Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Celebrating Christmas

As we move into Christmas Eve, the excitement around our household is growing. Many of our family's "Christmas traditions" have already come to pass, and many are yet to come in the next few days.

At the meeting of our worship team during our weekly practice last week, the "icebreaker" question was to share your favorite family tradition in celebrating Christmas. It was interesting to watch people decide which "life stage" to answer about... whether to answer about the traditions they remembered from their own childhood, or the ones they implement now with their own children, or the ones they used to implement when their children were still at home. Generally, the effect was that you got "the best of the best," as they had to choose a favorite from among all of those experienced during any life stage.

My own children were in the room, participating in the meeting, so we got to hear firsthand their perspective on some of the favorite traditions we're practicing now. What I discovered is that "it's working." We have long desired to capitalize on our children's love of holidays and special occasions and celebrations, and to use them to underscore the special significance of certain spiritual truths. We've always wanted Christmas to be more about Jesus than Santa. We've wanted them to be firmly grounded in truth. We've wanted them to be more excited about giving than receiving. And we've wanted to avoid the materialistic spending frenzy that is typical of Christmas in America.

Yeah, right. Pretty tall order. But we've done our best, and it seems to be mostly working. Here are some of the things we do toward that end... all of them are not "spiritual," and some of them have just "come about on their own" without any planning or thought or purpose to it. Some of them are just silly and fun, while some of them are deeply significant. Some we hold lightly; some we simply must do.

We'd love to hear about what you do, too, because we usually end up incorporating new ideas each year... and some of the strangest ones stick!

So, although I'm pretty sure nobody else is as excited to read all about our family's Christmas traditions as I am to write them all down, here they are, in no particular order:

* We usually stay away from anything Christmas-y until after Thanksgiving, in order to give that holiday its own import and focus. On Thanksgiving day, after all the feasting, we always watch "It's a Wonderful Life." It is just a great movie that underscores what's really important and what really isn't... and my husband is pretty much George Bailey.

* By far our most important and significant tradition is doing our "advent banner" beginning on December 1. iivo and I created this banner (from the book Family Celebrations - Meeting Christ in Your Holidays and Special Occasions by Ann Hibbard) when I was pregnant with EV, and we've been going through these family devotions during advent ever since. We made a banner with a large flannel Christmas tree, and each "ornament" (with its symbolic felt emblem) is velcroed onto the tree by a child after the advent meditation has been completed each evening. This keeps our focus clearly on the spiritual dimensions and implications of the advent season. Our regular family devotions are replaced with this advent banner during this time. [Note from the future, in 2013: These devotions are perfect for little ones, and a little "babyish" for older ones, but we walk through them every year anyway. We've added an advent "road the the manger" candle tradition--compliments of Ann Voskamp's son who crafted it himself, with profits going to missions.  We printed the pictures and made the "ornaments" for her advent tree devotional several years ago, and we usually do some of that, too, when we can. We reprise the "thankfulness tree" from Thanksgiving, and we do these things when we can. Sometimes, now that they're older, we'll do three or four days' worth of felt banner devotions at a time, and other nights we won't do it at all. Whatever works to keep all the relevant advent scriptures before our eyes and minds throughout the month.]

* We also have collected quite a set of Christmas books over the years, so our evening "family read-aloud" is also disbanded during this time, and we read a Christmas story together each night. These range from the explanatory (Santa, Are You For Real?) to the symbolically spiritual (this year's acquistion - The Tale of Three Trees) to the silly and fun (A Wish for Wings that Work - an Opus Christmas Story). We have enough by now to last us throughout the Christmas season. The red-white-and-green basket of books comes out with the Christmas decorations and sits out all month, by the couch; the kids tend to pick up and read the books on their own throughout the month as well.

