Thursday, December 20, 2012

Creating Christmas traditions for OUR family

I started a new Advent tradition this year, as I mentioned in the previous post. Unwrapping one book a night has gone great. I’ve really enjoyed it and every night Miriam gets excited that it’s time for her Advent book.

Only a few books left to unwrap!

But there is one little problem with this tradition: my husband hates it. He doesn’t let on in front of Miriam, of course, but he’s made it clear that more presents?! is not the right approach for our family. Between birthday presents and Christmas presents, more unwrapping is not helping us to focus on the reason for the season. In time, it would just foster an even greater focus on getting gifts than on anything else. So as for this tradition? We’re enjoying it for the rest of this Advent, then it’s getting the boot.

(I’m still happy to have all these Christmas books, though. I plan to exchange the regular books that we keep out for these on the first day of Advent each year, to remain out until the end of the Christmas season.)

So Advent next year may be a Jesse Tree or lighting a candle each night or filling a manger with straw for good deeds or something completely different. (I’m finally going to get Kate’s book and am assuming that will help!) The one tradition that we will hold onto is praying and lighting the Advent candle on Sunday night and then eating dinner around it in the dining room. So far that tradition, which my husband came up with and actually insists on, is going strong. So even if we do nothing else for Advent, we have that.

The point? That any traditions we want to create, no matter how great they sound on someone else’s blog or how beautifully they’re portrayed on Pinterest, need to meet two criteria: they need work for our individual family and they need to be meaningful.

The full force of that meaningful part has just hit me recently, actually. I was stressing out about Christmas day. You know how it goes: figuring out who to spend when with where, and the guilt (self-imposed or otherwise) for wanting to spend at least part of it as just your own little family. I was praying quite hard about this when it came to me: Christmas is about Jesus. I know, we all know this, I’ve said it and thought it a million times. But when I reflected on it, I realized that our Christmas day has not been about Jesus at all.

How embarrassing. How appalling. But really. Christmas day tends to look like this: Get up, open presents, eat breakfast, spend time with family opening more presents and eating more delicious food. Yes, we always go to church the night before. But the actual day where we celebrate the Lord’s birth? The Lord is frighteningly absent.

Once I had that revelation, most of my anxiety over whose-feelings-would-be-hurt-by-what evaporated. It wasn’t about people pleasing anymore. I was finally able to hone in on the one important thing: how can our Christmas day focus on Jesus? Not on relatives, as important as they are (it’s not like Mary and Joseph had a stable full of in-laws at the first Christmas). Certainly not on gifts, though they will still have a place. But on Jesus.

There are lots of ideas online to help with this. For example, I love reading through Ann Voskamp’s list of 10 Ways to Celebrate Christmas Morning (none of which are opening presents!). Below are the things we’re going to incorporate. Some of them may get tossed after this year, but hopefully at least a few of them become true family traditions.

Go to church.
Obviously this is the most important part of Christmas, and something we’ve always done anyway. We’re toying with the idea of going to a Christmas morning mass in addition to Christmas Eve, since we’re going to a late afternoon mass, but that’s not set in stone.

Read the story of Jesus’s birth.
Straight from the Bible. This is what I would like to do as the very first thing on Christmas morning. This year I’m hoping to do it even before we go downstairs and get distracted by gifts. Doesn’t snuggling in bed while reading the Gospel of Luke sound like a delightful start to the day?

Sing Christmas carols.
Now this is something that I’d also like to do first thing Christmas morning, before breakfast or gifts, but that is an example of something that would not work for our family. My husband is just not enough of a morning person for that! So this year we’re going to do it after unwrapping presents and/or on the drive to my grandparents’ house later in the afternoon. And to clarify, it will be songs like Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Joy to the World, not Santa Baby.

Just three gifts.
If that was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us. (This is also my approach for birthdays.) I’ve seen lots of cute ideas for making those three gifts more meaningful by linking them to the three gifts from the magi, but that’s not going to work for our family simply because I don’t want to add that stress to myself. Some days I think that three gifts sounds like so little, but even with just us that’s already nine gifts under the tree, not to mention the piles of presents from extended family. Three is plenty.

Fancy meals.
We’re bringing out the china and gathering in the dining room around our (finally!) fully lit Advent wreath! I’m trying to find meals that are both special and simple. We host Miriam’s birthday party and all of my father’s extended family on the weekends leading up to Christmas, so I want something that won’t require too much more planning.

That’s it for this year, but in the future I also want to try out some of the following ideas. They may or may not work for us, but they sound great!

