Last night, I helped my mother-in-law decorate her Christmas tree. She used a fake one this year, which, in a way, made things easier because we could bend branches in directions you just can’t achieve in a real tree. (In a real tree, you more or less have to live with what you get when it comes to branch placement.) My mother-in-law commented that this was the first time she ever allowed someone to help her decorate her tree, which made me feel honored. Later, over pizza, I mentioned I had gotten a real tree earlier that day but was going to wait until Christmas Eve to decorate. She asked why.
“Because it’s not Christmas yet,” I replied–and got a blank stare in reply, prompting me to explain about Advent.
It put me in mind about Christmas traditions. Not the religious sort, but family traditions, like Mom being the only person allowed to decorate the tree. I still remember our Christmas traditions, which, like many family Christmas traditions, were born of practicality.
On December first, we went to our local tree farm to select the Christmas tree. My dad received his disability check from Veterans Affairs on the first. We always had money on the first of the month, if only for a few hours. In December, those few hours were spent at the tree farm with its rows upon rows of firs. Every year, one of us would pick out the tree. Naturally, Adam and I always squabbled over who did it last year. Dad would steer us away from the nine foot tall Goliaths while our mother reminisced about the Christmas trees of her youth. Eventually, a tree would be chosen, cut down, and carted home.
This was before I switched religious affiliations, so there was no problem about decorating the tree at the beginning of December. If I recall correctly, our mother decorated the tree, not because she felt only she could do it but because decorating seemed too much like work for us. The fun part ended after watching a tree get cut down, so Adam and I would wander off to do other things. But we all gathered to see the tree lit up for the first time and our mother would turn the lights on before going to bed every night of December. I remember slipping into the living room late at night to sit in front of the tree and stare at the lights. The way the glow of the red, green, and yellow bulbs filled the room felt sacred. I still can’t explain why.
The house would be decorated in Christmas cards from that year and years past. My mother had a collection of Santa-themed coasters that she taped to the walls. Mistletoe would be hung from one of the doorways. Our parents would stand under it and kiss while my brother and I yelled, “EWWWWW!”
On Christmas Eve, Adam and I were allowed to open one gift each. This wasn’t some nice little tradition our parents came up with because it would be cute. It was purely to get us to go to bed with a minimum of whining.
The next morning, we opened gifts according to age, with the youngest going first. Again with the practicality. I guess our parents didn’t want pure chaos and wanted to be able to take pictures of us opening our gifts. Then we’d pack up and head over to our grandparents. Within a day or two after Christmas Day, the tree would be taken down. Our mother was very adamant about the tree being down before New Year’s. I think it was a superstition she grew up with, that it was bad luck to have a tree from the old year up during the new year. (The whole “in with the new, out with the old” thing, I guess.)
Years passed, things got darker and poorer and, bit by bit, many of those Christmas traditions died. We stopped visiting the tree farm as a family. I think it became too expensive. One of my parents would pick up a tree from Piggly Wiggly or somewhere else. Sandra, our mother, stopped putting up the coasters and cards. There was no mistletoe.
When I moved out on my own, I was desperate for Christmas traditions. My first Christmas tree was a potted Norfolk Island Pine that I bought at Piggly Wiggly. It was a Charlie Brown Christmas tree that leaned to one side from the weight of the decorations. Now that I celebrated Advent, I had an Advent wreath. Every Sunday, I would say the prayers and light a candle. At night, I sat and looked at the lit tree. I balanced Christmas cards on top of the television and other surfaces (I didn’t get many that first year). But it just didn’t feel the same.
Then Brad came into my life. Our Christmas traditions came about through discussion and sharing. Instead of reliving old Christmas traditions that didn’t seem to hold that childhood sparkle any longer, we created our own.
In our house, if we get a tree, it will remain undecorated until Christmas Eve. We try to decorate together, but sometimes, it ends up just being myself if Brad is busy. We go to Midnight Mass and exchange our presents afterward. Unlike my childhood Christmas traditions, this isn’t one born solely of practicality. We’re tired by the time we get home but we exchange presents so that we can have a quiet moment together as a couple. The next morning, we wake up early and go to his mother’s to open gifts there. Over the next few days, there is more visiting as we go to see some of my family.
The tree does not come down until after January 6th. When I discovered that Christmas could be celebrated longer than a single day, I cast aside my mother’s superstition. That first year where I kept the tree up after New Year’s Eve, I felt a slight twinge. A small part of me expected the house to cave in. But, nothing happened other than an extended opportunity to gaze at Christmas lights.
The last big Christmas traditions hoorah is Epiphany, when I bake a king’s cake. It’s also Brad’s birthday, so the cake doubles as his birthday cake. I make a Spanish king’s cake that calls for yeast and isn’t in a circle. He loves dates, so there are plenty of those packed into it.
I’m happy with our Christmas traditions. This year, they have special meaning, as Brad will be away next year. Christmas traditions bind family and friends together. It’s a special, silent way of expressing love. It creates a chain that’s anchored in a cherished memory of the first time, that first Christmas when we were still learning about each other. And traditions are a sign that something matters, because if it didn’t matter, we wouldn’t keep doing it.
What are your Christmas traditions? Are you going to introduce a new one this year? Are there some you’d rather do without? Comment below!