Advice to Whatcom parents: How do I help my children find the spirit of the holidays?

Nothing says “Bellingham families” like the holidays. The long, usually rainy nights lend themselves to staying indoors and keeping loved ones close. While the community offers plenty of public events for families to enjoy together, ultimately the traditions and memories that stay with us happen beside the hearth.

The trick is making memories that are merry and bright. Simply trying to withstand the pressure to buy the latest expensive toy or gadget can create stress, not least because parents might believe their children are missing out on the spirit of the season.

Parents might lose track of that spirit themselves, whether they are deeply rooted in a cultural or religious tradition or have decided to create a new tradition, to bring meaning to the holidays for their children.

Bellingham Families asked parenting experts in the schools and in religious circles for advice on how to help children find all that’s good about the holidays.

Q. How can parents help their children make the holidays about something more than getting gifts?

A. “Not just during the holiday season, but all year, we focus on the importance of being thoughtful to those around you. Our staff models these characteristics and helps our members to see that a smile or a compliment can mean much more to someone than a purchased gift. Doing a family volunteer project allows children to see those who are less fortunate and to understand that there are families out there whose idea of a gift is a basic need. This helps children learn that it is the kindness you share with those around you that is truly meaningful.”

— the staff at Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County

“We make every attempt to keep Christmas simple. We generally fill our children’s stockings with goodies and give them each one larger gift and perhaps a smaller gift. We have found that this cuts down on the craziness we feel to do Christmas shopping, but it also aids in preventing the present-opening frenzy that can sometimes occur — madly opening gifts, tossing them aside to move on to the next gift, and never fully appreciating what they’ve received.”

— Cutzi Jobes, Lynden, a home-schooling mother of five children, ages 1 to 9

“Most important is to limit media exposure so children aren’t bombarded with advertising. ... You can give to others by volunteering as a family. There are many opportunities in Bellingham, from the Food Bank to Toys For Tots. You can also help on a neighborhood level, informally.”

— Whatcom Community College parenting education faculty members Darcie Donegan, Carolina Olza-Kelsh, Kristine Smith and Peggy Wepprecht

“Specific character attributes, such as being caring and compassionate, and contributing to others, are modeled and taught every day. We encourage, recognize and support actions and expressions of kindness. Gift giving is one way to do this. We model taking action in ways that do not include money.”

— Rob McElroy, executive administrator on special assignment, Bellingham School District

Q. How can parents with more than one child control the cost of gift giving among siblings?

A. “If children really want to buy gifts for each other, they could exchange names and earn money by doing chores around the house. There are also consignment stores, garage sales and swaps. If you don’t want to spend money, you can help your child by modeling making homemade gifts with them, such as edible goodies and toys. There are a lot of ideas on Pinterest! How you motivate children depends on their age and personalities. They will want to make things with you, if you are excited and show that you value homemade things most.”

— WCC parenting education faculty

“Our children are not allowed to write out Christmas wish lists. If Christmas is truly about giving, then it is up to the giver to think about something very special that they could make or buy that they think another person would like to receive. Making a list telling someone what you want them to buy you just didn’t seem appropriate to us. We have the children draw names and give a gift to one other sibling. We help them to think about what that person really loves and might enjoy.”

— Cutzi Jobes

Q. So I’ve decided my child can have a smartphone or computer for the holidays. How do I control my child’s use of these devices?

A. “It’s important that parents are proactive by setting limits beforehand, and to be sure to monitor their children’s use. Some parents make written agreements with their kids about the rules. For example: The computer must be in the public part of the house. Parents can check phones at any time. The devices can only be used during certain hours of the day.”

— WCC parenting education faculty

Q. What are good ideas for “experiential” gifts — experiences, not things?

A. “What children value most is your attention and spending time with you. There are many free- or low-cost activities in Bellingham that can be found in the city of Bellingham’s quarterly leisure guide. (Go to cob.org and enter “leisure guide” in the search box). Also, consider tickets for local performances (See The Bellingham Herald’s “Take Five” section every Thursday, or go online to bellinghamherald.com/entertainment.); coupons for chores or treats; lessons; outings or special one-on-one time.”

— WCC parenting education faculty

Q. Where can I take my children to have a holiday experience?

A. “Whatcom County is full of wonderful events to participate in — numerous tree farms that often offer hot cocoa and cookies, James Street Estates Christmas lights in Bellingham ( 3802 James St.), performances of Handel’s “Messiah” by the Lynden Choral Society, and this year, “A Christmas Story” at Claire vg Thomas Theatre, 655 Front St. in Lynden.”