* However soon as  is practical after Thanksgiving, we head together as a family to get our Christmas tree. Though there is a lovely(?) artificial tree in our attic even as I type, over the past few years we have developed the habit of heading to our local Taylor's for a "real" tree, which as of this 2008 writing can be had for only $14.99. Somehow it has come to be tradition that after we choose our tree and strap it to the van, we head across the street to have lunch at the Tijuana Flat's restaurant that is there. There is nothing Christmas-y about it, but it is pretty expensive for our whole family to go there, so we usually only do it this one time during the year. It has become part of the Christmas traditions purely by accident. [NFF 2013: The "must have a real tree" thing has continued, through several price hikes at Taylor's over the years and then the eventual abandonment of them entirely after this tree fiasco.  Also, the super-close Tijuana Flats closed down, so we now head across town to the other one, though it is nowhere near the purchasing place of the Christmas tree anymore!]

* We usually end up putting only the lights on the tree at this point, and then "do the ornament thing" about a week later. While the lights go up, we tend to gravitate toward a favorite Christmas CD called It's Christmas Time (with carols and fun Christmas songs sung by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra). (NOTE: This CD got lost sometime around 2012, and I have been grieving the loss of it ever since. It is a lot like an 8-track we listened to while putting up the tree when I was a little girl, and I miss it!)

* After the lights are on the tree, the girls usually grab the other Christmas decorations from the attic and scatter them about the house, while iivo and PT put some Christmas lights outside, on the house and bushes.

* We have a variety of nativity sets, and they go up in different rooms of the house... right down to the little clear glass ones EL bought at the Dollar Tree for her sister OG and her brother PT one year when she was very little, "so they can have one of their own like EV." (Said "nativity of her own" for EV came from her Sunday school teacher when she was a pre-schooler, and is a little nativity set of black figures. She still puts it up in her room every year.)

* iivo's birthday falls in the middle of the "Christmas season," so there is usually a break somewhere in here one weekend to celebrate him and his birth.

* "Doing the ornament thing" is an experience around our house, and is usually reserved for a weekend of its own after iivo's birthday weekend. (We're still homeschooling during these weeks of early December, so weekends are all we have!) Each ornament is brought out and - since many of them have significant memories attached to them - discussed as it is put on the tree. My mother and I have been buying a different Christmas tree ornament for each of my children every Christmas since they were born, so that they'll have a set of ornaments to take with them to their own homes when they leave ours. They each pull a few of their own ornaments out of the special boxes we bought them, smiling and remembering and deciding where to place each one. It is usually best if I stay out of this process as much as possible. (See here for more about this!)

* When we put ornaments on the tree, we listen to A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. This is relatively calm and mostly instrumental, which helps during the frenzy. So does egg nog, by the way, so that's become typical during the hanging of the ornaments.

* Though we own a lot of Christmas albums, and have put them all into a Christmas playlist on the ipods, a few favorites tend to come out and stay front and center around our house in December. These include the two already mentioned, James Taylor's James Taylor at Christmas, Christmas Portrait by the Carpenters, and A Christmas Together by John Denver and the Muppets. A couple of local radio stations play Christmas music all season, and it tends to irritate some of us and thrill others of us. So there is usually some listening to "I'm gettin' nuttin' for Christmas" or "Feed the World" or "Santa Baby" type songs... and the commensurate "radio wars" that go on when one member of the family doesn't want to hear "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime" for the eight-hundredth time, while one other member of the family has every radio station in the house tuned to this station - and turned on!

* Our children do not have "Christmas wish lists," and we tend to only buy each of them one big present. This item is something we think they would enjoy having, not something they've asked for. (I think both our homeschooling and our not watching television help in this regard, because there aren't nearly as many "have to have this" items in a kid's mind when he isn't in the peer-conformity world of school or watching TV commercials tell him how much he needs a specific thing.) They never ask for particular things they want, as we've never fostered an environment that caters to that. They do have grandparents, however, who will sometimes ask if there are any particular wishes; occasionally one surfaces, but not usually.

