Creating Traditions

One of the great things about being a parent is being able to create your own holiday traditions: deciding what’s important to celebrate, how it will be celebrated, and when.  But, as fun as it is to be able to decide for ourselves, it’s also an awesome responsibility.Everything we do is building a memory for Nora and setting a foundation for the adult life she will live.

The last couple weeks I have been incredibly aware of that.  Even before Thanksgiving, trees were going up in town, wreaths were hung,and shop windows were decorated.Even isolated as we are from big-box retail and black Friday madness, we couldn’t miss the constant reminders of the commercialism behind Christmas. It really got me thinking about the holiday and what it means me, what it will mean to our family.

And as we were decorating our tree with the help of our favorite elf,I found myself wonder why we even celebrate Christmas at all.

I’ll pause for a moment to explain while you catch your breath.  I realize that might have been quite shocking to read.  But, neither Chris and I consider ourselves Christians, so we certainly aren’t celebrating the birth of Christ, and neither of us buy into the commercial, consumerism that is the other side of Christmas.  We’re not much for getting each other a ton of gifts – last year our gift was family pictures, this year our gift to each other is a New England Christmas dinner with my family.  So if not for the baby Jesus and if not for a pile of presents, then why?

Chris’ first response was that everyone else does it (really referencing our family and many of our friends, not everyone else in the world), and so that’s why we do.  But that’s not good enough for me.  We don’t do any other thing “just because everyone else does it,” so why this?  I want to be able to explain it to Nora when she asks someday, and if the words “well, everybody else is doing it” ever come out of my mouth I will officially fail at parenting.  Then, of course, I would never be able to use the line, “if Johnny/Sarah/Bobby/Susie jumped off a bridge would you jump too?”  And I’m saving that line up for a really good, stereotypical parenting moment.

So we decorated the tree, listened to Christmas music, and had an incredibly serious discussion about traditions and our family — which may sound dull, but it was actually a wonderful evening.  That is one of my favorite things about my marriage.

Chris’ point, expanding on his original idea, is that it’s a tradition in both of our families and he has fond memories of the experience that he wants to pass down to Nora.  If we didn’t celebrate Christmas, he’s not really sure how it would work if visiting our families during the holidays.  And he doesn’t want to be the soulless house.

I’m more concerned about the implications of celebrating a Christian holiday when we aren’t Christian: which for most people just turns it into the holiday of stuff.  I don’t want to celebrate stuff.  And though I forced poor Nora to sit on Santa’s lap last week (before all this had really started brewing), I’m becoming increasingly disenchanted by the whole concept of “gifts for merit” that Santa represents.  If you’re good you’ll get presents, if you’re bad…  Nora should get gifts because we love her and she is an important member of the family and because we want to make her happy.  I don’t think she has to earn them; if she has to earn them, they aren’t gifts.  I definitely don’t want to be the parent who threatens my kid if she’s misbehaving with Santa not coming.  So, I don’t even know if I want to do Santa.

We talked for a long time and we resolved some things:  Not having an excessive focus on gifts is something we both agree on;  we would rather do something together or spend some money on something jointly than have a pile of stuff under a tree.  Neither of us plan to create an elaborate rouse to convince her of Santa’s existence;  we’ll read her The Night Before Christmas and give her a few stocking gifts, but we aren’t going to make a big deal about Santa coming and when time comes that she asks, we’ll tell her the truth (exact wording TBD).  And we’ll continue to tell our family that they don’t have to get us anything, as we did this year.

But there are other things we’re still not sure of, such as what we’re going to tell her about the holiday’s meaning to us, how we’re going to handle future family visits, and do we really need to kill a tree?Even if it does look really pretty in our living room?

I don’t want to be a grinch.  There are things I love about the holiday – getting together with family, having a big meal and tons of deserts, the anticipation leading up to the special day…but none of that says Christmas, so I’m torn. (Maybe we could just have two Thanksgivings.)   Or maybe I need to think lessand believe a little more.

What holidays do you celebrate in your family and why?

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12 responses

  1. Margarete Cassalina Avatar
    Margarete Cassalina

    Once again your writing is proof you are a FABULOUS mother! You think, you question and you take being a parent seriously.
    xoxo Happy “Believe”!

    1. Thank you, Margarete, that means so much coming from you. Love you!

  2. I loved reading this, Amber. Your blog entry actually gave me a pang of “wish Amber lived near enough to chat over coffee”.

