home decor lends itself just perfectly to being Christmasy. Your reds, whites, greens and wood tones need only small accents to turn them into “Decked Halls.” 🙂 So in your case less really is more.

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    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Tara — and yes, all the reds and wood tones really seem to work for so many holidays! I hardly need to add any decorations to make the switch from Thanksgiving to Christmas — and even Fourth of July!

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  7. Pixie508

    12/05/2016

    While some of the things you mentioned you don’t do, we have decided to do with our kids, I’ve learned that if something doesn’t happen, that’s ok. I’ve never been someone who does a ton of seasonal decorating, so it’s simple around here…a tree, a few extra strands of lights, a night light in our kitchen, and a snowflake tablecloth. Done. We do drive around and do lights one night, but there are several pockets of cool lights within a few miles, so we can complete the trip in an hour. I love having traditions, because I think it builds some excitement around the season, and I want Christmas to be special, and I want it to also lead into more important conversations (and it has already, and my oldest is about Nora’s age)

    However, the one thing that makes me a little sad, is that I’ve all but given up on my Christmas baking. It makes a huge mess and takes up a ton of time. I’ve narrowed it down to 2 things I do really well and are able to be done relatively quickly. One is fudge, and the other is spritz cookies (mostly, because spritz cookies were the only thing my mom ever did, so that in itself is kind of tradition for me), because I do want to involve my kids (I make the dough, and just involve them in decorating). We do one batch and that’s it. I used to make 5-6 different things but I just can’t at this stage in life.

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    Andrea Reply:

    I have a feeling you will most likely get back to baking once your children are older — and they might really be helpful then too 🙂

    I really don’t do any “Christmas baking” with my kids because it’s too messy and time-consuming. We make boxed brownies or sugar cookies from store-bought dough and I let them put a few sprinkles on. They think it’s great and I don’t have a ton of time or effort involved!

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  8. Deborah

    12/05/2016

    This is refreshing…Merry Christmas.

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  9. Debbie

    12/05/2016

    I can honestly say that we didn’t have many traditions in my family as I was growing up either. We would only do the Advent Candle and a little devotional before opening presents and that’s about it. Some year my parents would drive us to see Christmas lights, and another year it’s to watch a movie on Christmas day. Now that I’m married without children we’re finding our own way to make the holiday special. Other than decorating the house, making a hot cocoa/snack corner in the kitchen, and attending our Christmas Eve Candlelight service the things we do differs from year to year. It allows us to be free to stay home and enjoy quiet evenings or say yes to a party invite. My most favorite I would say is to just stay so I can appreciate the decorations.

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    Andrea Reply:

    I love the hot chocolate station in the kitchen! I actually don’t even really like hot drinks all that much (and neither do my kids yet) but this is definitely something I’m going to tuck away for a few years from now! Thanks!

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  10. Amy

    12/05/2016

    Your house sounds a lot like ours. In addition to the Christmas tree and two nativities, we have an advent candle, a tiny lit tree, snowman light up thing that sits on the mantle and a stocking for each child. My 4 year old likes to make chains, so I cut paper ribbons and stick on scrapbook adhesive squares (double stick). She can make chains without direct supervision during little brother’s nap time.

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    Andrea Reply:

    ah yes… we love the paper chains! Nora can use a glue stick on her own, so she can make long chains while the boys are napping 🙂

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  11. Leanne

    12/05/2016

    one way we simplified EARLY on was… no traveling… we don’t travel to everyone’s holiday gathering… we started this when we had a December newborn and it has made things MUCH easier! if people want to come with us… awesome… if not, we’ll see and “do Christmas” when its convenient… I rarely break this rule…and the years that I have…. I’ve completely regretted it! GREAT POST!!!!!!

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    Andrea Reply:

    this is great! I often feel bad for Dave’s sister as she always has to travel for every holiday because her family is the only one that lives out of town. They usually only come up for Christmas and stay home for all the other holidays, but I know I would hate traveling over the holidays. I guess they are just used to it by now.

