In Search of a Christmas Tradition

A Christmas basket created by a former colleague and gifted to my parents years ago.
A Christmas basket created by a former colleague and gifted to my parents years ago.

No, this isn’t a late Christmas post. There are, after all, 12 days of Christmas. In fact, we usually celebrate (in the sense that we’re still playing Christmas music and enjoying decorations) all the way through Epiphany, so…this isn’t a late post. It’s right in the middle.

That’s not to say that we’re not beginning to unwind a bit from the holiday. Even though it wasn’t as much of a scramble this year in our pandemic-broken world (although, to be honest, I sort of missed that), and even though we didn’t travel and celebrated only at home for the same reasons, we’re still only now finishing the last of the Christmas cookies and have reached the point where nothing else will fit into the recycling bin for this week.

Just before we settled into our end-of-year vacation, I was out doing the small smattering of errands that were still pressing for the year, and someone asked me what Christmas traditions we have. The question stopped me short, because I have to say….not many.

And that’s not for lack of effort. Karen and I have tried to formulate traditions that would be meaningful to our family but, in our defense, the odds were against us in a few ways. First, both of our childhoods had sparse Christmas traditions. Karen’s family opened a gift on Christmas Eve, but mine did not. When I was older, my family lit candles and read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke after returning from Christmas Eve services, but we didn’t do this when I was a child. Karen’s family observed Advent, coming from an Evangelical Free background. Mine did not, coming from a Baptist background (which I later eschewed). Secondly, until our oldest daughter was four, we travelled every year for Christmas. There were no real traditions because we were always with one side of the family or other, and usually quite tired from having a flight arrive in the nick of time on Christmas eve.

So, for the last few years, we’ve dug for traditions. Advent has been consistent for us, but one could argue that’s not really a Christmas tradition, especially if you’re a liturgical purist. One year we drove around to see Christmas lights in our area, and the kiddos loved it and we said we would do it again, but we didn’t. One year we staggered tree decorations to observe events such as St. Nicholas Day. That didn’t stick, either. The only thing that’s been consistent is that Santa (or Father Christmas, as the kiddos call him) only leaves small gifts in their stockings, an attempt for us to avoid the rampant consumerism and materialism of the holiday. Again, though, that’s hardly a tradition.

I have moments in which this leaves me with guilty-parent syndrome. Karen and I feel that traditions are healthy for the major observances of our faith, but we’re terrible at them. I’ve just never cared for routines, and we’re both the products of a post-modern mishmash of histories in which the tradition just wasn’t there. So, finding meaning in a tradition that you’re trying to start, rather than one that you’ve inhabited for some time, is difficult. Apparently, it’s insurmountably difficult. I suppose it’s one of those things in which I just wish we could have done better.

Ultimately, I want our children to appreciate Christmas for what it is, not just as an avalanche of gifts. I want them grow into loving God with all of their hearts, and loving their neighbors as themselves. That is more important than any tradition, and I certainly don’t believe that a tradition is necessary for this growth. I only hope that, inasmuch as a tradition can be a vehicle for that growth, we can manage to make it happen.

I hope that your traditions, as much as they could be, were meaningful in this turbulent year. Merry Christmas.

Quote

Merry Christmas 2019

Yet with the woes of sin and strife

The world has suffered long;

Beneath the angel-strain have rolled

Two thousand years of wrong;

And man, at war with man, hears not

The love-song which they bring;

O hush the noise, ye men of strife,

And hear the angels sing.

“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, public domain

May your Christmas be blessed, and may we all cease our strife in the new year and hear each other, carrying with us the beauty of the Truth of the season.

Disruptive Traditions

A Christmas basket created by an former colleague and gifted to my parents years ago.
A Christmas basket created by an former colleague and gifted to my parents years ago.