    I’ve had very similar soul-searching reflections upon tradition since Violet was born, and feeling both excitement and responsibility about having the freedom to formulate traditions. I kind of wish Charlie and I had these conversations when I was pregnant with Violet, but during that time we were settling my mother’s estate, caring for my grandmother, then taking care of her estate as she died during my pregnancy, and moving! So there was little time to talk about “what our family represents”. Like you, I find conversations like that absolutely satisfying, and when we have them, I feel so content and in sync with Charlie.

    So for us, as non-Christians who love Solstice and Santa, I get very excited about the natural world during this time of year, and I decided to tap into that wonder to help build the foundation for our family’s holiday traditions (year-round, really).

    I find myself becoming inexplicably joyful to “get into the holiday spirit” around here. To me, it’s another dimension of how we build our nest. So how we decorate, the foods we eat during this time, what’s special and unique about the foods and treats, the discoveries of winter, snow, and more. And above all else, the tree has come to symbolize tradition, memories, and magic. We have inherited my mom’s artificial tree, which – despite my occasional longing for a fresh-cut tree – I talked my mother into buying the artificial tree so she wouldn’t kill trees every Christmas, and she took it very seriously, so now I try to honor that conversation she and I had so many years ago. When we unpack the ornaments each year, I always experience a tingle of magic when I find the very antique glass ornaments from 2-3 generations ago, and I have become straight-up sentimental about the ornaments I made as a child, that my mom made for the tree, and the ornaments that were favorites of family members for various reasons. I’ve got Mom’s ornaments, and it feels like I am bringing my mom into our house more than any other time of the year, thanks to our family history and holiday traditions.

    We put up the Christmas tree and our decorations over Thanksgiving weekend, as a tradition. And typically, as an informal tradition, we take it all down the first full weekend after New Year’s day.

    My homegrown family tradition is “12 days of Christmas”. I started this last year as a way to extend the family holiday celebration. The nicest thing about this (aside from our family doing something specific together every day, which is cool) is that it’s flexible. We can do whatever we decide to do, but every year, we’ll do *something* every day for the 12 days leading up to and including 12/24. Within that window of time, we get to celebrate Yule, which is possibly my favorite holiday.

    During this time, Violet and I will do something fun together each day, from baking to cookie decorating to pinecone hunting in the woods to Yule log hunting, to ornament making, etc. You get the drift. Each day or evening we’ll enjoy either a holiday treat in the form of a baked treat, a seasonal beverage, or a special dinner. We will do at least one family outing too.

    I am with you on the Santa thing, and yet I love the magic of Santa coming to bring gifts during the night. I’m so not into using Santa as a behavioral modificant, so I’m of the mindset not to ever use that either (heaven help me to not go there!). My feeling about Santa is the magic, and if elves are building toys, they would probably be made of natural materials. So last year Santa brought a wooden play stove and a wooden crayon caddy. I hope to keep this tradition up for a while. However, it occurred to me today that some kids may give her conflicting information about Santa, like maybe Santa brings Wii to kids in some houses, and maybe he leaves a favorite pair of shoes. Don’t know how to handle that, but I’ll have at least another year or two to think about that. *giggle*

    I think that the bottom line is that traditions become a living piece of family history, and carry within them the love and feelings of comfort that being together with family (hopefully) brings.

    Happy holidays to you, Chris, and Nora! I know she’s going to love whatever traditions you guys grow within your family.


    1. Thanks for sharing your traditions, Marnie. I, too, wish we were still closer and could get together to chat! I think our families and mindsets are similar in so many ways, and it’s reassuring to see that there are ways to mix a family tradition of Christmas with non-mainstream personal beliefs. I love the 12 days of Christmas idea! It’s sounds like a fun way to encourage family togetherness. I do think that conflicting reports of Santa (who he is, what he brings, and why) are part of what I question about him. We could easily skip the part about him making lists of good and bad kids when we tell her about him here, but she’s going to hear it from other children, from other grown-ups, in Christmas music…I guess it’s a good example of how we have to teach our kids about differences of opinion and tolerance. How you approach different gifting practices, I have no idea…

  3. PS – I love the pic of Nora with Santa! I sent one out that I paid a lot of $ for when Violet was 2 and she cried the whole time, but a photo that was captured was when she had a moment of non-crying. You can see the tears welled up in her eyes, so I wrote on the back of the picture “Christmas 2009: Not Into Santa.” I figured someone would get a laugh out of it. I won’t force her onto Santa’s lap this year. Sigh.

