We’re pretty cliche in our love for family Christmas traditions around here
Sorry, Thanksgiving. Basically the minute the kids take off their Halloween costumes, Jamin starts pulling out random Christmas decorations and strewing them around the house. I spend the next week or so rearranging until they’re all where they actually belong, and begin haunting all the area garden centers for signs of who will have live trees first. And Christmas music has already been playing in our house since August.
Since our kids are still pretty young, we don’t yet have a ton of long-term family Christmas traditions, but there are a few things that we’ve really enjoyed doing the last several years. The weekend before Thanksgiving is pretty much always devoted to setting up any decorations that haven’t already made their way out of the closet, and to getting our tree. It has to be live. We get one as early as they sell them, usually early enough that the poor seasonal Lowe’s employee in the garden center hasn’t yet figured out how to work that handy machine that puts the netting on. We bring it home and try to cram in tree decorating, cooking making, light viewing, and a favorite Christmas movie all into one weekend.
Each year on Thanksgiving, the kids get special ornaments from their grandparents that are representative of things they have done in that year. That is a really fun tradition that provides for lots of entertainment on tree decorating day. The kids all have their special ornaments in their own bin, so as I’m getting lights and ribbon on the tree, they pull out each one and reminisce. I generally give a designated space on the tree for each kid to put their own ornaments, so they decorate…and when they’re in bed, I re-decorate so that the ornaments aren’t all on the bottom half of the tree 😉
A couple of years ago, we were gifted a precious electric train set by some friends whose kids are grown now. It had been part of their family Christmas tradition for years, and now it’s become part of ours. The big kids help Jamin set the track around the base of the tree, and all Christmas season long kids look forward to opportunities to drive the train and turn on the whistle. Near that goes our nativity set, just the plastic Fisher Price Little People version that the kids can play with. The Christmas story gets told and retold, sometimes creatively, for weeks.
The month of December, we do a Christmas countdown. We open a numbered box each day that holds Hershey kisses and a task for the day. While the countdown is a tradition for us, the tasks in it tend to change from year to year. Sometimes they’re just fun and simple, other years they’ve been more service-oriented or focused on completing certain projects. My favorite things that typically get included from year to year involve introducing the kids to new classics like a new Christmas movie, carol or book. And baking…we do a lot of baking around here!
Because we don’t a lot of Christmas shopping for the kids, we don’t do things like making Christmas lists. Instead we do a Secret Santa exchange among the siblings, and between the planning and the creation of their homemade gifts, the air of secrecy and anticipation in the house definitely makes it feel like Christmas to me 🙂
JAMIN RESPONDS: I don’t put the decorations in the wrong place on purpose. I know where some of them go. And I just put the rest of them anywhere because I think the job will get done sooner, in little baby steps, if they are in an annoying place. If I just ask you to decorate, then I have to wait for you to find a large chunk of time to do it all at once.
tldr: Gifts and traditions are stupid. Spend time with family and don’t have expectations
I hate ceremony. Weddings, birthdays, graduations, anniversaries. Celebration of actual achievement is great, but mandatory congratulations is one of my least favorite parts of our species. And I feel the same about family Christmas traditions as I feel about birthdays. We’ve covered this in other places, but express your love when your heart says, not when your calendar says.
On top of that, traditions are what is wrong with holidays: Doing things that no one wants to do, perhaps with unlikable people just because that same terrible decision was made multiple times in the past. If it’s a bad choice that you just can’t bring yourself to change, that’s addiction.
This is as good a place to say this as any other: family Christmas traditions are for ideas that aren’t good enough to stand on their own. Recipes: you know why that casserole is a tradition? Everyone is too afraid of hurting grandma’s feelings to tell her it tastes like cardboard, so everyone agrees to choke it down as long as it’s only once a year. You know why we only eat turkey at Thanksgiving? No one likes it. Chicken and steak are way better. Christmas ham? You guessed it. You know what does NOT need a tradition? Ice cream. Sushi. French Fries. They don’t need traditions because everyone already likes them.
The same goes for board games, parades and communion. Do you think people were, on their own, going to nibble a dry cracker and sip grape juice, contemplating a horrific homicide while an old lady in bad costume jewelry played all 5 verses of a 100-year-old song on an out-of-tune piano? No way! But you know why we do it? Because in his last hours, a dying man said, “This do in remembrance of me” (But since he wasn’t a 16th century Englishman, it probably came out more like “לעשות את זה לזכר אותי,” which I can only assume has a lot more hard ‘k’ sounds.) So maybe some family Christmas traditions are good, but the fact that it’s a tradition tells me it’s probably not popular on its own. A “tradition” is a warning flag.
Additionally, purposely creating family Christmas traditions with my family feels a little coercive. Who am I to say that in 20 years they won’t have their own ways they want to celebrate? Calling my version of celebration a ‘tradition’ means that eventually they will have to ‘break’ our tradition. Maybe it’s just my experience, but promoting a family tradition seems to have some emotional ill-will implied for whoever decides to break it.
Even for Christians, Christmas isn’t really about the great gift of baby Jesus. It’s not about God becoming man and entering the world as a gift to humanity to save us from ourselves. If you wanted to celebrate that with gift-giving, you missed it by half a year. Give real gifts instead of candy for Easter. Make it a time of amazing gifts instead of just a less-fun Halloween. Because for those wanting to follow the Bible’s plot, Easter is the holiday where an innocent God takes one for humanity. Christmas is the holiday where an innocent virgin takes one for God.
Things I do NOT hate:
Traditions. If they are organic. Nostalgia is real and anticipation is the best part of most major events. If I remember having a good time doing something last time, I might really enjoy looking forward to doing the same thing, the same way, again. But once it’s not as fun as it used to be, I want to be able to change it up without making someone feel like they lost some token of the holiday they were grasping too tightly. No family Christmas traditions! We might end up doing the same things by chance, but let’s not do it, just once, on purpose, just to make sure we’re acting out of real desire and not laziness.
Family time. This is the real point. If a tradition will bring the family together, that’s worth it. Even if it’s a bad tradition, it’s better than not being and acting together. This is one of the reasons all those stupid religious traditions are so valuable: they bring people together and set expectations. They give people reasons and common language for interacting with each other.
Holiday anything. Christmas music starts in August for me but I’m allowed to decorate for Christmas after the trick-or-treat traffic dies down, so even though I don’t have much excitement about Halloween, October 31st is still a special day for me. Apple cinnamon scent should be used all year. Nothing would be more refreshing on a hot summer day than a cold piece of pumpkin pie with cool whip. We usually need a second Christmas tree because we buy them the day the lots open and they die before Christmas. The only thing I really think we need to limit is Christmas lights. I’m a small government guy and even I think it’s reasonable to jail anyone displaying Christmas lights after Valentine’s.
WENDY RESPONDS: Oh boy…you have said a lot of things here. Hopefully we didn’t lose anyone along the way! Also, I think the nostalgia and anticipation and family togetherness are why we do any of the family Christmas traditions we currently do…not because the calendar says we have to. At least for now, I’m pretty sure everyone in our house genuinely enjoys our family Christmas traditions, but I guess we will see how things change as the kids get older. I’m not into dragging people into activities they hate and trying to force them to have fun…at least not very often 😉