VERONA — With the dishes cleared from the evening meal, Steve and Maria Hudson turned off the house lights one night last week and gathered their son and daughter around five candles on the kitchen table.

Only the large white one in the middle was lit.

“What’s the middle candle called?” asked Steve Hudson.

“Christ,” said Eliza, 5.

“That’s right, the Christ candle,” her father said.

Using its flame, he lit three of the four remaining candles, each representing a week of the Advent season that leads up to Christmas. A Bible reading and a family sing-along to “Joy to the World” followed.

It’s a weekly December tradition at the Hudson home, one that helps draw the focus of the holiday back to where the couple believes it should be.

As Christians on Tuesday mark the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, they will do so with varying levels of religiosity. For the most devout, “Keep Christ in Christmas” is more than a wish on a bumper sticker. It’s a serious pledge to tamp down the holiday’s secularism, commercialism and materialism.

“We approach the season with the goal of teaching our kids to look outside of their own needs, which is the whole biblical foundation of our Christian beliefs,” said Jessica Cramer of McFarland, an evangelical Christian who home schools three of her four children. “That’s what Christ did, and that’s what we’re supposed to do to be more like him.”

The family rang Salvation Army bells and caroled to shut-ins this month. Through a Christian humanitarian organization, the Cramers each year choose someone in a foreign country to help. This year, they bought five egg-laying ducks for a needy family.

Biblical basis

Serving others and avoiding excessive materialism at Christmas are more than just nice moral objectives, said the Rev. Tim Augustyn of Unlocking the Bible, a radio ministry based in suburban Chicago that airs locally on WNWC Faith Talk 1190 AM.

“You don’t have to look farther than the Christmas story in the Scriptures to see why it’s so important to give to others,” Augustyn said. “God sent us the most lavish gift possible — his son. As a Christian, when you experience God’s generosity in that way, you want to reflect it, and serving others is one way to do that.”

As for materialism, Augustyn points to Matthew 16:26, which says, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

Jesus is saying that “our soul is the most valuable thing in this world,” Augustyn said.

His organization posted “10 Ways to Keep Christ the Center of Christmas” at On the dangers of materialism, it suggests, “Go to a garbage dump and look at all of the old things that might have been highly-coveted at one time.”

Daily activities

Tara Romney, a mother of five in Verona, creates an Advent calendar with a Christ-centered or family-focused activity for the family to do each day.

One recent night, the family drove around town looking at Christmas lights, then presented a homemade award to the house with the best display. Another day, each child picked a toy he or she hadn’t played with for a while and gave it to a thrift store run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

On Christmas Eve, the family, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, watch Mormon videos and messages from church leaders on the church’s website, then read the biblical nativity story.

Ann and Mark O’Leary of New Glarus intend to spend most of Christmas Dayy with their four daughters preparing and serving an evening meal to homeless families in Monroe through the group Family Promise of Green County.

“It just seems like a great way to share the beautiful day of Christmas, serving others out of our blessings,” said Ann O’Leary. The family attends St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church in Monroe.

The O’Leary daughters each get a gift from Santa, but in an effort to reduce the materialistic aspect, the girls do not ask Santa for anything and simply anticipate what he might bring.

Passing on Santa

Santa does not visit the Hudson home, at the request of Steve and Maria Hudson. The couple has no problem with others enjoying the tradition, but it just didn’t seem right for their family.

The decision wasn’t directly connected to their faith — they attend High Point Church in Madison, an evangelical congregation — but it has helped keep the focus on Christ, Maria Hudson.

“Santa can tend to kind of take over everything,” she said. “This takes it off the plate completely.”

There will be plenty for the Hudson children to do Christmas Day. The family travels to Sussex to be with Steve Hudson’s mother, who bakes a cake each year and invites her grandchildren to a birthday party — for Jesus.