I started this when my children were young, which is definitely the easiest way...especially if you have boys...but it could still be adopted by families with older children as long as they are somewhat accustomed to sharing openly in the family group (or at least are willing to do so). I do have one friend who couldn't make it work because her boys and husband got too uncomfortable with all the "feelings" stuff and kept joking around. With few exceptions, though, I think most families could get it going just fine, especially if they are already used to family home evenings and testimony meetings, and definitely if their children are young.
Having said that, I must admit that mine resisted a bit, at first, and ALL of the guys still tease me fairly mercilessly about it. (They, by the way, are the ones who named it "circletime" because they were making unabashed fun of it...likening the whole process to a kindergarten sharing time.) The name stuck, but their disdain for it did not, though even now they would be hard-pressed to admit that. Somehow, the making fun of it has evolved into part of the tradition!
Anyway, here's what we do, and it has become the heart of our whole celebration. Every year I write a Christmas Eve story for my family. If your creativity runs in a different direction, just be on the lookout for a beautiful one. (If you can't find anything you love on such short notice, leave me a comment, and I'll send you a good 'un.) I used to choose the themes based upon what particular message I wanted to impress upon my growing children that year, but as they got older, I started writing more for myself, out of whatever I was feeling or wanted to say to my family about Christmas and what it means to us as an eternal unit. (For those who are not members of my church, it is our belief that faithful families can be together for eternity because of the Savior and His atonement.)
After dinner, we all retire to our favorite spots in the living room, sing a song or two, and have a prayer. Then we read a couple of traditional Christmas favorites, like the verses from Luke and a nativity poem I wrote when my children were small to accompany their re-enactment of Christ's birth. I'm sure you have your traditional readings, etc., but if anyone would like to use the nativity poem, you can find it on my poetry site. (Be sure to scroll down almost to the bottom.)
Once we've covered the nativity, it's time for the story. These are usually poignant in nature. (My kids are laughing right now because my stories actually give poignancy a whole new and probably over-the-top meaning!) But hey, I like 'em that way, and they set the mood for the "circletime question," which is based upon a principle expressed in the story. For instance, once we wanted to impress upon our children the importance of having a family name and honoring it. We also wanted to link that concept in their minds to becoming part of Christ's family (taking His name upon us) and honoring that, too. So the story was written about a young Jewish girl in WWII Germany whose parents are taken prisoner by the Nazis. Their friends put the girl into hiding, but she has to take an assumed name and pretend to be part of a Christian family. I won't tell you the rest of the details here (I don't want to ruin the "ending," as someday I am going to publish these stories), but in the end her choices and their results show the importance of honoring both the family name and the name of Christ.
(Wow, this is taking forEVER to explain. Sorry about that. The next post will be short and pithy, I promise!)
Okay, at the conclusion of the story, everyone in the circle receives a small symbol of the story's message to serve as a reminder. (For the above story, it was a little name plaque.) These mementos are usually about the size of a nickel or a quarter but have been at various times such things as a pewter heart, one of those rubber bracelets with "I carry you in my heart" imprinted on it (in Latin, so the guys would wear them and not be embarrassed!), a stone with a word or picture inscribed on it, an acorn, a sterling silver butterfly, a star, a bell, a piece of post-it paper upon which the family had written our best qualities, etc. etc. It is fun to get creative with these, and I usually find them at craft or party supply stores online. (Try googling "pocket tokens." My rule is to try not to spend more than $1.50 per item, but I've gone as high as $2.00 before when I really like something.)
Next comes the "circletime question." The circletime question for the "name" story was twofold: (1) What does being part of this family and honoring our name mean to you? and (2) What does it mean to take the name of Christ upon us and how can we do it? I'm always first to answer (by popular demand) because I've had some time to think about it already. The question then goes around the circle until everyone has had a chance to speak. At first, it was difficult to keep everyone on track, but before long these became our most beautiful family moments as each person got more and more comfortable sharing at a deep level about Christmas and family and their feelings for both. It's funny. Sometimes these sessions run pretty long, and once two teenage friends of our youngest sons came over to wish us a Merry Christmas. We paused to invite them in and hadn't realized how strong the Spirit was in the room (even though we had stopped speaking) till we looked at their faces. You could tell they felt it, which made us more aware of it as well.
Circletime began as a Christmas tradition, but it mutated. The first time we used it for another purpose was when our eldest son went on his mission. We had a "circletime" for him. Then we started having it at the family reunion every summer in Newport Beach. Then we had it at a funeral, and then a modified version of it at a wedding dinner. Then we began doing it at Thanksgiving because the married kids were going to miss it every other Christmas so they wanted one on the Thanksgivings, too. That way, we'd have at least two a year...one during the holidays and one during our summer vacation. I might add that the summer vacation circletime has a different feel to it...still very personal but a little more secular in its slant.
What's fun is that many members of our extended family participate too, so we usually have at least 20 people involved. On the Christmases when someone can't be with us, I still send them "circletime in a box," which includes both the story and the little symbols for every member of their family. Once my niece even ended up reading the circletime story for her in-law's Christmas Eve celebration. Cool!
Anyway, as you can imagine, a lot of these little circletime "symbols" started to pile up, so we needed a place to keep them. Every person in the family who participates was given a box to keep them in, complete with his/her initials and a picture of a beautiful forest on top. The family reunion was a perfect place to give them out, and we talked about being able to figuratively "withdraw into our wilderness" in times of turmoil by opening the box and looking at the various symbols to evoke memories of our family love and faith (sort of a touchstone). While these are not expensive boxes...I actually had them made by a company that does packaging for various products...they are pretty neat! Last year, the group also requested that I give them a copy of all the stories, which I did.
So...This is circletime. It is a great family tradition, and it ensures that we remember what Christmas really means. Not that we don't enjoy all the "fun" stuff, by the way. We always go outside to hear Santa's bells and read "The Night Before Christmas" and sing "Up on the Housetop" and "Jolly Old Saint Nicholaus," etc. But the best part of Christmas is just being together in that circle, reminding ourselves and each other what the holiday is all about and just feelin' the love. =)