As retailers begin their holiday advertising earlier and earlier each year and present the latest and greatest toys to our youth, it can be a challenge for parents to remind kids of the meaning behind the holiday season.

As retailers begin their holiday advertising earlier and earlier each year and present the latest and greatest toys to our youth, it can be a challenge for parents to remind kids of the meaning behind the holiday season.

"With technology today, kids are much more advanced and are more exposed to advertisements than they were 10 years ago," said Matthew Onorato, Adolescent and Crisis Programs Specialist for Behavioral Health at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

The combination of higher exposure to technology with the media pushing holiday deals and toys even earlier every year can make it overwhelming for kids to think outside of the gift box.

Martha Wessell, mother of 13-year-old Cole, 10-year-old Carlee and 3-year-old Patience, started educating her kids about the reason for the season when they were very young.

"When the kids were younger, I made sure to point out that Santa only brings one gift for Christmas," Wessell said. She is very careful to refer to it as the "spirit of Christmas" to help take the focus off the gifts and bring in more of the meaning behind the season.

One way not to focus on the materialistic aspect of the holidays is to celebrate the season as a time for family. "Celebrate togetherness," said Onorato. "Celebrate how this time helps bring everyone close to one another."

Onorato suggested parents arrange to volunteer as a family. The benefits are two-fold: Kids give back to their community, and they have a chance to see how working together as a family helps makes the holidays even more special.

"Whether it's donating gifts to a needy family, or forgoing an extra toy so it can be given to a child without any, it's important for kids to learn how to give," he said. "It's key from an early age to build the idea that it's not about how many gifts you get, it's about helping others."

Last year, when Patience was 2 years old, she donated a stuffed animal to a Toys for Tots drive she attended with her father. The gesture was so rewarding for her that she talked about it for weeks afterward. "We got that seed planted early and now she's really looking forward to it this year," Wessell said.

Last year Wessell and her family also volunteered at an animal shelter. "It's something to help kids understand that service can be fun at this age," she said. This year the family is looking into helping stock shelves at a food pantry or serving meals at a soup kitchen.

In the Dublin city school district, kids are encouraged to give back by creating service projects in the classroom. Last year students participated in food drives, Toys for Tots and "giving trees" for collecting winter supplies for kids in need. Some of the schools, including Chapman Elementary, held a competition to see which classes could bring in the most donations.

Another way for kids to have hands-on involvement during the holidays is for them to make some gifts instead of buying them all. This helps them see that most treasures come from the heart. Wessell and her children write and design holiday cards for their friends and family. They keep them generic so as not to offend any religious preferences.

Wessell uses this as an educational tool to teach her children about different holiday celebrations. Wessell said making cards helps show her children that it's nice to build a connection not only to their friends, but also to their family by wishing them well during the holidays.

Wessell and her children also make treats for loved ones. They often buy pretzels and "fancy them up" by dipping them in chocolate and adding crushed peppermint or colorful sprinkles.

The kids have fun creating the desserts, and it shows them that not every gift associated with the holidays has to be bought at a store. The activity is simple, can be completed as a family and is easy enough for any age to participate.

Another gift idea is to make coupons for friends and family. Wessell's children often come up with sleepover coupons. They decide on a theme for their night and design the coupons around that theme. "We try to focus on gifts that give all year long and not so much on what's under the tree," Wessell said.

Try membership packages as presents to promote family time throughout the year. Memberships to a zoo or a museum foster activities in which family members can partake all year long, not just during the holidays. "Our family memberships are great because they help us spend time together as a family and we often get a couple of extras so the kids can share it with their friends," Wessell said.

Kids also can be encouraged to give even after the holidays. Each year after Christmas, Wessell's children go through their toys and select some to give to charity.

A good idea to get away from commercialism is to start family traditions that contribute to the betterment of others. Here are some ideas to get kids involved in volunteer activities throughout the community.

"Adopt" a family and provide them with food and other necessary items to show kids how much one family needs to survive. Donate money to a charity and ask your child to contribute from his or her piggy bank. Volunteer time as a family at a local organization. Make crafts for kids in hospitals. Write letters to soldiers. Play board games with seniors at a nursing home. Donate gently used clothes and toys to less fortunate families. Create a giving tree at school or church and solicit donations. Help bake goods to be auctioned off to raise money for charity. Help organize a canned food drive at school or church.

Heather Reichle is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus.