I still cringe when I remember the year my parents decided to mess with family tradition. We’d always had a real Christmas tree, illuminated with those large, old-fashioned lights (now considered the height of retro-fashion!) and hung with lead-filled crinkled “icicles” (long banned by the EPA). But the year I turned ten, my mother decided it was time to update our decorations.
She and my dad went to our local Christmas tree lot, picked out a tall misshapen tree, and had it flocked. Spray-on flocking was quite the rage in the mid-60’s. (At least they stuck with white “snow” rather than opting for the very trendy blue, lavender or pink.) Hauled home in our pick-up, the tree went into our high-ceilinged living room. There it was spotlighted with a floodlight. Finally, gold balls were nestled in the fluffy white branches—tiny ornaments at the very top, giant shiny spheres on the sturdy branches at the base. I’m sure the tree was beautiful, with its avant-garde shape and mono-thematic decorations. I, for one, hated it.
The next year, we had a smaller, more traditionally-shaped, natural-looking tree, adorned with large, old-fashioned lights and crinkled icicles. My parents rounded up an assortment of craft items such as glitter, snowflake doilies, and sequins, and we spent a happy afternoon decorating the pile of gold ornaments, creating individuals out of conformity. Then we went to the store and added a few new treasures—unique ornaments that had a special significance for the year. It was the start of a new tradition that has lasted for more than forty years.
That lesson of my childhood has stayed with me as I’ve considered why the big white tree was a disaster, while the idea of adding a new ornament every year was such a success. I’ve come to a few conclusions.
Some traditions date back to Biblical times, and were ordained by God. The Passover, still celebrated by Jewish families and many Christians, is a prime example. The point is to remember what God has done, aided by a ritual full of significance that has lasted for thousands of years.
Other traditions are much more recent, and have a variety of origins. Christmas trees, plum pudding, holly and mistletoe aren’t found in the Bible. They may have pagan origins, but they have been “Christianized” and incorporated into our culture as part of our commemoration of the nativity. Personally, I don’t have a problem with this. Rather, I rejoice in the opportunity to redeem another part of God’s creation in the service of His glory.
Other traditions were added over the hundreds of years that Christmas has been celebrated. Christmas cookies and other special foods, candles and bells, and of course TV “Holiday Specials” were all added to Christmas by creative minds. None of these is inherently evil. Even Santa is welcome at our house, as long as he knows his place. But none of these is exactly required as part of our celebration, either.
When it comes to family traditions, it helps to be intentional. Include everyone in the household who is old enough to have an opinion. (I think this is where my parents went wrong that year.) You might be surprised which traditions are held sacred, and which can be dispensed with. Maybe you labor over a fancy Christmas dinner every year, because you think everyone expects it. Maybe they do—or maybe a more relaxed evening with sandwiches or frozen pizza would be an improvement.
If you’re finding yourself exhausted by the end of the season, maybe you’re trying to cram too much in. Let every family member select their favorite tradition, and consign the rest to the category of “if there’s still time and energy.” Then delegate responsibility. If Junior just has to have the family Christmas cookies, maybe it’s time he learned to bake! Leave plenty of “white space” in your schedule. Sometimes God surprises us with unexpected opportunities.
I’d like to recommend a book that has helped me tremendously as I’ve worked through some of these issues. The Christmas Book, by Alice Slaikeu Lawhead, has been around since 1985, but still offers timely advice on not only surviving the holidays, but in creating a Christmas celebration that truly brings us closer to Christ. It’s no longer in print, but is still widely available online.
What are your most cherished Christmas traditions? How did they get started? Which ones would you be more than happy to do away with?