The Christmas my daughter was 6 and my son was 3 was probably the low point. Not that it lacked anything, you understand. Quite the contrary.
There were presents in the stockings hung on the mantle, opened at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning. More presents under the tree, opened after breakfast. Cleverly wrapped little presents from people who stopped by during the day full of good cheer. Christmas night brought another avalanche of presents from grandparents, aunts, cousins. I watched in dismay as my little ones tore through the wrappings, shrieked, then barely glanced at the contents before looking around: “What’s next? What’s next?” “Say thank you,” I said in that tiresome mama tone, but they were beyond hearing.
So as “What are we gonna get this year?” heralded the approach of the next Christmas, I knew we had to find a better way.
We started early. My husband bought recordings of Christmas music from the great English cathedrals. He would play the music and tell the children how his family lived 20 miles from Salisbury Cathedral when he was a boy, and how in later years his parents lived a short walk from Worcester Cathedral, and how the music played on the great organs and sung by the cathedral choirs of England is among the most sublime celebrations of Christmas anywhere in the world. And they listened.
I set aside some time to do some baking. Both my father and my husband’s mother always made a Christmas fruitcake. OK, laugh—I’ve never understood the jokes. I think fruitcake is a rich treat to serve, with tea or wine, to holiday visitors. So I would bake a fruitcake on an early December Sunday; and later in the month, my children would join me in making that ultimate kid treat, homemade chocolate chip cookies. As we sifted and stirred (and munched stray chocolate chips right out of the dough), I would tell them how my father made great batches of these cookies every Christmas and we all helped. And they listened.
As the season unfolded, we read them the Christmas story and later added Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a favorite from my childhood, read chapter by chapter. When we decorated the house and put up the tree, we made sure they helped. We talked about what a treat it was to see friends and relatives who lived far away and only made it to Chicago for the holidays. We helped them buy presents for each other and for Grandma. We talked to them about the meaning of the season and tried ourselves to act in its spirit of generosity, peacemaking, and hospitality.
And thus we wrapped the Christmas morning gift-giving in a much richer wrapping of shared experiences that are special to this time of year.
Over time, we wove our own tiny piece of a vast tapestry of family, ethnic, community, and religious traditions that make up the worldwide celebration among the Christian peoples of this great feast. What we celebrate, after all, is the Incarnation, the moment when God became one of us, embodied in our form, sharing our everyday lived experience in the world. And these Christmas traditions are an extension of that Incarnation, transforming the abstractions of belief into lived experience of community in Christ.
Putting out the welcome mat
Many Christmas traditions are explicit calls to community. In Angela Kovatch’s family, for example, “We have the standard store-purchased nativity scene with the Holy Family and a couple of animals in the stable, but in addition to that, when each one of us was born, my parents bought another figurine to add to the scene. My brother is a little dog, I am a cat, and so forth. Of course, each was selected individually over the years, so it was difficult to keep any real sense of scale—the rabbit is larger than the deer!
“When my brother got married recently, a second dog was added for my sister-in-law. When there are grandchildren, eventually they also will get animals of their own, in keeping with their parents—although this might present a challenge if my sister, the turtle, decides to have a large family! This brings us symbolically into the scene, making the Nativity much more alive for us, especially when we were young.”
Brian McCormick’s favorite tradition, on the other hand, reaches beyond family to welcome strangers—including those who are estranged from family. He celebrates Christmas Eve with his parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews, but then “Christmas Day is an open house at my place for anyone with nowhere else to go. I started that about 15 years ago with one friend. It grew to 70 or 80 for a few years and is now back down to 30 or so (thank God!). It’s mostly friends with no family in town or those who are estranged from their families.”
Ric Goodwill, who grew up in a small New England town, recalls that same welcoming spirit. “Every year, someone in the neighborhood had a big party. It rotated among different houses, and we all went, children and adults. We always looked forward to that.”
Gloria Barrientos and her family, like many others, brought from Mexico the tradition of las posadas, which commemorates Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter and pays a festive homage to their journey.
“The kids dress up in costume and go door to door, like Mary and Joseph, asking if they can come in, and they sing the Christmas songs along the way. When my kids were small, I made them costumes, brown burlap for Joseph, blue satin for Mary, and there was an angel costume, too, and I found an old cane for my son to use as a staff. The kids always loved to do that.”
Carol Polancic Donahue, born into a big Croatian family in a small Illinois town, says what she remembers most is hospitality. “All day long on Christmas Day, the members of our family who lived in town came to our house. The doorbell kept ringing—it was very exciting for us kids to see all these people. My parents seldom drank, but every year before Christmas my father would bring home some bottles to serve to our guests, and I guess part of my memory is that on Christmas Day everything was a bit, well, louder than on other days.”
