Some of these are things I grew up with, some are things Jonathan grew up with and some are things we’ve both mutually decided to adopt as our own. All are things we hope will turn into treasured memories for our daughter. ^_^
1. Decorate the house on Black Friday
Jonathan laughs at me because I call Thanksgiving “Christmas Season Eve”. The day after Thanksgiving, after I’ve joined the unruly mobs in the mad shopping rush, I like to quite literally deck the halls. I pull out garlands to hang over the doors and windows, pine cones, Christmas candles, potpourri, Santa decorations, mini light up village houses – the works! Christmas shouldn’t happen but once a year, it should span a whole month of the year!
2. Play Christmas music
I believe music is good for the soul, so I usually always have music playing as ambiance in our home. But come Christmas-time, I like to switch the music over to holiday selections. For hanging out music, I like to play old school big band Christmas music – Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, etc. But my FAVORITE background, ambiance music for the holidays is Celtic Christmas music. There is just something about Celtic drums and flutes that puts me in the holiday spirit more than anything else on this list!
3. Hang mistletoe
Mistletoe was often hung over the entrances to homes of the pagans in Scandinavian countries to keep out evil spirits. An old Scandinavian myth tells of the seemingly invulnerable god, Balder, who was struck down by a dart made from mistletoe. The tears of his mother, Frigga, became the white berries of the mistletoe, and it was decreed that the plant must never again be used as a weapon. Frigga, who was the goddess of love, henceforth gave a kiss to anyone who passed under the mistletoe. It is from this legend that our present custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
Later, in an attempt to redeem the Winter Solstice celebrations for Christ, among Christians the mistletoe came to symbolize the healing powers of Christ. While I am fascinated by the history, and impressed by the contortions to claim this tradition for Christ, I am mostly interested in a fun and quirky custom to install in our house during the holidays to ensure there are lots of kisses under doorways in December. ^_^
I used to drive out to the Kings River with my family growing up in Central California to hang real live mistletoe (and some years we even sold it!), so if harvesting real, fresh mistletoe is an option, I’d like to get the real deal as a fun holiday outing with my kids.
4. Start an Advent Calendar for the kids
This is a tradition that neither of us grew up with, but that we want Tessa (and any future children) to know. I always thought of Advent Calendars as Catholic traditions and never gave them much thought.. but now, as a mom, I’m seeing the potential for sharing the Christ story in an exciting way for my kids.
Advent was originally a Latin word that translated into “the coming”. Advent was developed as the four week period before Christmas Eve to encourage Christians to reflect on the meaning of Christmas and prepare themselves spiritually for the coming New Year. It is believed that the Advent Calendar evolved from a German tradition of hanging up 24 small bags containing a treat or gift, which the children in the family got to open each day from December 1st to December 24th – Christmas Eve.
The most common Advent Calendar is usually a container with 24 boxes with little doors. On the first day of Advent, the first set of doors are opened and there will be a message to reflect upon for that day, along with a gift such as candy or a small trinket. The next day the second set of doors is opened, and on the third, etc., etc., providing a new message of hope and reflection every day up to Christmas Eve. This is a very good visual way for children to see and understand the passing of the days and be ready when Christmas finally arrives.
5. Pick out a real tree
The Druids in ancient England and Gaul and the Romans in Europe both used evergreen branches to decorate their homes and public buildings to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Something about celebrating life even in the dead of winter, and the anticipation of the resurrection of spring. Basically winter = death. Evergreen = defies death. You bringing an evergreen (life) into your home = Celebration of life in defiance of death. It’s quite easy to see how over the years, these traditions were adopted by Christians, who incorporated them as part of their Christmas holiday celebration of Jesus being born into a sinful world, triumphing over death and raising again, leading us to eternal life when we accept him into our hearts and homes. I personally think it’s a beautiful and powerful analogy.
But morality lesson aside, I enjoy the health benefits and environmentally friendly aspects of a real tree, and I love the smell of a fresh Christmas tree in the house! It’s a strong scent that no amount of holiday potpourri can mimic. I plan on making it a family outing – complete with hot cocoa and warm apple cider – to pick out a live Christmas tree every year. This year, we had the option of visiting a Christmas Tree Forest to cut down our own tree, and if that is available to us in the future, that’s the ideal annual Christmas tree hunt I want for our kids!
6. Putting the star on the tree
When I was little, I got tired of the same old Christmas star at the top of the tree. I started wanting fun alternative toppers I’d seen in magazines and at Disneyland. Why can’t we have a Tinkerbell topper? Or a snowflake? Well, now that I’m older, I’m happy we stuck with the Bethlehem Star. I think it will offer a great opportunity to go over the Scriptures and the Christ story with our children as we spend an evening decorating our Christmas tree. I’d like to read Matthew Chapter 2 and talk about the Bethlehem Star while decorating our tree each year.
