Beyond Candy and Crafts: Living Liturgically With Older Kids

This week on November 11th, ¬†our family will celebrate Martinmas, and as tradition we will mark the feast of St. Martin of Tours with friends around a roast duck…or maybe two. (But only because we haven’t been able to successfully find a local supplier of fattened geese.)

In the past my husband has tried to lead everyone in Martinmas carols and we’ve roasted marshmallows around a bonfire.¬†Germans still celebrate Martinmas with paper lanterns (which we’ve also made to varying degrees of success. Not even going there this year.)¬†And we always retell the tale of how St. Martin, as a solider in the Roman army, sliced his cloak and gave half to a cold beggar he met on the road. Later, Jesus would appear to him wearing that cloak. Later still, Martin would leave military service and ultimately become the bishop of Tours.

As my older children outgrow coloring pages, pictures books and popsicle stick crafts, my husband and I are often left wondering what do we do to mark these special feasts? Sometimes I worry that without baking cupcakes and icing them blue, or creating an M&M rosary, my kids might overlook a Marian feast. Without a cute Advent or Lenten calendar to color, how will we count down the days?!?

liturgical living with older kids

My husband and I discussed the matter, coming back to the topic a few times as new thoughts struck us. What we both agreed was that, historically, the Church’s liturgical year, used to be “the year”. It was the way everyone marked time with debts¬†paid, seeds sowed and harvested, and family milestones¬†marked according to feast days. Everyone’s lives, even if they weren’t particularly religious, revolved around the Church calendar. A great example of this culture is present in the book Kristen Lavransdatter. The local church is the heart of the community ¬†and it is where people meet to celebrate and mourn. As Kristen grows up, you can see how her years play out in a similar rhythm with no mention of the Gregorian calendar, but of events occurring so many days or weeks before or after a major feast like St. John’s day in June (which our family celebrates too), Michaelmas in September and the long Passiontide and Eastertide liturgies that everyone prepared for and attended.

Today, authors and bloggers write books, posts and create activities for a Catholic community that needs constant reminders of our liturgical heritage in a post-Christian, secular society. Kristen Lavransdatter’s family didn’t need printables or special recipe books. They simply followed the same traditions passed down from generation to generation just like everyone around them. So many modern Catholic families are starting from scratch when it come to the establishment of family liturgical traditions. We’ve got Thanksgiving, Superbowl Sunday and increasingly secular celebrations of St. Valentines Day, St. Patrick’s Day, All Hallows Eve, Christmas and Easter. Most Catholics don’t even know that Pentecost is a more important feast day than Christmas…probably because retail outlets haven’t yet figured out a way to make money from it.

So Tony and I feel even more pressure because we’re laying the ground work for our children, and hopefully their families liturgical traditions. We don’t want our older kids thinking that once you outgrow crafts and coloring pages, there’s nothing more to do, except go to Mass to observe a feast day. After all our brainstorming, here’s some ways we celebrate the liturgical year now that our brood contains tweens and teens.

Hospitality – We often use feast days as good reason to invite friends over. Sometimes it’s a big deal, and we pull out all the stops, other times it’s just for a bonfire or a meal with one other family. But it’s always a good time and it recreates, just a bit, that feeling that we’re not the only ones marking time and celebrating a little differently than the rest of the society.

Special food – St. Lucy bread on December 13th, duck or goose on Martinmas, strawberries for the Nativity of John the Baptist; these foods were selected by Catholics generations ago across the globe. In the days before supermarkets and fast food, special meals were the chief way a family could differentiate a notable day. You simply didn’t have certain things the rest of the season. Although my kids can have sweets or fresh strawberries year round, we love to think about how their ancestors enjoyed these same special dishes.

Processions – Once common, processions are less familiar to modern Catholics. If you attend a parish that holds rosary or Rogation processions, consider yourself ¬†blessed and participate! If not, there’s no reason you can’t arrange your own; with others around your parish property or your own backyard.

