December 21, 2006


Photo Credit.

The reason was simple. One year when my brother was little, he tore open all his Christmas gifts within two minutes, asked, “Is that it?!” and burst into tears. My Mom vowed to find a better way to celebrate Christmas. Like a magpie she borrowed shiny traditions from all over the world and assembled them into a cozy set of events for her family.

Here’s the Body Part Family Christmas Manifesto.

  • Christmas began the first Sunday of Advent.

  • St. Nicholas Day is December 6th.

  • OTRsis has a birthday on Dec. 10th. Birthday kid picks the restaurant for dinner.

  • Every day of Advent we pinned up a handmade felt decoration to the Advent calendar Mom made.

  • To decorate the Christmas tree, each kid selected from their box of St. Nicolas decorations. My favorite year was when each of us received a character from the Wizard of Oz; I loved my Dorothy decoration.

  • We set out two Nativity sets. One was a traditional Germanic one of ivory colored ceramic. Mom added various kitschy characters: Winnie the Pooh, Humpty Dumpty, a knight on his steed. The other Nativity set was made of little wooden people handpainted by OTRmama, my Mom’s friend. We had a black Mary and a white Joseph. Joseph held the baby, of course.

  • On Christmas Eve we opened one gift after the evening church service.

  • Christmas Day we unpacked our stockings and opened one other gift. Then we went to church and had nothing to say while the other kids boasted of their loot. “Um…I got an orange. Like Laura Ingalls on the prarie?”

  • For the next 12 days we opened a numbered white envelope to discover the day's family activity. The Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo. Go downtown and visit the model trains at CG&E. Tour other neighborhoods' Christmas Lights. Visit someone at the nursing home. Go to a movie. Open a gift.

  • January 6th was Epiphany, or King’s Day. The tradition is that the Wise Men didn’t get to Jesus the night he was born. Christmas Day is the day for the shepherds and angels, while the Wise Men and their gifts arrived later. So, technically, gift giving should come after Christmas, not on the same day. This was the day we opened our big gift/s (which also allowed Mom and Dad to buy at excellent post-Christmas sales). That evening Mom threw a big open house and invited everyone we knew. She made 3 kings’ cakes. In each one was embedded a quarter. Whichever kid (or adult) found the coin in their slice was king for the day (or year, depending on one’s interpretation). Most of the kids gathered around while she cut open the cake, “That one! I got dibs!!” they would cry if they spotted a tiny gleam of silver. We crowned them with paper and sent them forth to lord it over the other guests.

Sometimes the tradition broke down, especially as we left for college. But we always got a St. Nicolas Day package, and Mom always had the King’s Day open house.

All this is wonderful while the tradition lover is alive and well. Since she died, we haven’t done much as a family to maintain it. Poor Mom, she always said she was the only thoughtful one in the family. The only one who made things happen. She was right. Every year I think I’ll do an Epiphany party, but for 7 years after she died, I was too depressed to deal with it. Instead of one day of feeling depressed about missing my Mom, I had a whole month.

I think that’s why our skipping Christmas feels like a relief. I don’t have to feel guilty for not living up to the tradition. I know though, if we ever have kids, I’d want to do it the way my Mom did. I loved having a Christmas filled with meaning and memories and I would want to pass that along. What are you trying to pass along this year? Did you family do anything quirky, or memorable? Or something that just makes you smile when you remember it?


Rachel said...

Honestly, I kind of miss the days when I could just show up for Christmas. Getting everything organized is so much work. Bah humbug!

I love your mother's traditions, but I also understand your impulse to stay home and just enjoy a quiet Christmas with your husband.

Anonymous said...

An excellent summary of the family traditions.
Bless you for sharing them. I know they will
bless others.

Some additions and corrections.

When your Brother was two, you were four. On Christmas eve, your Mother and I worked til 1:30 a.m. to get everything prepared perfectly for you and your Brother.

Then, you both woke us early on Christmas morning. We went down to the Christmas tree and I asked you to be Santa and pass out the gifts.

You were four and already could read. So, right away you spotted each of your two year-old Brother's presents and started handing them off as if you were an NFL quarterback.

He snatched each present and tore it open, glanced at the contents and tossed it aside. I think he had eight presents and had them open in about 80 seconds.

At the end of his demolition derby, he looked up and said, "Is that all there is?" And your Mother burst out crying.