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    Pixie508 Reply:

    I get why people don’t, but for us, it would mean never seeing my extended family (we’re spread out, so we pick a central location and meet). However, the one good thing, is that we never do Christmas on Christmas. Everyone spends their Christmases doing whatever, and then somewhere in the next few weeks, we get together. This year, my family Christmas will be on 12/30 (so we can all get home before the NYE insanity)

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    Andrea Reply:

    Yes, I’m totally OK with travel during the holiday season — I just don’t like traveling ON Christmas. I like to be home with my own family on that day if at all possible. It sounds like you’ve worked out a nice system to travel near Christmas and New Years without traveling on the actual holidays!

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    Leanne Reply:

    that’s pretty much the way we do it, too…
    we are always HOME on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day…
    We always have an extended family Christmas on the Saturday after thanksgiving, which, while early, simplifies traveling around the end of the month 🙂

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    Andrea Reply:

    Dave’s family always does Christmas on New Year’s Day — which we love because it means we don’t need to drive from one family to the other on Christmas Day. My family is celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve in the morning so we will be HOME ALL DAY by ourselves on Christmas Day for the first time ever since we’ve been married! Can you tell I’m a little excited!

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  12. Jean

    12/05/2016

    Andrea — I love your wisdom (especially the part about not going crazy and upsetting the routine and schedule that keeps everybody sane and healthy). I am coming at this from an empty nester perspective and the freedom to simplify that brings. I have slowly been donating or re-gifting lots of our Christmas décor (keeping favorites and a very small number of sentimental items). I love not having to put away much after the holidays! I am invited to an ugly sweater party this week and am deliberately not going out to find one — I long ago got rid of my ugly sweaters and love the “lightness” that brought to my closet. I see no reason to go to Goodwill to buy one. I am deliberately trying to minimize the “obligation” component that comes with the holidays. I even have a pack of sticky notes that I put out that say “Low expectations means everyone is happy”. It is meant to be humorous — but it rings true as well. 🙂

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  13. Pamela

    12/05/2016

    I’m right there with you! My little girl is almost 2, so this is her second Christmas. My favorite way to simplify is to just do the stuff I *want* to do, not the stuff I feel like I should do. This year I really wanted to put a little Christmas tree in her room – so that’s the first thing I did! I dug out the other two decorations that are important to my husband and I (for sentimental reasons), decorated the tree with non-breakable ornaments, and called the house done! We do have a favorite Christmas morning treat that we’ve been making for years now so that will get done…and beyond that, eh. Christmas gifts are simple this year too – photo coffee mugs for the grandparents (and great grandpa). Santa is bringing a small table and chairs, so Mommy and Daddy are providing art supplies. My husband and I are exchanging stockings only. It will be a great Christmas!!!

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  14. ShellyL

    12/05/2016

    I love that Nativity set. It’s very unique. I think I read that Dave’s grandmother made it. Did she also make the candle holder? I like that too. Thanks for sharing these ideas to simplify the season. They are very timely for me right now.

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    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks — yes, his grandma made the wooden nativity sets for all her grandchildren 8 years ago or so. She did not make the candle holder — that’s an old sugar mold 🙂

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    Leanne Reply:

    here’s a link to a really similar one on etsy 🙂
    https://www.etsy.com/listing/243776587/wood-nativity-set-nativity-set-primitive?ref=shop_home_active_16

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    Andrea Reply:

    thanks for linking to this! I always get questions about it!

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  15. Beatriz

    12/05/2016

    I love creating traditions for myself and there are things that I love to do for the holidays too. That said I don’t have kids and my traditions are really an expression of what I like to share at the holidays.

    I make gingerbread cookies and that’s my gift to my co-workers and a few close friends. I look forward to sending Christmas cards all year long and especially look forward to gift-wrapping. I have the time, some of these things would no doubt be simplified if I had children but as I don’t I take my time and have a bit of mulled wine while I do these things 🙂

    Oh yeah, another fave thing from the holidays – mulled wine!