Also, every year, my mom took a picture of my dad lifting each of us kids up to put the star on the top of the tree. It’s adorable and hilarious to see the years march on in photos, to where my dad is “lifting up” my brother (who is as tall as he is), to put the star on the tree. I want that for our kids as well!
7. Pick out gifts for the needy
One of the primary qualities I want to instill in my children is a spirit of charity and the joy of giving. And what better time than Christmas – the season of giving – to put this into practice? I’m not just talking about dropping coins into the Salvation Army boxes outside of shopping malls, but actual acts of goodwill toward fellow men.
Outreaches like Operation Christmas Child by Samaritan’s Purse get kids active and involved in sending tangible gifts to real children in need around the globe. In many cases the children receiving gifts write back – letting kids see exactly who they are helping, and how, and possibly giving them a penpal for life. While donating to worthy causes, extending goodwill, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and being a positive change in the world are qualities I want to instill in my family every day of the year, Christmas is a special time to drive this lesson home with the little ones!
8. Send out holiday cards
We started this tradition this year! I am a sucker for good old fashioned snail mail. Fair warning, if you send me a photo card in the mail, it will most likely be stuck on my fridge for forever. ^_^ Since sending out Tessa’s birth announcements in September, I have found that Walmarts photo lab offers the cheapest, quickest service and quality for the money when it comes to photo cards. And with partners like Hallmark, the prices ain’t too bad! (We got our cards and envelopes for a little under 50 cents each this year..)
9. Watch our favorite Christmas movies
Jonathan’s all time favorite Christmas movie: White Christmas.
My all time favorite Christmas movie: Muppet Christmas Carol.
It’s not Christmas till these movies play at least once.. or twice. Or a bazillion times. Whatever.
10. Hang up stockings
This is a tradition whose history has been lost to the ages. We understand that stockings were usually hung by chimneys to dry, back in the day when people only owned one to two pairs of socks and it was extremely important to dry them by the fire overnight. But why receive gifts in your stocking? That’s akin to opening your dryer to find presents from Santa. There’s a common story circulating around about St. Nick tossing gold in a stocking for some down and out girls to find, but it’s not verified as the real origin of this tradition. But what’s a holiday without a few misunderstood and ritualistic traditions?!
Growing up, we never had a fireplace. So the whole “hanging stocking by the chimney with care” never was an option for us.. but that didn’t deter us from leaving stockings out for Santa to find! We’d usually hang the stocking on our doorknobs, which made for some gut-twisting excitement come Christmas morning when we’d open our doors to hear the muffled thump of presents stuffed down our individual stockings.
My mom gave me my stocking, that I’ve used for years, and I’m still debating on whether I should continue to use it or buy all new matching stockings for our little family to use throughout the years. I’d like Tessa to have one stocking she uses and remembers year after year. Oh yeah, and our cats have a Christmas stocking too. 😉
11. Roast chestnuts on an open fire
So this one may not always be an option, I know. With the uncertainties of military life we many not have a chimney, or a backyard that we can put up a fire pit in. But when this option is available, I fully intend to spend an evening or two around the fireplace, or better yet, out in the cold, huddled around the warmth of a crackling wood fire and roasting chestnuts (and / or popping popcorn and roasting marshmellows). But I think part of Christmas is living out the beautiful Currier and Ives=esque holiday imagery wrought by the Christmas song lyrics written by Torme and Wells in 1946. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”
12. Make ornaments each year
This year I joined the ranks of mothers in the thralls of “Baby’s First Christmas” and we made our very first Christmas ornaments in the Freeman family (if you don’t count the paper origami X-Wing fighter ornaments Jonathan and I made for our very first Christmas together). While the kids are young I’m sure it will be more in the realm of salt dough and cookie cutters, but as the kids gain fine motor skills and dexterity, it will be fun to see the tree ornaments evolve through the years. Making new home-made DIY projects / ornaments with the kids to add to our tree decorations is a MUST.