* What they do love (and I mean love) is the practice we have of going out shopping - one child at a time, with me - to buy a specific gift for each of their siblings. (I talked about this in my last post.) They plan out and think about what they might like to buy each other for weeks and months before Christmas, and head out once we finish homeschooling with either with a very specific plan in mind, or with an open mind combined with a pretty good knowledge of the sibling, and we shop. This is both exhausting and exhilarating to me. Truth be told, I love it, too! There is something thrilling about seeing your children genuinely more excited about the gifts they're giving than the ones they're receiving.

* Christmas Eve, for us, traditionally involves a series of Christmas Eve church services. There is a children's service at my parents' church up the road that starts at 4:00 and involves story-telling and craft-making and a "birthday cake" for Jesus. My parents pick up and take the little ones to that, while the older ones and we adults get ready for our church's service. iivo is the worship leader, and at least some of the rest of us are usually involved in the music in some way, too. That service is typically at 5:30. My father brings the little girls after the children's service is over, and then attends that 5:30 service with us. My mother is usually doing some last minute rehearsing at her church for the 7:00 service there. Once our service is over, we try to limit the intake of Christmas cookies by our children, then head up the road to that service to see Nanny sing in the choir and ring the handbells. By the time this service is over, we are all "sung out" and starving, and we head up the road to the local Chinese restaurant and share a variety of dishes "family style." Afterward we head back to my parents' house for more Christmas cookies and hot apple cider, and to open stockings.

* [If iivo's family is visiting from out of town, this pattern tends to look a little different. We only attend our Christmas Eve service, and afterward we eat a meal highlighting a blending of traditional Estonian and Swiss foods. This would typically be a pork roast, sauerkraut and red cabbage (very Swiss-German!), rosolje (Estonian "purple potato salad" containing pickles and beets and - if you're lucky - skipping the herring), sai (an Estonian Christmas bread made with raisins), and verivorst (Estonian Christmas sausage) if my mother-in-law has cooked and brought some. The Eesti folk eat this - and iivo loves it - but the rest of us tend to pass on the blood sausage. If my in-laws are here, we'll stay home and open our own stockings on Christmas Eve.]

* Either way, once the kids are in bed, we go around and swipe all the baby Jesus figures from each nativity set and carefully wrap them together in one package. We wrap this package very plain and dull and place it under the tree. (This becomes "the first gift of Christmas" in the morning, and we highlight the fact that Jesus - the greatest gift ever given - arrived here without fanfare or recognizable earthly glory.)

* On Christmas morning, I get up early and put in the dough for the traditional cinnamon rolls that are our Christmas breakfast. Afterward, we crawl back into bed and "sleep in" as late as the first child. This child - however big or small - crawls into bed with us and waits for brother or sisters to awaken and join us. Once three of the four are up, we decide it is time for the final child to get up, and all head in together to rouse the sleepyhead.

*We get up and get going in the morning with the final installment of the advent banner. This is meant to be the Christmas Eve lesson, but we wisely skip this since we're already attending two church services that night. This lesson is on the wise men, and segues nicely into the first gift of Christmas. We open this (the baby Jesus figures wrapped the night before) and the children go put each baby Jesus back with the corresponding nativity set. This was more naturally "fun" when they were little, but it has become part of what we do, so even these older children love to walk through this process.

* After this, we head into the kitchen, fashion the dough into cinnamon rolls, and get them going in the oven. While we wait for them to bake, we open our stockings.

* For breakfast, we have cinnamon rolls and either sausage or hard-boiled eggs for protein so no one "melts down." After we eat this, the kids are finally able to head in and distribute their gifts to their siblings. They are fairly about to burst with anticipation by this point, but they take turns and go one at a time. One child "plays Santa" first, and gives her gifts to her siblings one at a time. Said sibling opens the gift and we all enjoy seeing what was given and received. This process takes a while, since there are twelve gifts (three each) that have been purchased by the children for each other. It always strikes me every year how fun it is to "know" and "be known," as these gifts perfectly reflect their knowledge of each other and what each other likes and might enjoy receiving.

