Nothing defines a family more than how it celebrates together. Family traditions promote stability and create deep roots. They bind together the hearts of husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, grandparents and grandchildren, linking generations in a way that little else can. Traditions are a significant constant in an ever-changing world, and they are critical to building the family identity and culture that establish a sense of belonging for every member of the family.
At the same time, family traditions can be a source of incredible strain and frustration. When a couple marries, one of the first major challenges to their unity can be that first Christmas, as they try to meld their individual customs into a new way of celebrating together. Feelings of inlaws get hurt as the new couple is pulled in multiple directions. New people are added to the family mix and instead of pulling the family together, traditions create discord and hard feelings. Some may wonder if it's even worth the trouble.
It may take some work, but the benefits of establishing family traditions are undeniable. The key is to develop customs that fit your family. Though it's hard to let go of long-cherished practices from our families of origin, if it's not working for your family, it's defeating the purpose. Compromise and flexibility are paramount, and a sense of humour doesn't hurt either. As you work to create family traditions that are distinctly yours, there may be some false starts, but getting there can be half the fun!
Need some fresh ideas? FamilyLife staff and speakers from across Canada have shared with us their own cherished Christmas traditions. Feel free to take from this list and modify them as you see fit – make them yours!
The whirlwind: Preparing for Christmas
As a child, I loved the entire month of December. Oblivious to the stress of the adults bustling about around me, I soaked up the spirit of the carols, the lights, the decorations, the cookies, and everything else that heralds the approach of the big day. I thought everyone else felt the same way.
As an adult, I now know that the demands of shopping, cleaning, decorating, cooking, and wrapping can easily crowd out the joy of the season. December 25 often feels less like a climax than a sigh of relief. Does it have to be this way?
Here are some ideas to reduce the stress and create family fun throughout the month of December:
- Bruce and Denise Gordon like to get started nice and early. They decorate their house – tree and all – on American Thanksgiving to the sound of Christmas tunes and the taste of eggnog.
- Gary and Cathy Reynolds tell us, “We book a Saturday morning weeks ahead to go out and cut our Christmas tree, and then we come home and spend time together decorating it. We always take a family picture cutting the tree, and drink hot cranberry-apple punch while decorating it.”
- As part of decorating the tree, some parents give each child a special new ornament representing something significant in their life from that year. This gives them a chance to celebrate their accomplishments and encourages their character development. It also builds an ornament collection that each child can take with them when they leave home and start their own families.
- Instead of laying the whole shopping burden on Mom, why not involve the whole family? Bruce Gordon takes a day off work to go Christmas shopping with Denise for their boys. Other parents take their kids shopping separately with $10 to buy gifts for each other. This helps teach them the importance of thoughtfulness and giving, instead of just receiving.
- Take a timeout from the hustle and bustle and enjoy the Christmas atmosphere. Go for a drive and check out the Christmas lights in your neighborhood. Take in a Christmas concert or carol sing. Go skating or tobogganing as a family. Slowing down for a night or two will keep your family connected amidst the busyness, and will recharge you for the tasks yet to be done.
The Christmas season provides an abundance of opportunities for family bonding and togetherness.
- It's a Wonderful Life. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. A Christmas Carol. White Christmas. There is no shortage of beloved Christmas movies. The Gordons enjoy time together throughout the month of December by watching Christmas movies as a family. Mark and Christie Rayburn and their kids have built up a collection of Christmas books, and they read one each night starting December 1st .
- While the Reynolds family preferred not to emphasize Santa, on Christmas Eve their children always wrote letters to Santa, telling about their past year, and left them on the table with goodies. Santa wrote back with lots of humour and always acknowledged growth in their lives, their character qualities, accomplishments and their maturing faith and walk with God. The first thing the kids would do on Christmas morning was read the letters, which are still kept in a file folder through the years and remain precious.
- If you're looking for a really creative Christmas Eve tradition, how about this one from Delvin and Lori Fletcher: “It all started 22 years ago with the birth of the first grandchild in the family. My sister, having been married 3 ½ years earlier, was the first in the family to have a baby. She decided we should all sleep over at her place Christmas Eve, so we could enjoy watching our nephew together on Christmas morning. He was only 11 months of age, and it was already agreed that Christmas was more fun with kids! So, that very first year, my mom and dad, sister, brother, and my husband and I packed up our pajamas and went to stay with my sister and her husband. This tradition has carried on every year and now, 22 years later, we will be staying at my younger sister's home for the very first time. This Christmas there will be 17 of us (of the 19 in our family)... and yes, we all sleep over! My parents get the master bedroom – it's not right for Grandma and Grandpa to have to sleep on a mattress on the floor! The rest of us adults will take over the children's rooms, in some cases bringing our own extra mattress with us. The nine grandchildren, ranging from 15 months to 22 years old, all agree this is their favorite night of the year — not because it is Christmas Eve but because they get to have a big pajama party! And if I'm honest, this is my favorite night of the year, too. To see how God has blessed us with a family that loves to be together is truly amazing, and a gift from him.”