During our first year of marriage, Karen and I began sorting out what the family dynamics would look like as we approached the holidays. Thanksgiving has always been the big event for her side of the family, and Christmas for mine. The thing about our families is that they live far enough away that we have never been…and never could be…close to both of them regardless of where we live. As we moved here and there over the course of the last ten years, we basically split the difference and focused on spending as much time as possible with whichever set of parents was closer. Until we had our first daughter, we decided that the equitable thing to do was to simply alternate. One year we traveled to my parents for Christmas and hers for Thanksgiving, the next year we switched. This served us well until it was three of us instead of two.

After our first daughter, we decided that we would designate holidays. Since Thanksgiving is more important to her side of the family, we began traveling to her side then, and always to my side for Christmas. This arrangement seemed to work for everyone involved, and it has stayed that way until we moved back to New England a few years ago.

The interesting thing about how we handled the holidays is that spending one at home really wasn’t something for which we were ever prepared. We never gave it much thought, with the exception of one year that Karen was in a new job and didn’t have the vacation available to travel. Otherwise, when the holidays arrived, we were out of town. When we had our oldest, we decided she would learn to travel early (she did great, by the way).

When we were still living in North Carolina and were pregnant with our second daughter, though, this shifted in an epiphanic way. Karen was too late in the pregnancy to travel that Christmas, so we had been planning one at home for several months. We put effort into the event, planning food and stockings for our daughter in ways that we just hadn’t before. How would we intentionally integrate our Christian tradition? How would we eschew materialism? We hadn’t had to be intentional about these things before.

That Christmas morning, our daughter awoke so excited she literally forgot how to climb out of her bed. Having breakfast together, opening gifts, playing and being together through the day…yes, we missed being with family, but we felt like a family of our own in a way that we hadn’t prior to that Christmas. This waypoint shifted the way we look at how we celebrate Christmas.


Since settling back in New England three years ago, we’ve had mixed success in traveling for the holidays. This year, we had our first conversation around what traditions we would bring into the marriage for Christmas celebrations. What will our children grow up with in the way of traditions? Ten years into our marriage, this is the first time we had entertained this discussion. It was difficult. While we share a common faith, our family backgrounds and solidified preferences in how we practice that faith are actually quite different, and this is at its most obvious when thinking about the holiday season.

We currently have a somewhat working arrangement for Advent and Christmas, which we’ll re-assess again next year. I think that it will take some time get this right. I am not a fan of tradition or routine, but I find that I crave them at Christmas. I was even defensive of some things that my family did during my childhood that just wouldn’t translate for ours. Moving past that, it’s important to have these traditions, especially faith traditions for the holiday. What it teaches, the depth that it cultivates within the context of our rampant consumerism…it is so important for our children to grow up with a foundation.

When it comes to Christmas, I don’t exactly know what that foundation will look like. At least not yet.

When we arrive at a decision, though, it will be our tradition.

I just wish we hadn’t waited so long.

Holiday Retrospective

Photo of a Christmas basket gifted to my parents years agoChristmas does odd things with time.

After a frantic rush of activity with gift-buying, parties, and performance schedules, time suddenly seems to expand as the last Sunday of Advent draws to a close. The act of lighting that fourth candle seems to be the beginning of this strange effect. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are subsequently disconnected from any day of the week.

This season, Sunday still felt like a normal weekend, and it wasn’t until after that we stretched into Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve, though, was not a Monday, nor Christmas Day a Tuesday. It’s as though they stood outside of time, much like the time altering event that we celebrate, when the Word became flesh and a dwelt among us.

Karen and I stayed up until the early morning hours of Christmas Day struggling to assemble the larger gifts, only to be awakened before 7 a.m. by our children bouncing with excitement that could no longer be contained. Over breakfast, I was talking with my parents, who recalled staying up until 4 a.m. one year putting together an elaborate toy with which I still recall playing. I could recall, I told them, a specific set of Christmas mornings: finding Luke Skywalker next to Christmas cookies that “Santa” had eaten from, tearing back wrapping paper to find Optimus Prime, opening the coveted set of sneakers in high school. Those mornings reached through to me from the past, just as real today, intertwining with our children’s joy at princess costumes and toy dinosaurs.