Rogation procession 2
Our Rogation procession around the homestead; sprinkling holy water as we go, while Tony reads the litany of the saints.


Special prayers – This month, we’ll pray at a local cemetery and we are praying as a family for specific departed family members each day. We pray novenas for upcoming feasts. During Advent we listen to the O Antiphons around our Advent wreath. Our family prayer life changes with the liturgical seasons; our prayers follow a rhythm but they are never stale.

PilgrimagesWe’re lucky to live near many great Shrines and Churches. You might too. Kids of all ages like visiting other churches, but older kids will appreciate the architecture, history, artwork, etc. just a bit more than their younger siblings. Many such sites often hold special Masses or events.

Corporal works of mercy – Older kids can actually help feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick. We collect food for our local food pantry (usually in the fall), we all clean out our closets to make donations to Goodwill or families we know in need (usually in the spring), and we visit the elderly at nursing homes (typically in Advent.) When all my kids were younger, my job was feeding, clothing and caring for them. Now we can work together to help others.

Advanced read-alouds – We still break out the picture books, but we also read from our missals, from more detailed lives of the saints and other books with reflections on the liturgical year. The resulting conversations may still get silly, but there’s also more meat for deeper discussion as well.

Mass and breakfast on feast day – A tradition my husband starts once each child proves they will sit attentively through Mass is the practice of attending daily Mass and attending Dunkin Donuts on that child’s feast day. The kids look forward to this and if something prevents the annual ritual for taking place on the exact day (once Tony started a new job on Addie’s feast day) the kids are sorely disappointed. It’s a big deal to get one on one time with Papa during the day (and the donuts are a pretty big deal too.)

In addition, we still do a lot of the fun stuff. St. Nicolas still fills the shoes of the older kids and whoever finds the figure in the King Cake on 12th Night is king for the day. A lot of traditions work for all ages and it’s those that the kids themselves remind us of year after year. Coloring pages, toilet paper roll crafts and angels made from snack food? Not so much…but thank goodness we had those ideas when the kids were little enough to enjoy them. It’s helped create a living faith that continues to extend beyond the parish walls and holds it’s own next to state holidays and observances.

How does your family celebrate the liturgical year? What suggestions do you have?











  1. My kids are 3 yrs and 2.5 months, but I’ve pinned this for future use. As a convert, I discovered the liturgical year only a few years ago so we’re still developing our family’s traditions and this post is great! I’d love to know, what is 12th night and what does being king for a day entail?

    1. 12th night is the evening of the 12th day of Christmas (i.e. Jan 5th) which also means it is the vigil of Epiphany. People used to have a final christmas party on that day, and also celebrate Epiphany by having a (three) kings cake. In some places, like England, there was a custom to hide a trinket in the cake. Whoever got the piece of cake with the trinket would be the Epiphany King, and get to pick the games, and generally be bossy (in a fun way).

      In our home, we let the Epiphany King choose the next family movie, and they also get to choose what to have for dinner some evening shortly after Epiphany.

  2. Beautiful, Kelly. Thank you for pointing the way for those of us with young children. In my case, it’s young grandchildren, because I wasn’t Catholic when my kids were young and I didn’t get into Catholic feasts until I recently began living with my daughter and her young family.

  3. “Most Catholics don‚Äôt even know that Pentecost is a more important feast day than Christmas‚Ķ” Yes, indeed, and for an even more timely note, Epiphany is also more important than Christmas; in fact, it is the central-apex feast of the entire Incarnation Cycle (Advent-Christmas-Epiphany-Candlemas) for it is the fulfillment of Christ’s birth by HisTheophany/manifestation to the entire world represented by the visit of the Magi, the Baptism in the Jordan, and the first miracle at Cana. In the Church’s ancient and continuously lived Tradition, East and West, the three pivotal feasts of the year (i.e. Easter, Pentecost, and Epiphany) are all preceded by ancient vigils all of which elaborate on baptismal themes by blessings of water, the first two of Baptismal water itself, at the Epiphany with the exorcised Epiphany water in reference to the Baptism in the Jordan. These are among our richest, holiest, most ancient, and heavily symbolic Traditions. No other feast days have such vigil ceremonies.

