three young men with Target ad and "family is everything" sign

Christmas Reinvented: The 12 Days of Connection

Relationships or things?

Which one are you focusing upon this holiday season?

To be honest, my family’s first Christmas 20 years ago was over-stimulating. An emotional roller coaster. My six adopted children unwrapped one gift after another – many from people they hardly knew.

The following morning, the drama began. Fighting over each other’s toys and games. Arguing for no reason. Seeking control rather than enjoying the moment.

In their traumatized minds, holidays remained a trigger to their unfortunate past. Nothing in life seemed fair. Rather than being kids and celebrating, several of my children sabotaged the moment.

Let’s all be miserable together.

A week later those “things” meant little to nothing. I even found several gifts in the large trash can in the garage.


They had no purpose. No connection. No worth.

For my three oldest children, the holiday with a new family meant more of the same. Disappointment. All they knew from their years in foster care was strangers giving gifts anonymously to needy kids at Christmas time. Eight-year-old male. Nine-year-old female. Everyone nameless. Faceless. The givers often not thinking twice about the impact of their “feel good” gesture.

I remember several conversations from that first Christmas very well.

Why can’t someone take me fishing? I went once with my Grandpa.

Would you take me for a walk along the downtown canal at night? I’ve always wanted to see the tall buildings lit up.

I’d really like ice skating lessons but my foster mom always said no.

No doubt, I learned a valuable lesson from my children. Relationships matter more than things.

So from that holiday forward, I spread the cheer more evenly throughout the entire month of December. First, a large family gift to use together. Yes, together. The used Nintendo 64 with four controllers and a handful of “E” games was the best present ever. Donkey Kong motivated four brothers to help each other and then receive additional play time.

Then several smaller individual ones followed – carefully selected, not necessarily expensive. Never wrapped but pulled from Santa’s bag. Everyone truly surprised.

At the same time, we created family rituals, simple activities that brought us closer. With a de-emphasis on material gain, one gift flourished on its own. A sense of family.

More joy for my children.

Less frustration for me.

That fundamental shift continues to work wonders at my home for one simple reason. Lots of “stuff” is never enough for kids from hard places. It often does the opposite of what the giver intended. There is no meaningful connection.

Last weekend I asked my children about their favorite holiday memories. Interestingly, no one mentioned a gift. Instead, each talked about our time together as a family.

Feeling safe. Valued. Content.

Most importantly, feeling loved.

Perhaps this is the year to update traditions, create new family rituals.

Here is our list to stimulate your thinking. Remember that each family is unique.

Day One:

On the first day of connection, pull out the handmade school ornaments from years gone by. Every last one. Let the memories flow. Then decorate, no tree necessary. You‘ll be reinforcing an insightful and personal family timeline that honors the past.

Day Two:

Make a holiday music playlist to satisfy everyone’s taste – from serious to playful with a variety of genres. It’s also a great way to show racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. Alvin and Chipmunks, a favorite from my childhood, was suddenly new at my house today.

Day Three:

Light an evening candle at dinner in the dark. Take turns night after night. Add more candles and watch the illumination grow. Maybe discuss the symbolism of lights to Hanukkah and Kwanza – or establish meanings of your own. Record them. There’s something powerful about candles for kids with trauma.

Day Four:

Create a holiday menu that includes the family’s favorite dishes then organize plans to help each other make them. Kitchen time is bonding time. I’ll never forget my son peeling apples for three hours. He’d never enjoyed a homemade pie. And don’t forget hot chocolate prepared the old-fashioned way.

Day Five:

Make snowballs from old newspapers and let the fun begin. For an added twist, apply double-sided tape and take aim. No gold rings necessary.

Day Six:

Watch a holiday movie. Maybe find one on DVD at the public library. At my house each December, The Trouble with Angels with Hayley Mills is a family favorite. Several of my sons know many of the lines. They laugh non-stop. And I‘m talking about a deep belly laugh that’s infectious – and highly therapeutic. The Kid Who Loved Christmas is excellent too.

Day Seven:

Sit by a fireplace or fire pit and enjoy the warmth. It’s a perfect opportunity for an even warmer conversation between parent and child. Seize the moment. Ignite the spark.

Day Eight:

Read a variety of holiday stories. Books of all levels are available at the public library. And take turns reading them – especially for children needing a confidence booster. One chapter from Little House in the Big Woods was a favorite with my kids for several years. Simple pleasures came alive. You can also write your own. The adventuresome may even act the parts. Let the Christmas pageant begin.

Day Nine:

Find scenic locations in your community and take silly family selfies. Create a collage of your favorites. Post on social media for family and friends to see. As always, humor is good medicine.

Day Ten:

Work together on a service project that reflects your family’s values. Visit a retirement village and play board games. Help an elderly neighbor or church member. Bake cookies for family friends and deliver them. The possibilities are endless without anyone feeling uncomfortable.

One year when all my kids played violin, they finally mastered “Little Drummer Boy.” We then played our three-song repertoire at our principal’s, pediatrician’s, and therapist’s offices. What an afternoon of accomplishment! And many tears of joy.

Day Eleven:

Write letters of appreciation to teachers or other professionals. They’ll appreciate the sincerity much more than another bottle of bubble bath. And you might be surprised by the words your kids share. This builds empathetic hearts too.

Day Twelve:

Prepare gift “coupons.” How can each family member give from within and offer something special to another? To this day, my kids are more generous with their time and talents than I ever expected. One Christmas, my oldest son spent hours helping his younger brother master a video game for the first time – far more time than the 30 minutes on the coupon.

Most importantly, be mindful.

Remember, the goal is connection. By giving from the heart and not the pocketbook, you will create memories that last a lifetime.

homemade gift coupons


Learn more about Craig and his incredible family on his website, Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love



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