How three families teach their children Christmas isn’t all about material things
Giving to charity, fundraising, volunteering – all help children understand kindness
Candles and Christmas lights. Photograph: Frank Miller
Twinkling lights in shopping centres, Christmas music on loop, advertisement bombardments with “must haves” for all the family, and to-do lists as long as our arms, all create the perfect setting for the most materialistic time of the year.
So it’s up to us parents to remind our children that it’s not all about what you get. The season of goodwill is the perfect time to think of others, instil kindness, and make a difference in the world, in the way children can.
Andrea Mara, author of One Click and The Other Side of the Wall, says she wants her “kids to actively think of others all year round”, but especially at Christmas.
“It’s a little about my own heightened awareness, and a little about how much materialism and spending go hand in hand with Christmas. It’s also about reminding my kids that Christmas is about so much more than Santa and presents.”
Mara has incorporated a kindness element into their Advent calendar ritual. “Ours is a house with little pull-out drawers, just big enough to fit three sweets, one for each child each day. Each day before the kids take the sweets, they write a “kindness” on a piece of paper – something they’ve done that day. They take out the sweet, and replace it with the kindness note.”
Mara hopes it “gets them thinking about nice things they can do for other people”.
“It might be as simple as sharing colours with someone in school or sharing lunch or inviting someone to play during yard-time or holding a door open or doing homework with a younger sibling when they realise I’m about to hit breaking point”.
Remembering the elderly
Sean Moynihan, chief executive of Alone, a national organisation that helps people to age happily and securely at home, says “More than one in four older people live by themselves [and] many will be spending Christmas day alone.”
“It’s important for everyone to consider those who might be facing challenges like loneliness at Christmas-time and throughout the year.
“Children and young people have so much to learn and gain from staying in touch with our older generations and we need to encourage these inter-generational relationships, especially at Christmas-time.”
“For younger children it’s really about encouraging them to reach out and chat to their grannies and grandads, and older neighbours and relatives.
“Often an older person will enjoy telling their stories as much as a child will enjoy listening to them. Younger children can also do little things like writing a Christmas card to the older person they know, or spend time helping them put up their Christmas tree.”
“Teenagers can support older people by reaching out and offering a helping hand to the older people they know over Christmas,” Moynihan continues, such as “hanging up the washing or brushing the floor”. They can also “talk to their school about running a school bake sale, or a Christmas carol service, in aid of Alone.”
Journalist and mother-of-two Ciara McDonnell is passionate about raising awareness of the plight of those living in Direct Provision, the State system for housing asylum seekers and refugees. She’s also passionate about supporting them and encouraging her children to do so too.
“The big problem with living in Direct Provision is lack of autonomy,” McDonnell says. “In their day-to-day life, a mother will rarely get to decide what her child will have for breakfast, lunch or dinner.”
“They don’t have the financial independence to buy their children presents or the food that they might use to celebrate in their family.”
McDonnell organised a fundraiser last year to provide a €50 voucher for every child in direct provision centres across Cork. The vouchers were given to the mothers to give them “back ownership. To decide themselves what their family needed”.
“I brought my children, Matthew and Michael, to meet the families in the accommodation centres, because one thing that struck me was, if I’m doing this, I want my kids to know how lucky they are.”
McDonnell recalls a meeting between her son who was coming to the end of his “Thomas the Tank engine phase” and a child living in direct provision who was just starting his. McDonnell’s son gave the delighted child the trainsets he had outgrown.
“It showed me and my son how important it is to give, and how important it is to embrace all the people in our community. People in direct provision are kept on the fringes of our society.
“This is just a small way to show them that we welcome them.”
Blogger Maria Rushe and husband Emmet Rushe run a family fundraiser, screening a Christmas movie at their local cinema in Letterkenny, every year. It took place on December 1st and will benefit the children’s ward of Letterkenny University Hospital and Donegal Hospice.
Maria feels it’s particularly important that her children think of others at Christmas as “they get drawn into the commercialism of presents and what they can get.
“They don’t quite understand the concept of money yet; the oldest is at the stage of wanting everything she sees advertised. So we’re trying to make giving and helping others a normal part of their lives.”
The Rushes involve their daughters Julia and Danielle as much as possible in the event, from choosing the movie to taking tickets and greeting people attending the event.
Tony Heffernan, founder of BUMBLEance and father of Saoirse and Liam, who both died from Battens disease, says several BUMBLEances will operate over the festive period supporting children’s critical care and “hopefully bringing some home on Christmas Eve in time for Santa”.
Tony says “children are smarter than we give them credit for. They understand that not every child is able to enjoy Christmas”. He encourages children to try and raise money for other children who are ill by donating just €2 and asking a suitable relative to text STAR to 50300, or by organising small fundraising events in their local schools and sports clubs.
Lucy O’Connor, blogger at Learnermama.com, says she tries to ensure her children “develop a certain emotional intelligence” and wants them to realise that “not everyone finds Christmas fun or easy”.
O’Connor has taken the tradition of heading into the city centre to soak up the atmosphere on Christmas Eve and put her own spin on it, so her children become aware of the needs of others.
“We have change jars all around the house and throughout the year we throw in loose change,” she explains. O’Connor’s children contribute by donating left-over holiday money, money given by family, and piggy bank savings. “It’s a family effort.”
The family bring the change into town and distribute it among charity collectors. “While it’s a serious exercise for the charities, it’s a fun exercise for my kids. I hope that they always find giving to charity fun,” O’Connor adds.