    Moving from the theological basis, some practical points to add to your post:

    1. In addition to referencing/reading daily Mass texts, the Divine Office is your best companion. Among other things, a more detailed biography of the lives of each saint on his feast day is found in the lessons at the Office of Matins (use a pre-1955 version of the Roman Breviary – available online at – for complete biographies). Also, some feast days have beautiful antiphons at Lauds and Vespers with rich language referencing the saint or theme of the feast, and hymns (sing them if you can) put the truths of the Faith into poetry.

    2. If you have a parish which lives and keeps building up/restoring our lost liturgical (in our case, Roman) patrimony, get ye to there as much and as often as possible. Kelly and I are both blessed to belong to a 24-7 Traditional Latin Mass parish in which such things as Rogation processions do happen (though they are sadly poorly attended). It is good and necessary that we build up liturgical living at home, but as good as these are, they should always be done in addition to the actual Liturgy at the parish and not in place of them when we have such parishes in close vicinity. Our ancestors didn’t need to have para-liturgies at home because they had central churches and communities which simply lived these communally, so this should be our goal when it is possible to do so.

    2a. Allow the older children to really absorb the Liturgy for its own sake and its lived expression in the parish. Let them immerse themselves in the rich symbols and ceremonies of our ancient and received Roman Rite (or Eastern rites). Speaking as a man, boys can do this certainly in two very concrete ways: 1. Serving Mass (especially the more involved roles at High Mass) and 2. Singing/learning Gregorian chant in a schola and for the Divine Office (like Vespers). The girls, especially if there are sisters present, can latch onto the Liturgy by joining nuns in the Divine Office and also by singing in women’s scholae.

    3. Then, after living it in its actual context, bring it home. There is information all over the internet about traditional foods and customs to sanctify the whole feast day or Sunday. Dust off old-world traditions from your ancestral country(ies) (e.g. Sunday dinners Italian style every week); perhaps you may have caught a glimpse of some of these old Catholic traditions still being lived before your grandparents or parents became completely assimilated to ho-hum suburban America.

    4. I love your idea about processions at home. We do a Rogation Procession on the days we don’t have them at church. Also, the burial of the Alleluia on the eve of Septuagesima Sunday (that’s on the evening of January 23 next).

    5. Feast with the church, but then also FAST with the church. I think we, as parents, can mistakenly portray the serious/penitential side of religious practices as a “private matter” (in reference to the Gospel mandate of offering one’s treasures in private). Kids of all ages need to see their parents “in action” so to speak; otherwise, how else do they learn what it means to fast and pray and do penance? The kids know that during Lent and on Ember Days (and some other times) that daddy does not eat dinner (my one meal is at midday when I need the nourishment) and they know it is because it is Lent, an Ember Day, etc. I would also encourage older children to observe partial fasting, of varying degrees based on health, physical condition, etc. in order to get them gradually used to the full fast when they are obligated to do so at 18; hopefully, they’ll move beyond just the required bare minimum of two fast days and adopt the Traditional days of fast. I think this reinforces, in a very concrete way, a sense of liturgical time and variations within; when the feast days come rolling around after such days of fast, they become all the more special.

    6. For Latin Rite Catholics, go with a liturgical calendar pre-dating 1955 for the fullest and most complete picture of the liturgical year. We have octaves and vigils galore, numerous feast days from antiquity (e.g. the feast commemorating S. John the Apostle being boiled in oil on May 6), and more which were continuously observed and lived for 1,500 years or more abruptly removed in 1955 and more again in 1960 and 1969. The venerable Roman calendar is a keeper!

