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How to Teach Kids About Easter (Without Terrifying Them)

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"So you know how we always talk about Jesus in church? Well—he died. No, no, stop crying, it's OK! He came back to life! But first he was bled to death on a giant torture device. And then he was alive again, except still dead. And that's why you get this chocolate bunny! Happy Easter!"

OK, obviously, this is not how I want the conversation to go. But there's no denying that Easter is tricky. Basically, it's two separate holidays: the highest holy day on the entire Christian calendar, and the thing with the egg hunts and the jelly beans. Ironically, it's easy to celebrate the jelly bean holiday without ever touching on the reasons for its existence. But as a Christian, you're basically obligated to teach your kids the Biblical Easter story.

Which is, lest we forget, terrifying.

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The Crucifixion, God's sacrifice of his son in order to save the world from sin, is the central tenet of Christianity. Some denominations put it front and center at all times, but others (including many of the moderate-to-liberal Protestant churches I've attended) don't dwell heavily on Jesus's death until Lent rolls around. And when it comes to kids, well, Jesus is the friendly man who taught us about love and heaven. The idea of someone wanting to kill him is tough to explain. I remember one pastor telling a story about a young child seeing a crucifix for the first time, looking at his dad wide-eyed, and asking, "What happened?"

"What happened?" indeed. If you're wondering how to explain this theological conundrum to your children, whatever their age, here are a few tips to help you through.

1. Focus on the resurrection. For little kids, it's OK to keep things simple and focus on the positive parts of the Easter story. Jesus died and it was sad, but then he came back to prove that he was God's son and show us that there could be life after death. This is the approach I actually took with my 5-year-old, who's now totally confused about the chronology of Jesus' life and death—but hey, it's a start.

In Christian belief, Jesus suffered so we don't have to deal with pain alone.

2. Remind kids (and yourself) that it's OK to be sad. As children get a little older, the ideas of Jesus's persecution and suffering begin to take on meaning for them. Don't be afraid to go there; at some point, all of us (even kids) have to deal with sad and painful things in our own lives. In Christian belief, Jesus suffered so we don't have to deal with pain alone.

3. Teach the jelly bean prayer. I've never tried this one, but if you're desperate to link the chocolate bunny holiday and the High Holy Day together, this is a pretty creative solution. Get the details here.

4. Put in extra church time. If you don't already go to Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday services, think about giving it a shot. Teenagers, in particular, are intrigued by the spiritual journey into darkness, and it puts the joy of Easter into context.

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5. Use an allegory. A teacher named Ruth Thomas told BBC News that she teaches the crucifixion to children using a folk tale about a robin. The bird character apparently "softens the impact" of the death and helps kids to better relate to the story. If you want to test the waters, there's a version of the story here.

6. Three words: Jesus Christ Superstar. Full disclosure: I secretly believe that musical theater can solve all the world's problems. Still, seeing a regional production of Superstar when I was 12 was a pretty formative experience for me, and the first time I really put a lot of thought into what the Crucifixion means. A lot of local stage productions are mounted around Easter, so check your town newspaper.

For more age-specific ideas, check out this helpful guide over at Beliefnet. Here's wishing you a sad Good Friday and a happy Easter!

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