Reenact the Christmas story. (idea credit)
Dress up in costume and act out the story of Jesus’ birth. I so envision us spending part of Advent in the fabric store (“what color should Mary’s veil be?”) and then putting together simple costumes to use and really build up the anticipation. Ideally we’ll get grandparents and aunts and uncles in on the show!

Giving lists instead of getting lists. (idea credit)
Or maybe no lists at all. Again, we’re trying to get away from the focus on presents. (Can you tell that gift-giving is the very lowest of both my husband and my love languages?) After all, for at least the next ten years, I don’t think it’s going to be difficult to come up with gift ideas. Along with that, I really don’t see us taking our kids to sit on Santa’s lap. It’s not like we’re anti-Santa or think it’s an awful idea (although I really don’t like seeing babies screaming for a photo op), and maybe we will eventually if it’s something they’re just dying to do… but the whole “And what do you want for Christmas?” is again just putting the emphasis on presents. Not to mention the fact that you’re in the middle of a mall doing it, where you’re already being bombarded with buy!buy!buy! from every angle.

Follow the light. (idea credit)
Set up luminaries (or candles in mason jars or whatever) outside leading a path to a nativity. End Christmas day by following the path and spending a few more minutes singing glory to God in the highest. I LOVE this idea. I think it will be a nice touch to the end of the day and really make an impression on our children. The only reason we’re not doing it this year is because we’re driving back at bedtime, but it is definitely on the agenda for next Christmas. That way we're ensuring that we both start and end the day with a focus on Jesus.

What Christmas traditions work well for your family? Do you have any that you tried and scrapped? Share with me so I can try (or not try!) some of them!

(For some reason I can't get the image on here, but this is a part of the Little Holy Days Link-up!)


  1. You're doing a great job discerning what to do to make these days holy. We are always compromising; I, like you, feel weird about going to church in the evening and nothing the day of, but that is my husband's tradition and he's very attached to it. (That whole "what works for you" thing has many different angles to consider!) I long for Midnight Mass, but I think it will be several years before I can even bring that one up.

    I guess one thing to consider is that the way the Church views "days" is akin to the way the Jewish people did; begins at nightfall, extends through the following nightfall. This is why we are allowed to do anticipatory Masses on weekends and holy days. And also why we call Triduum three days, even though it's four. It's actually sundown-Thursday to sundown-Sunday, and that's three days. So the fact that we're attending Mass on Christmas Eve, while it *feels* wrong, isn't actually wrong. Does that make sense? I think it's a great idea to go Christmas morning, but I don't want you beating yourself up if you do choose to do the more common route.

  2. I can't wait to hear more about your traditions as the play out. It feels strange this year - we're in the middle of our old childhood traditions and forming new ones that meet the need of our family and it's odd.

    I think next year I'm going to down play the advent calendar or maybe do away with it completely - it wasn't a childhood tradition for either of us - but keep some of our traditions that we assigned days like our sunday advent candles, reading certain books and certain activities but without the advent calendar expectation.

    We won't have a "traditional" christmas day as I have to work that morning (I'm thinking of it as an "offering up" day) so it will interesting to see how long it takes to get into a rhythm .

    1. p.s. one day when I have a piano again I fully plan on waking up my kids with a rousing rendition of "Joy to the World" at the top of my lungs! =)

  3. Loved this post! I love hearing other people my age working through these issues. I, too, have come to the awareness that our Christmases have never had much emphasis on Jesus. OK, not really ANY emphasis on Jesus. It's been all presents and food and family. Which are all great things, but not especially Christian.

    I also loved the idea of setting out luminaries to a nativity scene. We just need a good nativity set! But what a meaningful way to end the day!

  4. Really loved this post! Loving your ideas on how to made Christmas Day meaningful. We're always trying to balance extended family and their traditions with creating our traditions for the day and especially if we go to Mass the night before, I feel like the real meaning of Christmas Day gets lost in everything else. Thanks for linking up with Little HolyDays :)

  5. Every year growing up, on our way to my Uncle Dale's for Christmas Eve, our family of six would pull into the driveway of a house belonging to a couple we did not know...blare the horn until they looked out the window and we would all yell "Merry Christmas!!" and tear out of the driveway. After the third year, that couple in the house learned to await our visit, and they were waiting with cookies and egg nog. But we still tore out of there, causing them to just wonder who the hell we were. Good times.


Comments make my day! Thanks for joining the conversation!