    1. Good points John, especially about fasting with the Church. Most traditional fasting days have been long forgotten. Even though our kids aren’t old enough to be obliged to fast, we still encourage them to moderate their snacks and what not. We also do away with most junk food during penitential seasons.

  4. I love this! My oldest is only 4.5, but I’m bad about organizing cluttery, little-kid crafts and cutesy snacks. I’ve always preferred doing the more “authentic” traditions for feast days– which I’m obviously still learning, as a recent-ish convert (6.5 years! Woot woot!).

    1. One of the traditions we started was a Jesse Tree. This is the best source that I have found ( It has now changed and I’m not sure if I like it as much as this. I laminated the ornaments, punched a hole and tied string on them. We have a tree that we hang them on. I hole punched the script pages and put them in a ring binger, where I keep the ornaments when we’re not using them. Enjoy!

  5. What a lot of wonderful ideas from you and commenters! A small note on the corporal works of mercy: I would encourage donating to St. Vincent dePaul or Salvation Army rather than Goodwill–especially for those of us parenting special needs kids and fighting ableism. My family will still shop at Goodwill occasionally (and I still reflexively put donations “in the Goodwill bag” cause of childhood terminology) occasionally. But we have not given them one sock since we learned that the CEO has a several hundred K compensation while they take advantage of an outdated law from the 1930s to pay some disabled workers two or three dollars an hour–way less than minimum which is pretty low itself. In contrast the Salvation Army CEO gets a 13k salary and modest house to live in.

  6. It is St. Martin season right now here in Germany with kids processing through the streets holding the lanterns they made in kindergarten.I feel compelled to share the story of how we chose our third son’s name. I had a list of five boy names we liked when I was in the hospital in labor. We still had not agreed on a name for this child. My doula was helping me with the labor process and Sebastian took the opportunity to look up the saints who shared the names on our list. When he got to the name “Martin”, he was reading about Martin of Tours and was filled with memories of being a little boy in Germany: the lanterns, the horse, the processing through the vineyards where he grew up. I was in transition (anyone who has experienced unmedicated childbirth will know what an extreme moment this is!) and Sebastian said “I really want this child to be named Martin”. At that point, I would have agreed to the name Percy! Martin arrived a few moments later. The next week, I was plagued with doubt as to whether we chose the right name for this child. I started reading about St. Martin and his various patronages. He was the patron saint of geese (What??), horses, inkeepers, etc. Nothing really spoke to me until…it said he is the patron saint of the diocese of Stuttgart, Germany! My husband’s home town! And no, St. Martin is not the patron saint of any other diocese in the world. At that moment, I knew that this was the perfect name for this little boy. So now when I take my beloved son to kindergarten and watch him creating lanterns for this feast day, it fills me with such joy.

  7. Thank you for sharing this post! I did not grow up Catholic and my husband, while Catholic, did not have these special events! So I am starting from scratch. I have done the All Hallows Eve party for my kids every year on Halloween and they’d rather do that than Trick or Treat! We have the Jesse Tree for Advent. We celebrate St Nicks Day. We make a King’s Cake and hide the baby Jesus in it. Whoever finds it will have good luck. I’m a little weak celebrating Lent, but I’m getting there, lol. Now you’ve given me some other good ideas as well! My intention is to give my kids a deeper feeling of being Catholic – that it’s not just about going to Church on Sunday, that it is all around them, all year long and being Catholic is more precious than anything else out there. I also am trying to create new traditions, that will have meaning to them so that they are willing to pass 6them on to their families. I also try to link it up with our nationalities – we’re French, Italian, Irish, and a little German, so we have a lot of cultures to choose from! Thanks again for sharing!

  8. I cannot tell you how happy I am to have found this post! My husband and I are adopting a sibling group of older children from foster care and I have had the worst time finding ways to make the faith accessible to them. We don’t yet know what kind of spiritual background, if any, they may have had. I was hoping to find ideas based simply on living out the seasons of the church. Thank you!

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