She told me later, "We're never going to do this again! The standard Christmas is just training in greed. It tries to focus all the joy in one day. It doesn't work."

Your Mother was a liturgical enthusiast. She loved celebrations and knew well the historic liturgy of the Christian Churches. [Annually, she attended a liturgical conference.]

So, her remedy for the stupidities of American Christmas was to apply thoroughly the wisdom of Christian liturgy. This spread out Christmas to cover a whole month. Thus, our celebration made emotional and financial sense. Here was our
pattern for the Christmas season:

Advent: It begins four Sundays before Christmas
and is the beginning of the church year. You picture an advent wreath, and we had one at Church and sometimes at home. We lit another candle each Sunday.

Some years, we did an advent reading each day.
Or, at least, most days.

St. Nicholas Day: December 6.

About this time, we put up the Jesse tree. It was made from a branch from the woods in vacant lots two blocks away. We spray painted the branch white. Then we stood it on a table and hung the Jesse tree with symbols of Jesus' ancestors, the prophets and the disciples.

The symbols were on white 3 x 5 cards, cut into various shapes. I drew the symbols with a pen.


Two hay sheaves bowing to a central sheaf:
Joseph (in Genesis)
A burning bush in the shape of a menorah, with
nine branches: Moses.
An abandoned boat filled with stinking fish:

In contrast to our fun, but pagan Christmas trees, the Jesse trees were an educational experience that reminded us each year of our rich heritage in the Lord.

[December: The gift buying season in the U.S., when many department stores do a third of their
annual business. And the American public has been conned into buying the presents when the prices are at their highest level every year.]

December 22 - 24. Time to get either a free tree or one on sale, marked way down.

Christmas eve. Dec. 24.

Christmas day. Dec. 25.

Boxing Day. Dec. 26. English custom. You take
gifts to friends. Occasionally, we did this.

Dec. 25 to January 6. The twelve days of Christmas. While we sing about this, most people have no idea what we're singing about. Your Mother realized that spreading Christmas over nearly two weeks was a great way to reduce stress,
enjoy the season, and experience Christ in our lives.

We had twelve numbered envelopes on the Christmas tree, Each day we opened one. It gave us an instruction of what to do that day as a family. You listed examples in your blog.

The first week of January. Time to buy the big presents. From the prices highs of December in the stores, there are three sales:
The pre-Christmas sale, from Dec. 20th on.
The after-Christmas sale.
And then, the real sale -- after January 1 -- when the prices are really marked down. That's when we bought our big gifts.

No need to go into debt for Christmas.
No hassle with huge crowds and traffic jams.
We used the January check to buy the gifts at great

Epiphany. Twelfth Night. Kings' Day. January 6.
A really fun celebration, first with family, then with many friends.


We too have abandon the American Christmas chaos...Not missing a thing. Sounds like your mum left you with wonderful memories. Now that is the true meaning and spirit of Christmas.

bg's Little Sis said...

I love what she did for you. Thank you for sharing it, you've given me many ideas of how to start new traditions which is a focus for me this year. Thanks again and have a very Merry and quiet Christmas with JRex. Thanks to your Dad too for sharing the additional details. I was the picture of your Mother last Christmas with my son when he said something similar. We haven't changed much from what we've done in the past, but this year have focused more on family time and activities.

Inkling said...

Wow! Thank you for sharing. I love the traditions, and it's so special that you have such exquisite memories. You will be in my thoughts and prayers this Christmas season, as I know you are still missing your mom. She gave you such a beautiful heritage. Thank you again for sharing a portion of it with us.

Beloved said...

Wow--those traditions are amazing. My mother also tried to emphasize the Christian aspect of Christmas so we had many of the same traditions you've described (Advent calendar, cake with 3 beans inside, Advent wreath, etc.) but we also indulged in the big day of ripping open way too many packages.

I would definitely want to prolong the fun and fanfare someday if I have kids.

OTR sister said...

T loves the 12 days of Christmas. We just started it up again last year and he now is the force behind it.

I did my first King's Day party last year and I'm really not motivated to do another one this year. Problem is, I stress about parties so much that it takes the relaxation out of my vacation. Maybe I will make the sweet bread and just invite a few friends.

I like Mom's traditions but, like her, I think we have to pick and choose what works for us.