When they are all grown up, sitting by the fire and gazing upon their own family as they hang ornaments on the Christmas tree, what will your children’s favorite Christmas memories be?
With four little boys at home, I think about this question often. I want my kids to have a wonderful Christmas experience, but it feels like I only get so many chances to get it right before they are all grown up. Sometimes Christmas feels like I’m racing against the clock.
Winning the Christmas Race
My wife and I have spent hours discussing these feelings and we have come to two conclusions:
1) We want our children to have an incredible Christmas experience.
Christmas is an easy time to treat the least important things in life like the most important. Food, music, decorations, parties, and presents are all good things, but the wise person knows that an incredible Christmas experience is deeper than all that. It’s a season of generosity, of love, of kindness and goodwill, of expectation, of hope. Christmas is a time of year when the whole world seems like a better place and I want my kids to have a rich and exceptional experience of this time.
2) Our traditions unlock that experience.
It is our traditions which unlock the full potential of this season. It was my wife who pointed this out when she said, “It’s not about being able to remember the smell of my grandma’s kitchen on cookie-baking day. It’s not about being able to feel the flour and dough on my hands. It’s about the feeling I get when I close my eyes and go back to those moments. Without that tradition it’s just a memory. But with the tradition, it’s like I get to go back in time.”
Traditions unlock the deeper and more meaningful experience we want for our children.
I want to share with you how my wife and I build traditions into our Christmas experience to be sure that no part of Christmas slips through our fingers. I will share a few of the specific traditions we practice in my house, but the category is the most important thing. Use the category to build your family’s experience to fit your unique personality, desires, and state in life.
Let’s dig in.
Category 1: Family Traditions
Can you imagine what it feels like to watch my eight-year-old son put his hand on his younger brother's shoulder, look him in the eye, and tell him he loves him and that he loves being his brother? Then imagine watching my younger son ignore the present his older brother is trying to give him, because all he wants to do is give him a bear hug.
Family traditions connect us to the ones we love in a special way during this time of year.
One of our family traditions is affirming each other when we give gifts. Each person draws another family member's name out of a hat, and then gives them their gift. But before they hand over the gift, they share what that person means to them, why they love them, and what they admire in them.
Family traditions connect us to the ones we love in a special way during this time of year. Some of you will have inherited these family traditions from your own childhood. This is a beautiful thing. But you can also build new family traditions that are meaningful to you.
Spending time one-on-one with my boys while we shop for gifts for their mom is another family tradition I’ve only started in the last couple of years. Nothing beats spending time with my boys. And the only thing that is just as good as spending time with all four of them is getting to spend time with them one-on-one. Just two of us. Undivided attention.
Last year my son and I were walking through a department store at the mall when he saw a holiday spatula in the housewares department. The spatula was red and painted on one side like Santa Claus. As soon as he laid eyes on it he knew he had to have it for his mom. He smiled with pride as he took out a few dollars from his wallet and paid for it himself. When he got home he didn’t want to wait until Christmas morning to give it to her. Now it’s the only Christmas decoration that stays out all year round in my house. It doesn’t matter if it is the Fourth of July—you can come over and find a Santa Claus spatula in our kitchen.
Frankly, these family traditions are the most beautiful part of Christmas for us. No question. Take some time and write down, right now, the family traditions that are most important to you and your Christmas experience.
Category two: Faith Traditions
Every night leading up to Christmas we ask the kids at dinner what good deeds they have done that day, and for each good deed each child gets a piece of yarn. After dinner, we gather around our nativity set, and the kids put their pieces of yarn into the manger. Throughout Advent their good deeds are building Jesus a nice comfortable place to rest when he gets here on Christmas.
Our faith traditions keep us centered on the deeper meaning of Christmas.
You should see the kids at dinner. Their faces light up as they try to recount all the good things they’ve done that day. They talk over one another, hands raised, eager to share. It’s hard to get them to stay at the table long enough to eat, because all they want to do is add their yarn to the manger.
Our faith traditions keep us centered on the deeper meaning of Christmas. We remember that the season is more than just a holiday, and what is happening is deeper than gifts and food and lights and sounds. One of the best resources I’ve discovered to help me stay centered during the Christmas season is Best Advent Ever. I get a quick email every morning that helps me stay centered so I have a great Christmas experience. I couldn’t recommend it more.
The Advent of Christmas (CD)
by Matt Maher
Another one of our nightly rituals is more like a game. I ask a simple question: What are you most grateful for? We go around and around sharing our answers and see who can keep going the longest. Some of the answers get very silly, and others are very touching, but all of them are helping build a mindset into my kids at Christmas: gratitude. Selfishness is a plague that eats away at the true meaning of Christmas. But it’s hard to be selfish and grateful at the same time.
The happiest families have a tendency to keep things in perspective, and this is especially true at Christmas. They know what is really important, they know what is really not important, and they don’t often get the two confused. Make a list. What is most important to you during the Christmas season, and what is just a distraction? What traditions could help you focus on just those most important things?
Category Three: Christmas Traditions
At the beginning of Advent my wife wraps up a bunch of Christmas books and sticks them under the tree. Each night the kids take turns picking out a book for us to read. I sit in my big brown comfortable easy chair, the boys climb into my lap, and we read the book together. The books aren’t anything special—just the classics—but the boys sprint to the tree when it is their turn to pick out the book and they rip open the paper to discover which one they are going to get.
Christmas traditions are the favorite song, or favorite movie, or the special way you decorate the tree, or the specific light show you go see that serve like the icing on the cake of your Christmas experience. These traditions are tried and true. They aren’t what Christmas is all about, but they are like the soundtrack behind the most wonderful time of the year.
Christmas cookies are a really important Christmas tradition to both my wife and me, but for very different reasons.
Growing up, my wife’s family had a massive annual Christmas cookie baking day. Her entire family (mom, sisters, aunt, cousins) would go over to Grandma’s house to spend an entire day baking batches upon batches of dozens of different kinds of Christmas cookies. There were always three or four different cookies being worked on at once. It was a daylong affair. And, by the end, the house would be covered in hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of cookies.
But Christmas cookies in my house were very different. Why? Because to me there is absolutely only one Christmas cookie: Great-grandma Malthaners’ Christmas sugar cookies with homemade icing. This was the one and the only Christmas cookie in my house growing up. And it is absolutely not Christmas until we’ve had these.
So our boys get the best of both worlds. They get what is (in my humble but correct opinion) the greatest Christmas cookie of all time, and they also get the excitement of a Christmas cookie smorgasbord.
We have dozens of little traditions like this. They infuse the season with laughter and joy, love and warmth. They connect us to Christmas’ past. They remind us where we come from, make us feel like children again, and create experiences our children will remember for a lifetime.
Use your Christmas traditions to give weight to your Christmas experience. Write down the Christmas traditions that give texture to your memories. Is it singing carols? Or a food? Or a special event? Or a book? Write down these traditions so you and your children can enter into a rich Christmas experience year after year.
So there you are. Three categories of traditions that are essential to an incredible Christmas experience for your family. The traditions I shared are just a sampling of how my family keeps centered on the most important things during this time of year. Now it’s your turn.
What family Christmas traditions will you choose in each of the categories?