Such Christmas experiences, vividly recalled years later, help children understand who they are, not just as individuals, but as part of a family and community. So do other parts of the Christmas celebration, such as music and food, especially those that people pass down from their ethnic traditions. As someone whose childhood Christmas Eves were a time to clean the house, wash your hair, and wrap the presents, I listened with envy and awe as an Italian friend told me of the great feast shared by Italian families on that night. And because I like to bake, I love to sample the baked treats that are part of so many ethnic Christmas traditions—stollen, panettone, buñelos, gingerbread houses, Christmas cookies of every conceivable shape and decoration.
In Roseanna Ander’s childhood, Christmas cookies took on a special meaning because they were often the only Christmas presents the family had to give. “When I was growing up we were very poor. Some Christmases we had no money and no presents, which my mother explained to us very clearly wasn’t because we weren’t good children but because our family was poor.
“But even when we didn’t have presents, I remember that we baked these wonderful Christmas cookies. My mother would make sugar dough and color some red and some green and leave some alone. Then we would make some cookies to give away as presents and some for us. We used to do the most elaborate designs; we made them very beautiful, and I remember that people were very touched by those cookies. Of course by the time we got around to making cookies for ourselves, all our creativity was exhausted, so we just made them bits of red and green dough together. But still they tasted great!”
Even humbler foods can acquire special holiday significance. Patricia Lasley, asked for her favorite Christmas tradition, says, “My Aunt Cleo’s green Jell-O mold. She has been making it every Christmas holiday since I can remember. The original recipe came from a box of Jell-O, but she has perfected it. Last year she opted out of making it—she’s 80 now and has arthritis—so with her guidance I made the Jell-O mold. So the tradition will continue. And every one of my siblings, especially my sister, is jealous because I have the recipe!”
Unmi Song doesn’t have any specially developed traditions, but she does have a special condiment for the turkey—kimchee!—the spicy pickled and seasoned vegetables that are the national dish of Korea. “It’s hard for our family to have a meal without kimchee, and we’ve found that it’s as good (or better) than cranberry sauce for complementing the turkey, which we eat with chopsticks,” she says.
Another friend, who is a writer, carries on a Christmas tradition that puts food right at the center of the family story: “I usually write a poem that tries to mention everyone in the family and pick up on last year, as well as wherever we happen to be spending the holiday. Santa Claus gets lost somehow but found again, and my mother’s lemon meringue pie usually has something to do with saving the day—it was the only thing she ever baked that was foolproof, and it has become legendary.”
As in this family, sharing stories is another central part of Christmas traditions. The Christmas gospel is probably the most-loved narrative in scripture, and many other stories that have grown up around it are cherished as well. Our family has celebrated Christmas Eve with the same friends for many years; each year, their son chooses a Christmas reading and everyone takes a part. When my son was too small to read, he was given a bell to ring at critical moments in Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which he did on cue with glee and gusto.
Debbi Gillespie’s family reads a Christmas story together throughout the season. “It started when my daughter was younger, as a way to get her settled down on Christmas Eve. One of her Christmas gifts was always a Christmas storybook. She got to open this gift on Christmas Eve. At first, the book was the kind that could be read in one sitting, and I would read her to sleep. As she got older, we started the family reading: one chapter a night when we can work it in, taking turns reading, culminating in the last chapter on Christmas Eve.”
Tradition then and now
Gillespie’s story points out an important, if paradoxical, element of Christmas traditions. In some ways they’re the same from year to year—but they’re always changing. Children grow up, generations change, new people come into the family and community, and people encounter the old Christmas story again and again in each new age.
Living tradition has always been an important belief of Catholic Christianity. Indeed, it was one of the defining differences of the 16th-century Reformation: Protestants sought to strip away abuses and superstitions accumulated over centuries and to return to a faith based strictly on the revealed Word of God, while Catholics insisted that church tradition was also an authentic source of faith. Great theological battles were fought over these distinctions, often ending in bloodshed. Protestants created new, more austere forms of belief and worship, while Catholics elaborated even more complex stories and rituals.
In more recent years, Western Christian churches have come closer together in their understanding of the role of tradition as the lived experience of the church proclaiming and experiencing the gospel. As Anglican scholar Andrew Chandler says, “It is in the nature of authentic Christian faith that we live and worship as part of that great fabric of past insight and practice, present ideals, and future expectation, which we call the communion of saints. And that community is never static, but always moving, not least because it lives inescapably within a world of unfolding time….The value of tradition lies in our belief that we can listen to each other through the ages and move together as a transcendent body of faith.”
Baking the cookies, telling the stories, making the music, welcoming the traveler, feeding the poor—and in all this sharing our love and our faith with one another—these are all ways we participate in the Incarnation, the joy and hope of bringing our transcendent God into the human world each Christmas season.
This article appeared in the December 2000 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 65, No. 12, pages 29-32).