Christmas & My Tango With Traditions

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I love the idea of traditions just as much as the next person, and the warm and fuzzy feelings that word evokes in my heart. However I’ll admit that try as I might to establish and keep traditions, I’ve really struggled over the years with consistency. Which is a problem when you consider the fact that a tradition is all about consistency — right? If you aren’t consistent about it, can you really call it a tradition?

When I reflect on my own childhood, I realize my mother had the same challenges maintaining traditions in our family. I don’t imagine that it was easy in a family of eight children, with extended family living nearby who maintained traditions of their own that my parents often felt compelled to participate in.

When it comes to Christmas, we had several traditions that endured for a while but then faded as children got older. For example, most years we spent Christmas Eve with my step-dad’s family, and “Santa” (my uncle) showed up with a bag of gifts for us and our cousins, then we’d open family gifts from every uncle and aunt — one by one — until well past midnight. It was certainly all about the gifts, and in years when my parents were struggling financially, it was extremely stressful and burdensome.

All grown up: My family and my sister Cristina’s family (at right) with my Mom and sister Bethany during one of our post-Christmas gatherings.

As we got older, my mom desired for us to focus more on the “reason for the season” and less on the gifts, but her attempts were met with a lot of resistance. Not just from the younger kids, which was to be expected, but my step-dad as well — seeing as the gift-centric traditions came from his family. We tried different approaches over the years, such as skipping Christmas Eve gift time with his family altogether and attending a church service instead, baking Christmas treats for family members instead of buying token gifts, and once we even sang Christmas carols at a nursing home while handing out wrapped bibles to the residents. But nothing ever stuck.

Looking back now, I can completely relate to where my mom was coming from — and I’m disappointed in myself as the eldest child in the family not to have been more understanding and supportive of her efforts. Today, my struggles with Christmas traditions in my own family are very similar.

Being the only sibling in my family born from my mom’s first marriage, I have the added challenge of having another family competing for our attention around the holidays: My birth dad’s family. And that family is also divided between his father and mother, who have been divorced since he was just a toddler and aren’t on speaking terms. That makes at least three different family celebrations to attend in a span of 24 hours around Christmas Day. Oh, and did I mention they are all in California — and we live in Colorado?

Spending Christmas Eve with my dad, his dad and my half-sister Marel.

Needless to say, Christmases have been hectic and completely non-traditional over the years that we’ve attempted to pack up all our children — and a load of gifts — and spend it in California with my family. We’ve had Christmas dinners in hotel banquet rooms and restaurants. We’ve opened gifts around a mini Christmas tree in hotel suites and had to pack large toys into extra luggage purchased specifically to get it home on an airplane. We’ve driven from San Diego (where my Grandma lived) all the way up to the central coast (where my mom lives) in the same day to eat two different Christmas dinners — it’s a 5 1/2 hour drive. You get the picture.

We also take a huge financial hit: Each of these trips, whether we drive or fly, costs us in the thousands. When you add up travel expenses, gift expenses, meals out, trips to local attractions like Disneyland (which we’ve done a couple of times while there), it’s a significant investment. Christmas is not only mostly about gifts, but about cramming as much California fun as we can into one week. Talk about holiday stress! As much as I love my family and spending time with them — and I know how disappointed they are when we don’t travel out — we’ve determined that it’s a tradition we can’t always keep up with, especially if all signs point to staying home.

Opening gifts with my husband’s family on Christmas Day 2002: Audrey’s playing the drums while her cousins chime in.

One year we decided to spend Christmas with my husband’s family in Oklahoma, and although they don’t often gather as an extended family for the holidays, this year our visit brought everyone together. Our family, the families of my husband’s two sisters, and his parents all under one roof. It was delightfully stress free and fun, and we enjoyed participating in my sister-in-law Rosanna’s Christmas traditions, but one thing was still missing. We still didn’t have our own family traditions to share.

Which brings me to my mission this year: Establish Christmas traditions that are meaningful to our family and mostly repeatable no matter where we actually end up on Christmas Day. When it comes to traditions we’ve attempted over the years or picked up from others, we’ll keep the ones that are meaningful to our family and let go of the rest.

One request from the girls this year is to make a new nativity scene.

I also realized that homeschooling gives us the freedom to incorporate Christmas fun into our everyday learning. I have my sister-in-law Rosanna to thank for that idea (see her post about Rethinking the Holiday Session). Rather than continuing our traditional school days right up until our designated “Christmas break,” which is what I did last year, we will be incorporating Christmas celebration and themes into our daily school activities. And while I want to have lots of fun with the girls and enjoy more family bonding time, I also want to take the focus off the commercialism and put it back where it belongs — celebrating the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ.

So that’s the plan: Whether we accomplish it or not, only time will tell. But it’s my prayer that as I turn this project over to the Lord and ask Him to guide our family during this time, traditions will be born that not only stand the test of time, but bless others as much as they bless us. May our family’s actions bring more glory to Him and reflect His light in a time when most people completely miss the point.

Have you ever struggled with establishing or maintaining your own family traditions at Christmas? What traditions have stuck with you? Have any of your traditions changed or been influenced by homeschooling?

Stay tuned: This month I will chronicle some of our new traditions as they unfold throughout our Christmas celebrations. And in case you’re wondering, we are not attempting a California Christmas this year!

2 thoughts on “Christmas & My Tango With Traditions

  1. Your comments are right on the mark! We have all had this issue at one point or another. One of the ways we solved the gift problem is that no one in our family who is over the age of 18 gets a gift. Instead we all get together in one house and contact any who cannot over the internet. We have also gone to help others as a valued part of the season. We help pass out food boxes for a Crisis Center, gather warm clothing for the homeless, and make sure the local food bank has enough food to pass out so all will have good meals.

    One of the Christmas’s that my older children remember the best is the year we were all basically broke and so we made gifts. Even the children got into baking cookies and coloring special cards. My oldest son still has the card his little sister made for him and that was 30 years ago. Do what feels right for your children and everyone else just needs to get into the spirit!

    1. Thanks for your feedback Chris! I love the idea of getting family involved in service and giving. I know that our girls would love that and we are already looking for opportunities to do that locally this year, and I hope that someday we can share that with family in CA when we do actually visit them at Christmas time.

      There were a few years in there when I was younger that the extended family attempted the “no gifts for 18 and over” or “drawing names,” but it didn’t work out because some ended up buying gifts for their “favorite” family members anyway and it became very awkward. I think those years are when I really started to see why my mom wanted us to change our ways first, so maybe it could rub off on some of those gift-focused family members!

      We also love making gifts, and now that my older two daughters can really be involved in that, we have bigger plans to make lots of gifts this year. I am really looking forward to that process and giving gifts from the heart!

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