Presents, decorations, fancy foods and get-togethers make Christmas special.
It all started more than 2,000 years ago with a baby being born in a small town in Judea.
Making an effort to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ among the bright lights, Santas and stack of presents is not easy. But some families make an effort to teach their children that Christmas is more meaningful if they take time to concentrate on the Savior and give to others.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec)
Aaron, 11, and Lily, 3, Hildebrand of Altoona pull a tab off the family’s “Act of Kindness” calendar. For the 25 days leading up to Christmas, the children and their two brothers, Alex and Owen, take turns pulling the tabs. Each day the children get a new assignment for something they could do to bless others.
Tony and Sue Conrad and their children begin thinking about Christ's birth when they light the first Advent candle about four weeks before Christmas. Each week, another candle is lit.
Sue Conrad said the family started the tradition about 25 years ago when they lived in Virginia. The community was deeply religious, but the congregation at the Catholic parish was small. Sue said the priest emphasized the importance of Advent, and other parishioners were participating, so she went to the Christian bookstore and bought an Advent wreath.
The Conrads, who attend the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, do other traditions associated with the holiday such as putting up a tree and shopping, but they believe it is important to keep Christ in Christmas.
"It's important to do something as a family that focuses on the sacred," Tony said. "There are enough distractions going on."
Tony and Sue, their son Mark, 9, and their daughter, Christine, 19, when she is home from St. Francis University, have a nightly devotion time during Advent.
Tony said it includes prayers and Scripture readings that coincide with the liturgical readings for the year. Sue said the Scripture includes Old Testament accounts about Christ's coming. Tony said they follow a booklet and there are parts for the adults and the children to read. Sometimes they sing songs such as "O Come, O Come, Emanuel."
Their older children remember when the Advent wreath was introduced into the home.
Stephanie Conrad Hanlon, 26, lives in Philadelphia with her husband, Jeremy.
"We would take turns lighting the candles," she said. "It was a time to recenter ourselves at the end of the day."
During prayers, she would reflect on her day and ask herself what she had done that blessed others. She said it made her more conscious about how she was reflecting Christ's love.
Although the Hanlons do not have an Advent wreath, Stephanie said they do say nightly prayers and look back on their day.
Her brother Matthew Conrad, 27, of Falls Church, Va., remembers giving to others at Christmas. The family returned to Altoona when he was about 13 and he remembers helping families through programs at his Catholic school.
"It got me into the value of giving and not receiving," he said.
Matthew said at Christmas, he gets in the spirit of giving. He said it may be contributing clothes to the Salvation Army or meeting other needs in the community.
"I would rather give than receive," he said.
Sue said the Advent devotions prepare members of the family symbolically for Christ's birth.
"He was born to save us," she said.
She said although the reading and prayers may be similar to ones in the past, the time of reflection is new every year. She said through the ups and downs of the year, she changes and grows in her walk with Christ.
"I see them [the readings] in a different way."
She said the children grow and change each year, making each Advent new for them, too.
During their daily Advent time, Tony said the only light in the room is from the glow of the candles. He said it is symbolic of Jesus coming into the world to bring light to the darkness.
Another family that is teaching their children to center on Christ's birth during the season are Scott and Angela Hildebrand of Altoona. The Hildebrands began a December countdown to Christmas by challenging their children to do deeds to bless others.
Angela said she got the idea after hearing about a Veggie Tales video called "St. Nicholas: A Story of Joyful Giving." It includes a song by Matthew West and Amy Grant called "Give This Christmas Away."
She said they thought it would be a good idea to have the attitude and mindframe to bless others this Christmas.
Scott and Angela, who attend First Church of Christ, designed a calendar with pockets for every day in December leading up to Christmas. Each pocket contains a slip of paper with instructions for the day that tells a way to bless someone else.
Their three oldest children: Alex, 14, Aaron, 11, and Owen, 7, take part in the activity while Lily, 3, takes in the action.
Aaron, a fifth-grade student at Great Commission School, said the first slip told him and his brothers to secretly do something nice for somebody. Each day offers a new challenge to share the love of Jesus in some way. On a snowy day, they shoveled walks for neighbors.
Aaron said they also have been saving money and contributing to a program to create a fish pond and mosquito nets for people in Liberia.
The boys save money they get for birthdays to help others.
"It's nice to spread the word of Jesus," he said.
Today, the countdown ends with cake and singing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus.
The Christmas slip says, "Praise God and thank him for Jesus."