After Christmas, we travelled to spend time with my parents. It’s always surreal to visit that same house in which I grew up. Sometimes the memories take on a life of their own. This year, that wasn’t so much the case. This year it was the past continuing to meld with the present. I sat one afternoon in the quiet of the living room, taking a break from the activity, and I watched our oldest daughter run through the kitchen, grinning ear-to-ear, sliding in her socks around the corner before continuing to charge full-speed into whatever adventure came next until she was out of sight, in much the same way that I used to in that very same kitchen. I experienced so much joy as a child in that house, and thought about how fitting it is that my daughter can now do the same.

I have so many memories of my father working at family through my childhood. I remember him building part of that house as I watched, one my earliest memories. I remember him bringing in wood for the stove in the winters. So many Christmas mornings, so many Christmas gift outings.


Karen and I refer to our Christmas tree as a “memory tree.” We collect ornaments from our travels and life events, and it is with those, as well as ornaments gifted to us, that we decorate our artificial tree each year. Each year, I try to find time to reflect on these, even as we add new ones. There are so many layers to our life together.

Christmas lately seems as much about celebrating the past as the present of our family. Which is fitting, as we are celebrating the Child born to be the Sacrifice for us, who is still with us – through Him, by Him, and for Him. Our relationships, like Him,  stand outside of time…eternal, immeasurably more important than any gifts that might be exchanged. While my memories tend to key themselves to certain gifts associated with certain Christmas mornings, it is the bond that I formed with my family on those mornings that surrounds me now, a tangible expression of His love, and what I hope my children remember in their adult lives.

I hope that peace and goodwill followed you this Christmas season.

That Little Tree

Small ceramic Christmas treeThat little tree.

I remember it in my childhood bedroom. It carried the soft glow of Christmas from the rest of the house into where I slept. My mother had crafted it carefully and lovingly, intending it to be a gift to me, in a ceramics class that was her creative release. Though not inherently worth any money, it’s a fragile little tree, and I’ve always handled it with the utmost care. The memories that it carries with it, the intention with which it was created, endow it with a value far beyond any monetary appraisal.

I have carried that little tree with me everywhere I have lived since. I pack it away with special care at the end of each season, and I unpack it again when the temperature begins to fall. Perhaps because it always had a special place in my bedroom all of those decades ago when I lived in my parents’ home, it has always lived in my bedroom since.

I remember every detail of the Christmas decorations in our home. There were flickering lights, music almost constantly, and gold garland hung with artificial apples that framed our living room. I particularly remember one circular, flickering Santa that somehow gave the softest presence to a room when it hung in the window, overlooking a snow-covered lawn. The decorations mattered less than the feeling of a solid foundation to which they contributed. My family always loved Christmas, because of the central part that it represents in the history of our faith, as well as the generosity to which it gives occasion. Of all the holidays of the year, this was the one to which we gave the most energy, and so the close of each year was a special, peaceful, even holy time. I’ve carried that into my adulthood, not only as a nostalgic recollection, but as a practice.

Or, at least I have tried.

I wonder how these same sorts of memories are being formed for our daughters, what will stand in the fronts of their minds about Christmas when they are my age. At least during the Christmases of my youth, the opportunities, it seems, for the formation of important memories were carefully crafted. I’m not sure that we accomplish that. With the number of times that we have moved over the past few years, the pace of life that is at times unmanageable despite or best efforts, I fear that this intentionality slips from our grasp, however good our intentions.

Perhaps, though, I’m mistaken. Perhaps those opportunities for memories as I grew up were not crafted at all, but are the sorts of experiences that create wonderful memories on their own, however unplanned, facilitated only by the fact that I am fortunate enough to have a stable nuclear family. Should that be the case, then the opportunities for these foundational memories are simply present for our children, and I can only hope to make them as positive as I can.

When our oldest daughter, now six, was three years old, she gazed with fascination and a certain degree of longing at that little tree. I promised her that, when she was grown, she would inherit the tree. She spoke often of that promise for a while, though she doesn’t really mention it of late. I wonder what that tree will mean when I pass it on to her?

I wonder if I can influence that meaning at all.