- Though many Christmas traditions revolve around the kids, it's important not to neglect the husband/wife relationship in the busyness of the season. The family will be strengthened as the marriage goes deeper, and Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to do that. The Fletchers have another tradition the night after the big sleepover. After the kids get to bed, Delvin and Lori light a fire in the fireplace, turn on some Christmas music and exchange gifts with one another. They enjoy the quiet time together as they reflect on God's goodness to their family over the year.
What would Christmas be without food? Many families have food-related traditions that are eagerly anticipated every year.
- The Gordons go out together to a really nice restaurant about a week before Christmas just to enjoy a great meal and conversation before the rush of the holidays. Everyone has to dress up for Mom!
- Several families have traditional Christmas Eve meals, whether steak, seafood or just appetizers. Some invite neighbors or acquaintances who do not have family nearby to celebrate with them.
- Who wants to spend Christmas Day in the kitchen? How about store-bought pastries and fruit for breakfast Christmas morning? It's so easy on Mom!
From buying them to opening them, every family seems to have its own way of handling Christmas presents.
- Some families cut down on expenses by participating in Christmas gift draws. In other cases, the major gifts are limited to the kids. Popular choices for the adults to exchange are homemade (or home-cooked) gifts such as crafts, jam and jellies, or candies. And grandparents are always thrilled to receive a scrapbook calendar of their grandkids!
- Several families start giving early by allowing every member of the family to open one present on Christmas Eve. In many cases, these presents are new pajamas.
- Christmas stockings are always a morning highlight for the kids. In many homes, children are allowed to dive right into the stockings as soon as they wake up. But they have to wait for the rest of the family to open the presents! In a couple of families, each adult member of the extended family brings stocking stuffers for everyone, adding to the fun and reducing Mom's load.
- A good way to teach children to value giving, and not just receiving, is to get them involved in distributing the gifts from beneath the tree. Taking turns opening gifts one at a time also allows them to enjoy watching others open their gifts, and gives family members the opportunity to properly thank one another. It takes longer, but hey, we've got all day!
The greatest gift
Frenzied trips to the mall, the mad dash to get everything done on time, and new toys everywhere can make a little manger in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago seem pretty remote. How do you cut through the clutter to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas – the incomparable gift of God's one and only Son?
- Throughout the month of December, celebrate Advent each night or every Sunday. Light candles on an advent wreath, read from the Bible and sing Christmas hymns.
- Make a nativity scene a part of your decorations. The Rayburns set up their nativity scene beneath the tree. Early in the month, each child gets to take one of the Wisemen and hide it in their rooms. Each day they move the Wiseman closer to baby Jesus until they finally reach him on Christmas Day.
- Darcy and Beth Scholes' family uses FamilyLife's Adorenaments when decorating the tree. This is a collection of 12 ornaments, each of which represents one of the names of Jesus (the Bread of Life, the Vine, the Light of the World). As you decorate the tree, they provide an excellent opportunity to teach your children about God's greatest gift to us.
- Reading the Christmas story (Luke 2) plays a central role in many families' celebrations. Some do it on Christmas Eve, while others on Christmas morning before opening gifts, and still others during breakfast. In some homes the dads do the honors, and in others the kids take turns. Often the reading is followed by a family prayer time thanking God for his blessings.
- Some families even incorporate the Christmas story into their gift-giving. Glen and Christie Hoos base their kids' gifts on the gifts given to Jesus by the Magi (an idea originally found in Christian Parenting Today). Like Jesus, each child receives three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The “gold” gift, wrapped in gold paper, is a gift of great value – something special that they will really love. In biblical times, frankincense represented the presence of God, so the “frankincense” gift is a present to help them develop a deeper relationship with God – perhaps a Bible, devotional book or worship CD. Frankincense was white, so this gift can be wrapped in bright white. Myrrh was used to anoint the body for burial, so the “myrrh” gift can be something for their body – bath products, hair accessories or clothes. This present can be wrapped in a dark, earth-toned color. This tradition not only provides a fun way to keep Jesus at the forefront on Christmas morning, but it also greatly simplifies the present process and eliminates the need to “keep up with the Joneses.”
- The legend of the candy cane: While the children munch on their Christmas treats, share with them how the candy cane was invented. Many years ago, there was a candy maker who wanted to make a Christmas candy that would act as a testimony to his Christian faith. The cane is actually a “J” for Jesus, and if it's flipped with the curve at the top, it's a shepherd's staff. The white represents the virgin birth and the sinlessness of Jesus, and the red stripes represent the wounds of Jesus: “By his stripes we are healed.”
Ultimately, Christmas finds its true meaning against the backdrop of Easter. It's all about a God who loves us so lavishly, so extravagantly, that he chose to send his own Son to live among us and to die for us. Regardless of all the other trappings of the season, if you can keep this as your focus, your celebrations will be rich indeed.
From our families to yours, God bless you this Christmas.