Our family has Christmas traditions. Some we’ve adopted in recent years, and some go way back. Some are things we all love to do, while others are traditions a few love and the rest of us endure for the sake of those who love them.
With me coming from a conservative Mennonite background–and having the influence of both Old Colony and ‘white bonnet’ Mennonite–we kept decorating down to a bare minimum the first eight years of marriage. We did so out of respect for my culture, not out of a sense of personal conviction, especially with Tim being raised in a United Church family. When we left the Mennonite church–into which Tim had been baptized two months before marrying me–we gradually adopted the practice of putting up Christmas lights and various decorations.
Starting two years after the transition, we purchased a Christmas tree that looked gigantic back then, when the children were small. I remember well turning out all other lights, so that I could enjoy the sparkle of that tree. We had picked it up on December 26, when Boxing Day sales brought the price down to something we felt was reasonable, and manageable for us. And, rather than save it for the following year, we went home and decorated it. Thus began our Christmas tree tradition.
Several years ago, we adopted a new Christmas tree tradition… The smell of pine, and the delight of the fluffy white stuff beckoned me into the man-made woods–a tree farm–to pick out a real tree. It was going to be a family affair, trekking through snow, choosing just ‘the perfect one’ for us. We would all fall in love with ‘that one tree’ and drag it through the snow together…. the way they do in picture books and in the movies.
But my whole family does not love winter and fluffy white stuff, like I do. Nor do they all love real trees. And certainly the matter of falling in love with ‘the one perfect tree’ was a pipe dream. Five children, ranging from about age nine through sixteen, agree on only a few things. And that day they agreed it was cold and miserable outside, and that each had a very particular opinion about what made for a nice tree. One liked a crooked one. Another a short fat one. Another a tall fat one… and so on. And there I was, chasing our family with a camera, trying to capture the moments.
Why I chose still pictures and not a video, I can only chalk up to lack of thought. Because, had I videotaped it, I would only have needed to insert the clip, and words would have been unnecessary. You would have seen children frustrated with each other, and with us. You would have seen our youngest son’s ‘Charlie Brown’ tree choice. You would have seen tears and anger, exasperation and hurt feelings. But, more than that, you would have seen a family do real life together. Parents trying to hear their children, through their own frustrations, and wishing they could turn five trees into one perfect representation of a wide array of opinion. Children learning to hear each other, and us, or at least trying. You would have seen us finding a shiny new iPod in the snow, and turning it in at the front desk, in the event that the owner would come looking. You would have heard laughter… much laughter, and clever jokes and one-liners that most of our children are quite gifted in. You would have seen us inside, wandering through the store of Benjamin tree farm, warming up, and sipping hot apple cider and eating cookies, all bundled up in our winter clothes….
As we left the tree farm that day, some children declared they hoped it was a first and last such outing, convinced that the hullabaloo of the experience left much to be desired and we couldn’t agree anyway. I left that day already looking forward to the next year. We did real life together, and we found a tree we could all enjoy; a medium sized fat one.
The Charlie Brown one landed somewhere on the front porch, for a while, if my memory is accurate. Granted, over the next few days, now and then, a comment would be heard, “I think we should have gone with… ” and a particular tree would be described, but we all came to peace with ‘the one’.
Several years earlier we had begun another tradition…. Our children finally talked their Daddy into letting them open just one gift on Christmas eve. From the start, that gift held pajamas. Of course, after the first year, it wasn’t a surprise anymore, but we all–including me–acted as though it was the most original gift. We did manage to videotape it one year but, alas, I haven’t the faintest idea where the clip is, and, besides, our children would be very displeased if I shared it. But I’ve seldom laughed as hard with my family as I did that night. Year after year, this remains a tradition. It has gotten harder, over time, and as our daughters have grown–one taller than me–to find pj’s that fit. As a result half of the laughter is in modeling the pj’s I chose. That tradition was kept again tonight–opening one gift–but with a bit of a twist to it. One daughter, for whom it is particularly hard to find pj’s that fit, received a pair of slippers. And for the first time in several years, I think I hit it right.
Christmas Day we always do a small brunch, mid morning, because later we will go to Grandma and Grandpa Metzger’s for a big turkey dinner. But brunch doesn’t happen until we’ve had a small assembly in our bedroom. When our children wake up, they get their stockings and bring them into our room. All seven of us gather on our king-sized bed, and someone reads the Christmas Story, or tells it in their own words, as the case me be. This has been the cause of much laughter as well, when the telling of it gets jumbled. It isn’t a religious formality, requiring somber and serious reverence–though appropriate on occasion. It is a celebration of a baby born, some two thousand years ago, to bring us life and hope. And, in my opinion, laughter and joy are most appropriate.
After the story, Daddy usually prays for each of us. Mostly because the children vote for him to pray because when I get chattering to God, there’s no telling how long we’ll be. So Christmas morning Daddy prays, after which the stockings are dumped and contents inspected. It works out much like the Christmas eve gift. Predictable, for the most part. Candy. Chocolate bars and treats. We’re not a family to have candy and treats around all the time. If for no other reason than for fear of what would become of me, home alone several hours most days, with candy. So I don’t feel badly splurging a bit and loading them up with a stocking full of it, which, hopefully, they will spread out over time. But not necessarily. I try to look the other way a little bit. I remember eating too much one Christmas, when I was about five, and regretting it. I had been warned. And my children are too. If they get sick, I’ll hold the bucket. And then they will slow down. But it’s never gotten that far.