13. Get matching pajamas for the kids on Christmas Eve
This is a tradition my mom has employed for some time now, and I somehow never noticed. The sensory memories of Christmas Eve and Christmas morning always include the warmth and comfort of fuzzy Christmas flannel pajamas. And I somehow never put it together that this was a “tradition” until I found myself eagerly expecting that early Christmas gift on Christmas Eve of new pajamas. Now, especially as a photographer and new mom, I see how awesome this functional gift is. Not only will it make the holidays comfortable and warm, but it will make gift opening on Christmas morning a veritable photoshoot. ^_^
14. Bake cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve
It’s believed that the tradition of leaving out cookies for Santa was started in the 1930s in America. With the Depression firmly in place, naughty children began leaving cookies out for Santa as a bribe while nice children left cookies as a token of gratitude. (Trust Americans to use material wealth to garner good results. Hey. You gotta spend money to make money, bro.)
Regardless, I think Christmas Eve will include some quality time as a family in the kitchen baking cookies for the children, and, of course, good old Saint Nick. Hopefully we’ll find and settle on an annual Freeman family Christmas cookie recipe soon!
15. Leave carrots for Santa’s reindeer in a wooden clog
This is another tradition I’m bringing from my family. I get a lot of my fascination with history and culture and tradition from my mother, who was (and is) a history geek.. like me! As a result, we liked to incorporate Christmas traditions from around the globe into our family, and this is one that happened to stick!
This tradition is derived from the Germanic / Scandinavian figure Odin. Children would place their wooden clogs, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Odin’s flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts or candy. This practice survived in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands after the adoption of Christianity and became associated with Saint Nicholas as a result of the process of Christianization.
I know it sounds silly, but this tradition resonated with me as a child, and struck a “showing-kindness-to-animals” nerve. You know the saying, “You can tell the nature of a man by the way he treats his horse?” I think the same can be said of children and how they treat the animals around them.. even the ones they never see, but highly anticipate each year. ^_^
16. Burning the Yule Log
A yule log is a large wood log (usually the stump of the Christmas Tree from the year before) which is burned in the hearth as a part of traditional Yule or Christmas celebrations in several European cultures. The practice derives from customs in 6th century Anglo-Saxon paganism in ancient fire festivals of the Winter Solstice. But, like most of our Christmas traditions, we’ve taken them, shaken em’ up, given them a Christian scrubbing and utilized them to retain all the fun of a good old fashioned pagan pow wow, but with the virtue of a sacred Christian past time.
Our family intends to employ the tradition of the Yule Log by saving the stump from last years Christmas tree, and burning it in the fire on Christmas Eve, spending time as a family reminiscing over the past year and talking about our hopes, our plans, how we’ve grown, how we’ve changed, and eagerly looking forward to a new year. Kind of like a New Years Eve Eve.
17. Ringing the Christmas bell
We had a tradition in my family, that the first person awake on Christmas morning had the pleasure of ringing the “Christmas Bell” to wake up the entire household. The giant, antique looking brass bell we always set out in an obvious and prominent place on the shelf, just sitting and staring at us in anticipation of Christmas morning. And oh my, the joy of waking up to that bell and the shouts of, “It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas!” promptly followed by jumping up and down on mom and dads bed. Or better yet, the joy of waking up, realizing the bell has not yet been rung, and urgently tiptoeing, heart pounding, to be the first to herald Christmas morning. I SO want that for my little Tessa!
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
18. Read the Birth Story
Since Jesus is ultimately the reason for the season, we plan on making it a tradition to read the birth story of Jesus in Matthew 1:18-24 and Luke 2:9-14 and pray as a family before we open a single present. As fun and exciting as giving and receiving gifts are, I want the joy that only comes from knowing and loving the Creator of our lives to permeate the room as we embark on our Christmas morning as a family!
19. Put baby Jesus in the manger
This is yet another tradition brought over from my family. Growing up we had a Nativity scene with a removable baby Jesus. All through December the manger would remain empty. But come Christmas morning, as the birth story is being read, one of us kids would have the honored task of putting baby Jesus in the manger.
The visual of the wise men and Mary and Joseph waiting in expectation is a good visual of a waiting world, anticipating the Lamb of God come to take away our sins. With the dawning of Christmas morning, and the visual of “unto us a child is born” is one that will stick with you, and one that I intend to bring into my home.
Problem is, it’s hard to find a Nativity with a removable Jesus. He’s always glued / welded / formed into the manger. We don’t have one this year, but next year! (I’m actually planning on hitting up the after Christmas day sales…)
20. Skype with family
With everyone being so far away, and the miracle of modern technology, there’s no reason not to share Christmas with loved ones! I want our kids to always have the tradition of Christmas Eve in their own beds, and Christmas morning in their own living room. So if visiting the grandparents on Christmas Eve or in the afternoon of Christmas Day isn’t an option, Skype will certainly be happening!
What Christmas traditions do you follow as a family? Anything that I don’t have listed here?