  4. Lauren Relyea Avatar
    Lauren Relyea

    Well, we’re Christian. So we celebrate Christian holidays with the focus on the meaning behind the Christian holidays. I hope when our children are a little older we can focus more on service during Christmastime and on sacrifice during Easter. I think we’ll do some of the other non-religious aspects of those holidays, but it’s our goal that those aspects would be peripheral to the religious observation. That said I do want to remember and enjoy some of the traditions I had growing up in non-religious family.

    We are examining and discussing non-Christian holidays as they come around each year and whether or not we’ll celebrate those and if so, how we’ll celebrate them. Halloween is the most controversial in our house. Our two year old dressed as a princess and went trick or treating this year. I’m in favor of it as a fun night of make believe. My husband is concerned about celebrating or making light of evil. There’s scripture about being in the world but not being of the world. We are trying to figure out what that looks like.

    I respect and appreciate that you are approaching parenting and life with such thought and care. I wish more people would follow your lead.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Lauren. I think it’s great that you try to put the focus more on giving back and the Christian meaning rather than the secular traditions. I think many people lose sight of the true meaning of the holiday; the fact that I’m aware of the meaning, and that Christmas does mean a lot more to me than just the secular traditions, is a large part of what makes me hesitant to celebrate it. As a kid, one of my favorite things was to go with my dad and step-mom to the Christmas Eve service at our church. I loved the candles and the Christmas carols. Now, I find myself wondering if it is disrespectful, in a way, to remove Christ from Christmas – almost as though I’m making light of something that means so much to so many people. Along the same lines, I have no idea what we’ll do about Easter.

      Halloween is interesting. I’ve heard that same thing from other people, and even from a non-Christian standpoint I can understand parents/individuals taking issue with a large number of the costumes that exist. I’m constantly reminded that no matter where you stand on issues, parenting is a tricky, tricky thing.

      1. Lauren Relyea Avatar
        Lauren Relyea

        On a somewhat related note (at least the two blogs connected in my mind), my dear, sweet friend Holli wrote about Santa:

  5. I think christmas is about forcing as many family members into one house as you can and finding some way to laugh about it without killing anyone : )

    I think if the christmas services were important to you, you should take nora when she’s 5 or 6. I think she’d really love the peace that comes with those services, even if you don’t beleive in the person. You can gain peace from all sorts of meditations, and christmas eve service is a meditation : )

    I think the american santa is a creepy old pedifile, and I want no part of him. classic european santa, pretty cool guy, way less creepy. I do not intend to have santa at our house, though i do LOVE the idea of putting food out. maybe squirrel food for us : ) (although we did have squirrels in the attic recently, i guess i shouldn’t encourage them!)

    1. We are planning to expose her to church and religion, more than just on major holidays, too. Both Chris and I feel strongly that she needs a foundation from which she can make her own choices about religion, and neither or us feel qualified to teach her 100% on our own. I also think there is a lot to be said for the community aspects of church/temple/mosque and organized religion.

      1. I agree. the community is mostly what i go for, b/c there aren’t any churches that subscribe to my version of christianity : ) I love how supportive and helpful the people are though, and I enjoy being supportive and helpful as well. I think that’s great.

  6. I love this post! I’ve been thinking about much the same kind of stuff over the past few weeks. I am a Christian but certainly not in the traditional sense… I guess ‘Christian’ is the closest to what I am but I haven’t yet found a church in which I feel we are all talking about the same God.

    So yes, I do celebrate Jesus at Christmastime (even though evidence suggests he was actually born in September, not December…) but for me and my family, Christmas is more about getting together with family, eating good food, playing games and generally having a great time with everyone. It’s a great excuse for everyone to get together and enjoy each others’ company.

    As for Santa… well, we’ve decided not to lie to our kids about him. We’ll teach them about the various Christmas traditions all over the world, and talk about the magic of Christmas, but there’s no way I’m ever going to make my boys feel like they have to be ‘good’ to get presents. I HATE that.

    Presents… well, we’ve got little presents for our family and kids but 90% of them have been purchased from charity shops. It’s amazing what lovely, individual and unique things you can find that cost practically nothing and support a charity. I recently posted about Christmas and how much the consumerism bothers me – The True Meaning of Christmas

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