After all that, and when brunch is over, we meet in the family room for presents. First we do our family name exchange, followed by us giving each child a gift. If the children have purchased gifts for each other, or us, they hand those out, but this is not an expectation. In fact, with one in college and the other applying to university for next fall, the value of the Canadian dollar has gone up considerably in our home. There is a new appreciation for the cost of living and, as a result, we lowered the name exchange to spending $15 each, from $20-25. This financial awareness is a very good thing!
Tim and I are not big into gifts. It isn’t my love language, and it isn’t his. I delight in ‘getting it right’ with our children, and watching them beam at their gift being ‘just what they wanted’, but the’ getting gifts’ part, while appreciated, doesn’t thrill me nearly as much. Truth be told, because it is not my love language, I struggle with giving meaningful gifts. And that makes ‘getting it right’ even more exciting. None-the-less, Tim and I always exchange gifts of one sort or another. This has ranged from some item we know the other really needs or wishes for, to a ‘home-made certificate’ that the other can cash in on. For example, I still have a day in Stratford, wandering the shops with my Love, and having lunch together, waiting from one year. The gift thrilled my heart, for the thought put into it–because my husband would never wander a city window shopping for his own pleasure or entertainment–and I knew the thoughts behind it were all wrapped in love in love for me. And one day we’ll do it… I just need to remember at the right time. One year I gave him a ‘car cleaning kit’ with an offer to detail his vehicle, from time to time. I did it once and our one daughter did it another time. She is a perfectionist, and no vehicle looks better than when she has touched it.
When gift giving is over, we prepare to go to Grandma’s, arriving there mid afternoon. Soon after, the excitement of gift exchanging begins. It has become a far more civil event, now that the children are a bit more mature, than it was back in the day when gifts were ripped open with gusto, and paper lay strewn everywhere. I miss the less civil, at times. The children still get excited, but there is something beautiful about the unrestrained excitement of a child. It is so unpretentious. A big turkey dinner is followed with games, watching TV or some movie, and staying at Grandma’s until well past bedtime.
Boxing Day morning we always have Tim’s family over for a big brunch. There is not a meal I enjoy more–whether making it or eating–than a giant brunch. Even so, December 26 is the only day of the year when we go all out. It includes any combination of breakfast casseroles, bacon, sausage, ham, potato patties, toast, a large fruit platter–this is a must–pancakes or french toast instead of toast, possibly homemade cinnamon buns, and always coffee. A lot of coffee. Occasionally another special drink like Mimosa.
Year after year, our Christmas looks something like the above. And, year after year, we look forward to some of the most predictable events of the year as though it were a first. But this year is different. Tim’s brother and his girlfriend are off to see her family in Peru, so they will not be home. And Tim and I are off to Pennsylvania, leaving the morning of December 26 to attend my niece Emily Hursh’s wedding on the 27th. This means no Boxing Day Brunch. And, since I was still busy painting our house–my Christmas gift to Tim and me–and since we would be away a few days, we decided against a real Christmas tree this year. We still have the one that looked so big when the children were little. It now looks pretty scrawny, and sits on the landing of the stairs. Our son did a great job of decorating it with beads and ornaments in a fun and free manner. In our living room is another tree I found for a few dollars at a second-hand store last year, a big, full tree. It is colour coordinated, in red and gold, blending in with the room in which it is situated…. In the place where the real tree would have been.
When I broke the news to our son Todd, about all the changes this year, he did a fake pout and said, “Christmas is ruined!” He went on to lament the losses this year, with the best brunch of the year, time with Uncle Tom and the tree–all his favourite things. I assured him we would do our best to make Christmas special and did the ‘good Christian mom thing’, and explained what Christmas is really about. (Kept it down to a few pleasant sentences, not an annoying lecture.)
Soon it started…. Kordan, twelve, asked if we could ‘at least make those sugar cookies’ and put icing on them. “Sure,” I said. I didn’t do them last year, and it’s a little thing to make the holidays special. Bryan, sixteen, jumped in, too, asking for shortbread cookies. “Of course!” And then Todd asked for his favourite cookies, adding peanut butter cookies to the mix. I had already committed myself to making peanut butter ball cookies, and didn’t even think to ask who all likes them. I like them. A lot. So I made a double batch. And that is when I discovered that only about half of us like them. The peanut butter cookies–Todd’s kind–inspired an experiment, which didn’t go well, when I decided to add flour to the Kraft recipe, to give them more substance. The failure wasn’t beyond redemption, however. Kordan searched the internet for a recipe that would incorporate the ingredients already in my experiment and with a little adjusting, I had a lovely batter… but enough of it to make well over 100 cookies. With two of the other kinds producing over 100 each, we ended up with just under 400 cookies in total, and three happy assistant bakers. Our daughters, being away most of both baking days, missed out on the fun without regret.
I pulled the peanut butter cookies out of the oven, and, within minutes, there was Todd, munching. He closed his eyes and made some very male-like sounds that accompany eating. “I haven’t had these in years!” he said. I disagreed, but he insisted it had been years, so I let it go. Granted. It had been a while. No more had he finished his cookie and he started reminiscing and declaring that there is nothing like the nostalgic feeling of eating favourite childhood foods, while recalling good times past. As I watched him indulge, and listened to his stories, my heart-felt warm. It may be a different kind of Christmas, but Christmas isn’t ruined after all.
And, as long as Love lives in our home, no matter how imperfect we are, and what traditions must be sacrificed for other important events, Christmas will be exactly what it was meant to be. After all, didn’t love compel the God of heaven to humble Himself and come into the world, as an infant, to dwell among us, and give us His love? … Isn’t that love the very essence of Christmas?…
Jesus… Emanuel: God with us. Love with us. For God is Love.
© Trudy Metzger
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