When it comes to Christmas traditions, the big rule of thumb is You Should Have Some. I haven’t written much recently about our family traditions, so it’s time. Much has remained the same, even as my children have gotten older. That is a sure sign of real traditions!
I’m struck by all the posts and articles wandering about on the Internet arguing that Christmas ought to be simplified. I mean: yes. If Christmas is totally freaking you out, it needs to be simplified. The Incarnation is a great gift, and freaking out isn’t a necessary part of celebrating it.
But also: I think it’s possible to overdo the simplifying. The Incarnation is a great gift, and it deserves its rightful honor. It deserves a party. It deserves cookies. It deserves hustle and bustle and (dare I say it?) gifts!
There have been years when we got sick and our Advent and/or Christmas traditions were missed. Forced simplifying, we could call it. You know what? Christmas didn’t really feel like Christmas. I look back, and in those years it was always winter and never Christmas.
Advent and Christmas without traditions is like Narnia under the White Witch.
Don’t be the White Witch.
The solution, of course, is livable traditions. A good tradition is one you can pull off every year (or, at least, most years).
There are many possible traditions; here are some of ours:
If you want to know about it, read this. DecemberTerm consists of turning our regular morning Circle Time into an Advent time. I love it, even on the days when we can only execute part of our plans.
Evening Advent Readings (+ The Messiah)
My husband does this, and I’m grateful for it. This year, we’re enjoying The Handel’s Messiah Family Advent Reader. I love, love, love it. We end the time with a little snippet of The Messiah from the accompanying CD.
We don’t do the same book each year — last year, a Messiah study was incorporated into DecemberTerm, and my husband read aloud from a different book. So there are two traditions. One is Handel’s Messiah and the other is evening readings.
Christmas Picture Books
As in: we read some. We have a huge box stored at the top of our closet, and we pull it down on the first day of Advent, and the kids spend the season poring over them again and again. Also, I read some aloud. Also, my husband reads some aloud.
I know that some families wrap them up and then let their children unwrap one per day. I greatly admire this, but I know myself too well. If I had to wrap them all, this would never happen. So: giant book box it is.
Gingerbread House Party
This is something Friend R. and I started doing with our children years and years ago. In fact, we just did this Saturday evening, and we were laughing about how we started when our children were way too young (meaning they required too much help for it to be enjoyable). We’ve tried making the gingerbread and icing from scratch (too much work). We’ve tried using graham crackers (the younger children weren’t coordinated enough, but it’ll work when they are older). The last couple years, we’ve used these lifesaving things called kits. We usually pick them up at Target.
We make extra icing from scratch, and we provide extra candy to make sure there’s enough, but having the children construct a pre-fab house is much easier at this stage in the game. The older kids decorate them more elaborately, and the younger children can almost put them together on their own.
Christmas Lights Tour
We take the kids to look at the best light displays in town and often couple it with some hot chocolate from Starbucks as a treat. We are in mourning that there aren’t many good displays this year — not sure what will happen to this tradition.
Homemade Christmas Ornaments
Every year we make a bunch — a different type each year — and then we give them to friends and family. They make great hostess gifts, and also good gifts for people who “have everything” or “don’t need anything” (like great grandparents). This year, we’re making beaded wreaths similar to this tutorial. This makes for a nice handicraft on a rainy winter’s day.
Baking Days and Cookie Trays
We have some standard recipes, but this year it’s complicated by the gluten free diet. No matter. We’re still baking. On years when we have more time and energy, we’re elaborate. Other years, we only make our two favorite recipes. We load up festive paper plates with goodies, wrap them in cellophane, and then the children deliver them to neighbors, plus we drive around to drop a few off to others (like the aforementioned Friend R.).
Rugelach on Christmas Morning
For many years, I loved making the gluten version of this, but needed an alternative for Daughter A. (who is gluten-free) and Son O. (who is sugar-free). I searched high and low for a good recipe, and ended up finding one on accident! It’s a long story, but the result is that I make a gluten-free sugar-free cutout cookie recipe but roll it up with cinnamon and nuts like I used to do my rugelach. It’s not sticky like a cinnamon roll, so it’s the most like real rugelach I’ve found. I serve it hot from the oven, smothered in Kerrygold butter. It’s perfect.
Waiting for Baby Jesus
It’s a little thing, but we set up our creche set on the first day of Advent (except when we have the stomach flu, as we did this year — in that case, it happens when it happens). Mary, Joseph, shepherd, animals — but no Jesus. He doesn’t arrive until Christmas morning.
The three kings also arrive on Christmas morning, but in the library. They move a bit day by day until they end up at the creche set — just in time for Epiphany.
I love our three gift tradition for a variety of reasons. First, it draws a parallel. We tell our children, “Jesus received three gifts. And so do you.” They get it.
Having mental categories for the gifts is helpful: something to wear, something to enjoy, something to read. This allows for budget flexibility. Some years, the budget has been really tight, and “something to wear” was purchased at a second-hand sale for $3 (and was still awesome) and “something to read” was a used book for $0.50 (in great condition). It all still works. Make sense?
Other years, we were able to afford to be more extravagant. (A Kindle, for example, can be a great “something to read.”)
One other thought on this: yes, we want to avoid materialism. Sure. But giving and receiving gifts is not the same thing as being materialistic. God made the physical world and it is good. Jesus received lavish gifts, and then He in turn gave the ultimate lavish gift.
Unspoiled children receiving an extravagant gift at Christmastime is a beautiful thing.
It was Edmund who didn’t get a gift from Father Christmas, you remember — and he didn’t get it because he was in the company of the White Witch.
Remembering the Holy Innocents
December 28th, the third day of Christmas, is traditionally the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It’s a time to remember Herod’s slaying of the babies and toddlers. We do this very simply. I read aloud the pertinent passage from the Bible. We sing the Coventry Carol.
Then I cry.
Since I became a mother, I can’t make it through that song without crying.
The children spend the rest of the day wondering why Mommy cried.
We have varying levels of success with Epiphany. My dream is to have a big bonfire and roast marshmallows with friends. Practically, we seem to be sick on this day half the time. And then also our fire pit died last year.
One year, we read aloud Twelfth Night, and that was something.
Right now the plan is to Do Something.
Undecorate the Tree and House
We do this the day after Epiphany. Keeping the tree up (and the Christmas tunes humming) for all 12 days of Christmas keeps the party going in our hearts. I hate that Americans start the Christmas festivities before Thanksgiving but then tear the tree down before New Year’s. It’s a total cultural bummer.
Go Forth and Tradition
Yes, I nouned a verb. Do it. Traditions are awesome. They don’t have to be super expensive (driving around looking at lights is almost free; going to a Christmas concert at a local church is likely free; volunteering at a food bank is also free, etc.). They don’t have to be super time consuming (buy a kit instead of making from scratch). And you don’t have to start with a million traditions. Start with one or two and add as your children get older.
Just don’t forget that traditioning is part of Christmas.
Don’t be the White Witch.
Want some more inspiration? Listen to this:
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