* After this, we take a break to read a Christmas storybook, then give the children the presents we have bought for them. iivo and I don't buy each other any gifts (his birthday is in early December and mine is in early January), but instead buy one "big thing" we feel the family needs or would enjoy. This can range from the immensely practical and needed to the totally frivolous and decidedly un-needed. Everybody usually knows about what this gift might be, as there's been some discussion about it throughout the preceding months. It is revealed at some point over the course of the morning.

* After all this, my parents head back home, we shower and get ready, and then we all re-convene at their house for a holiday meal mid-afternoon. The menu varies every year, but is usually some variation of turkey or ham, with each of us contributing different side dishes to go with it. When we gather at their house, we eat the feast, and then open the gifts from them.

* Over the course of the month, we tend to watch a Christmas movie or two. These vary from year to year, and have included such favorites as Miracle on 34th Street, Elf, The Santa Clause, Samantha (An American Girl Tale for Christmas), Prancer, and The Polar Express. We also usually try to fit in a viewing or two from among the favorite childhood television specials we always watched when they (and we!) were little: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph, or Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey (my personal favorite since I was a girl).

* We have watched The Nativity Story every year since we went to see it in the theater with my sister and her family, who were visiting, the year it came out, but we have yet to figure out a "regular" time to do it, so the tradition is simply that we must do so some time over the course of the season.

* If iivo's family hasn't come to visit us, there is usually some holiday travel involved after Christmas to go see them. This may be the weekend after Christmas, or over New Year's, but sometime over the course of the break we try to get to see them, too.

* Although the Christmas decorations disappear from my mother's house as quickly as the local radio station playing Christmas songs reverts back to its usual love-song format, we tend to leave the decorations up through all of the "twelve days of Christmas." We're just not quite ready to see them go by December 26th, and so we leave them up until a weekend falling somewhere around January 5.

* Unfortunately, it is usually not until this stage of things that I get around to doing our Christmas cards! We are terrible about Christmas cards!! (See here for more on this!)

"The aroma of our homes is created by the liturgy of our lives. The liturgy of our lives, simply put, is what happens when we deliberately think through what we do and why... There is liturgy in all of our lives. We all have family traditions that in many ways tell the stories of our homes and what we value."
- Steve Murphy, publisher of
Homeschooling Today magazine

What is it we value at Christmas time? First and foremost, we value the Savior. We long to keep Him first and foremost in our minds as we walk through the season that follows Thanksgiving and incorporates New Year's. What began as a celebration of the incarnation - God made man and delivered to us as a baby - has become deliberately secularized in American culture. It has become more about Santa and getting stuff than about Jesus and giving stuff. It has become more about "happy holidays" than "Merry Christmas." It has become a spending frenzy that breaks many families' budgets and creates many spoiled, ungrateful, never-quite-happy-enough children. We work hard to reverse that focus in our home. Jesus is squarely the central focus for us.

We also value the fun and the feasting and the break from the routine that this season offers. It is a chance to break out of the daily grind and to reflect on what is important to us in new, fresh ways. We value our immediate family, and love remembering them with special little tokens of affection. We value our extended family, and treasure the chance to visit with them in whatever ways work out each year. We value the special friends we have, and enjoy spending time with whichever ones He's given us to be particularly close to in each of the various seasons of our lives.

Even talking about it all has made me nostalgic and anticipatory. We will walk through many of these traditions tonight and tomorrow and over the next few days. I really can't wait!


Hoichi said...

Thank you so much for posting this! As a parent of a 2 year old, I have been looking for some traditions to incorporate into our home. May I ask what book you use for your advent meditations for the Christmas banner?


Laurie said...

I'm glad it was useful! The book with the advent banner/meditations is actually referenced in the post with a link, so you should be able to click right to it... In any case, it is called Family Celebrations - Meeting Christ is Your Holidays and Special Occasions by Ann Hibbard. This year I ordered several "very good" used copies in order to be able to pass one on to each of my children for use in their homes one day.

Lisa T said...

Thanks Laurie. How cool to see a window into your lives!