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    Andrea Reply:

    haha! I have nothing against traditions — only when traditions end up ruling our holiday season and forcing us to do things we don’t have the time or desire to do. When traditions are fun and anticipated, I think they’re great!

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  16. Charissa

    12/05/2016

    As always, I love your perspective. Why do we always have to complicate things (including holidays)?

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  17. Francie @ supersimpleways.com

    12/05/2016

    This is just what I needed to hear. I love simple living. http://www.supersimpleways.com

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  18. Bonnie'sMama

    12/05/2016

    Bonnie, who is three, was peeking over my shoulder and saw your dining room trees. With sparkling eyes, she said, “Those trees are so cute because there’s a mama tree and a baby tree!”

    I know she (and my son) would looooove if we’d get a little tree or two out, so maybe we’ll make that our simple Christmas activity today or maybe even all week. Decorating the tree keeps them occupied for a looooong time day after day, all season long.

    You’ve got some really helpful, freeing points here. It’s good to hear this voice of reason amidst all the beautiful, unachieveable perfection online.

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    Andrea Reply:

    haha -thanks! We love our little set of “Alpine trees”. There are actually 3 in the picture, so Nora says one is for her, Simon, and James 🙂

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  19. Denise

    12/05/2016

    Thank you for this post! There is so much pressure during this season, and I enjoyed the part about celebrating Jesus’ birth all through the year! I dislike going to church during Christmas Eve as it is so busy, but not busy during other times of the year.

    Let’s keep the spirit of giving all year round!

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  20. Kristen Costantini

    12/05/2016

    Love your post Andrea. I agree it’s very freeing to decide what activities a family participates in around the holidays. It sounds like you have just the right combination for your family! As I was reading your post, I see that your family doesn’t do the Elf on a Shelf. I recently saw on Amazon a biblical “version” of this titled, Shepard on the Search. It’s by Day Spring and involves a little Shepard boy “searching” for baby Jesus. Thought you might be interested at some point,
    since your kiddos are at a great age for it. Merry Christmas to you and your family and thank you for keeping it SIMPLE!

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    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Kristen,
    I guess the reason we don’t do Elf on a Shelf isn’t because it’s not Biblical — but simply because I don’t want to do one more thing 🙂 The Shepherd idea does sound like something Nora would LOVE doing right now though! Maybe I’ll just do one day of hiding our baby Jesus a few times and giving her clues to find it. Or maybe it can be a nap-time game while the boys are sleeping!

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    Bonnie'sMama Reply:

    Oh my, my kids would ADORE searching for the baby Jesus! Definitely trying this one. Thank you, Andrea!

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    Rachel Reply:

    Especially if you could “hide” baby Jesus with a tie in to spiritual things. Light of the World(near a light source), Bread of Life(near the bread), Living Water(near water), Rock of our Salvation(behind a rock), His words are sweeter than honey(if you have honey), Lamb of God (if you happen to have a stuffed lamb), Lion of Judah (if you have a lion), Rose of Sharon/Lilly of the Valley (if you have flowers), bright and morning star (if you have a star on the tree or elsewhere), we are the apple of his eye (near some apples), the Comforter (near a blanket or comfy toy), praise and worship belong to him (near the music). You could give a scripture clue every morning…or have the scripture with him and the item.

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    Andrea Reply:

    This is an awesome idea — and you had so many great examples! thanks a bunch!

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    Kristen Reply:

    Love that idea and the ones posted below!

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    susie Reply:

    Our Christmas is pretty simple like yours , but my kids love the elf on the shelf. The older kids love to move it and Katie is the same age as Nora loves to find it every morning. So, I guess we keep it simple too. It doesn’t have to be very creative so just letting you know it’s not as hard or complicated as it looks!

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