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Joy vs. happiness at Christmas

Children participate in a Nativity scene in West Jordan in 2014.
Children participate in a Nativity scene in West Jordan in 2014.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

The word joy is inseparably connected to Christmas and to the biblical account of the birth of Jesus Christ. The angel brought “good tidings of great joy” to the shepherds (see Luke 2:10). The wise men, when they saw the star, “rejoiced with exceeding great joy” (see Matthew 2:10). Elizabeth, when she heard Mary’s voice said that her baby “leaped in my womb for joy” (see Luke 1:44).

Some of the best Christmas cards have just one word on their cover: Joy.

Christmas somehow makes us aware of the distinction between “happiness” and “joy.” None of the Christmas scriptures or greetings feel quite right with the word happiness substituted for the word joy. Joy is somehow a higher, deeper, more magic and more magnificent word.

Children at Christmas feel happiness and excitement as they make their lists and as they unwrap their gifts on Christmas morning, but the deeper feelings that come as they enact the Nativity scene or sing a Christ-focused carol or help with a sub for Santa gift are better called joy.

What can be goals of parents and grandparents in terms of what they want their kids and grandchildren to feel and to remember on Christmas?

Perhaps there can be two goals that don’t have to compete with each other. Many parents and grandparents want their children and grandchildren to have the wonderfully imaginative happiness and excitement of Santa and gifts and filled stockings, but they also want them to feel the deeper joys of the real magic of the Christ child.

Many families find that the best way to have both is to separate them. Christmas Eve becomes the time of reading the accounts of shepherds, wise men and angels in the New Testament, of re-enacting the Nativity scene, of singing Christ-centered carols, and maybe even having a “Nazareth Supper” of figs and dates and fish and grape juice by candlelight, imagining what it might have been like for Mary’s family as her family prepared to send her off on a donkey with Joseph on the hundred-mile journey to Bethlehem. Christmas Eve might also be the time when children give their gifts to other family members, with all the attention being given to the givers.

Then Christmas morning can be given over to the Santa part — to the opening of gifts under the tree and in stockings on the mantle.

Christmas morning can be for the happiness, and Christmas Eve can be for the joy.

For us personally, joy has become a profoundly important word. In the early stages of our own parenting, we became involved with a group of young parents who were all asking the question of what we wanted most for our children, what our goal should be in terms of what we wanted to teach them, and what we thought was the most essential part of their early education.

We decided together that the best one word description of what we wanted for our children was “joy,” and with that thought, Joy Schools were born. The idea developed into an entire preschool curriculum called Joy School, which sets up a series of teaching methods, stories, songs and activities that teaches small children 12 kinds of joy, ranging from "The Joy of the Earth" to "The Joy of Imagination and Creativity," to "The Joy of Order and Goal-Striving." More than a quarter million families around the world have now participated in Joy School. See for information.

One of the first books we ever published is called "The Discovery of Joy," which suggests that joy can exist on four different levels, with the first level consisting of the gifts of mortality — physical bodies and agency and the beauties of this earth; the second level is about the relationships and achievements through agency; the third level comes with the framework and priority insights of the gospel, and the fourth level comes with the gaining of the spiritual approbation of God. (A free pdf is availble online at .)

So, for us, the bottom line when it comes to parenting is joy. And the bottom line for Christmas and for what many parents and grandparents want for their children and grandchildren to feel and remember is joy.