— Cutzi Jobes

“Our schools’ choir, band and orchestra programs perform at a variety of times — some during assemblies during the school day, others hold evening concerts. Many of our schools’ orchestras and choirs participate and perform at the Holiday Festival the Port of Bellingham organizes every December. We have several schools that perform at local nursing homes as well. At the high school level, there is an annual holiday event, the Coats Vocal Band concert. That includes the small advanced vocal ensembles from the three (Bellingham) high schools.

— Music specialists from Bellingham schools

“As a community we have one of our major events of the year — a Hanukkah party that is a great, big gathering. We share the traditional Hanukkah foods and make Hanukkah-related crafts. The children perform songs or plays. Of course, we light the candles of the menorah.”

— Sagit Hall, religious school director, Congregation Beth Israel

Q. How do organizations that work with children approach the winter holidays while respecting their varied backgrounds?

A. “We introduce our members to other cultures and celebrations of cultures all year, and winter holidays are no exception. Although we know that holidays tend to center around religion, we typically talk about the celebration itself more than the reason behind it. You might find lights on the outside of our buildings or a tree in a clubhouse, but we are not exclusive to Christmas or other Christian holidays. We recognize that the majority of our members celebrate Christmas as their winter holiday, and therefore it is most evident. But we don’t force anyone to participate. If a club member asked if we could find a way to celebrate one of the many other winter holidays, we absolutely would do that. After all, it is their club.”

— Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County

“An important part of The Bellingham Promise, our strategic plan, is to be inclusive of diverse beliefs and to ensure that all of our students and families are honored and respected. We take a neutral approach and do not overemphasize the holidays. For instance, fall festivals rather than Halloween, winter themes rather than Christmas. We attempt to be inclusive of any mention of holidays and let kids know that some people celebrate one holiday, while others might celebrate a different holiday. We emphasize the importance of being respectful of all beliefs. We realize our approach is not perfect, but we strive to be neutral in the schools in order to have a welcoming and respectful environment for all students.”

— Steven Morse, director of teaching and learning, Bellingham School District

“Many children are excited and want to talk about their family’s holiday traditions at school. Obviously, not all families and children participate in many of the holiday traditions rooted in Christianity. It is our job in the public schools to teach, not to promote or celebrate a particular religious expression. Many schools engage students in a unit of study about holiday traditions around the world or the role of religion in societies. This creates a focus on learning about important concepts without promoting or celebrating one religion. Students are often given a choice over the topic and read, write or express in music or art when learning a concept. Many students choose holiday topics. This is student, rather than teacher initiated.”

— Rob McElroy

Q. How do you, as a Christian, balance the celebration of Christ’s birth with the role Santa Claus plays on the commercial side of the holiday?

A. “While we do celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday, we feel we celebrate Christ and his coming all year long — not only at Christmas. We don’t teach our children that Santa Claus brings presents, but he is not excluded from our home.

We read make-believe, fun stories about him and enjoy winter and cultural holiday traditions such as baking together, hunting for our Christmas tree, making crafts, singing songs, looking at Christmas lights and participating in Christmas services at our church.”

— Cutzi Jobes

Q. For families who celebrate Hanukkah, how can the holiday be preserved if children are either swept up in the materialism of the season or questioning why their family doesn’t celebrate Christmas?

A. “What we do as a family is to shift the focus to the joy of getting together with friends and family. We invite people over for a menorah lighting night with all the good, simple traditions of the holiday: dreidel spinning, eating latkes, and sufganiyot (Hanukkah doughnuts). The children play and eat these seasonal goodies and really forget all about gifts by the end of it all. There is some gift giving in a more intimate setting of the family, but it is not the sweeping focus of the holiday.

“By emphasizing the beauty and joy of our own traditions and cultural customs we might be able to eliminate this factor of ‘envy’ in children during the holiday season. When we develop a cultural rhythm for our families and communities, children respond with excited anticipation and eventually contentment with their own family’s celebration and customs. In the Jewish tradition for example, there are many special holidays with their own significant foods, games or other activities that make the celebration of our tradition fun for children.

“When the time comes and the child asks their parents, ‘Why don’t we celebrate Christmas?’ the parent can remind the child that families all over the world celebrate different holidays and traditions, and the same goes for Christmas. The parent may remind the child about their own family’s special, fun traditions that are not necessarily celebrated by everyone.”

— Sagit Hall

Q. How does a family start its own holiday tradition?

A. “Rituals and traditions are what children remember and treasure most from their childhoods. Try different activities — let each family member choose — and see what your family loves and wants to repeat. Ideas include baking from your cultural tradition, family read-ins, games, listen/make special music, camping out under the Christmas tree, making your own candles for the menorah, a winter picnic. Think back to what was meaningful from your own and your partner’s past. Look around the world for other fun holidays to celebrate, such as St. Nicholas’ Day, St Lucia’s Day, Epiphany/Three Kings Day and Kwanzaa.”

— WCC parenting education faculty