It seemed like a good idea when I first read about it. “Make an Advent paper chain,” the holiday issue of Family Fun magazine suggested. “Fill each strip of red or green paper with an activity to help you celebrate the season. Then each day between Dec. 1 and Christmas, tear off one of the rings and do whatever is written on the strip.”
I could picture our then-3-year-old tearing off a ring each morning and lighting up as we presented a shorter chain and announced the day’s holiday adventure. But then I thought about all the work involved — making the chain and actually fitting 24 more activities into an already busy season.
I felt the old familiar tension between my desire to do things that make Christmastime more meaningful and my reluctance to make the season even more complicated.
When I was a freshman in college it was easy, in the midst of exams and with an ever-shrinking bank account, to rely on my parents to maintain all the holiday traditions. I could pretend December was like any other month while at school. Then once my break started and I returned home, I would dive into all the old rituals with my family.
But I never really felt like the season had arrived until I started keeping some traditions of my own. Since I came from a family that had a long list of things we did every year, there were lots of activities to choose from. Add to that all the suggestions like the Advent chain mentioned above and deciding what to make my own seemed overwhelming.
The last thing I wanted to do was pack my schedule so full that I’d feel like I was just going through a holiday checklist. How are you supposed to deal with all those great suggestions to make your holidays festive, to be charitable and all the while not to forget “the reason for the season”?
It’s simple really: Focus on the best traditions. A few simple traditions can be more fulfilling than trying to cram every festive experience into a short season. Doing things that remind us why we’re celebrating in the first place — rather than loading our calendars with a growing list of activities — is what gives our lives context and makes for memorable and lasting traditions.
Whether your family keeps a lot of traditions, few or none, it’s worth the effort to start figuring out which activities you’ll adopt as your own. A meaningful tradition should rekindle good memories, reinforce relationships, help you relax and re-establish priorities.
Rekindle Good Memories
Traditions can have meaning apart from the actual activities. Whether it’s driving around to look at lights, baking cookies with your grandma, reciting the Christmas story or eating oyster soup on Christmas Eve, it’s the good memories that get attached to those activities that make the activities so special. Holiday traditions are like emotional scrapbooks that accumulate over time. Acting out a tradition each year is like listening to a favorite Christmas carol — it triggers the memories you attached to it in the past while adding on the memories you are making in the present.
In their book, Saving Childhood, Michael and Diane Medved talk about why traditions are so important: “Rituals offer more than just warm memories. Special behaviors give your family its identity, and assure your children a comforting place” (208). Traditions initiated and repeated with the ones we love have a way of making us feel like we belong to something special. As critical as that is when we’re young, it’s no less important when we grow up.
Whenever I see a fuzzy red-and-white Santa hat for sale, I can’t help but remember all the times my family picked me up from the airport when I was single and traveling home for the holidays. The first time was a real surprise: six heads bedecked in matching Santa hats, bodies moving to the jingle-jangle of a very loud set of sleigh bells my dad was carrying. They caused quite a commotion. Though everyone was staring, I wasn’t embarrassed. My family’s willingness to be a little goofy on my behalf made me feel like the most loved person in the airport.
One of my favorite traditions since getting married is listening to the tape of a sermon Steve and I heard when we were dating; it’s about the importance of celebrating. And every year I resonate with one point in particular: We have a deep longing to release the inner coil we tend to keep wound so tight. Being a “type A” personality, I can usually feel my “coil” straining to make another revolution without springing wildly out of shape in the other direction. Just hearing the pastor say that — “unwind the inner coil” — helps me breathe a sigh of relief.
The sermon sets the stage: As soon as the tape ends we get out our calendars and plan what we’ll do over the next month. Having just been charged to relax a little makes it easier to focus on the activities that are really important to us as a family, leaving off the ones that simply eat up time.
Just when I think I’ll burst with anticipation over the gifts I’m hoping to receive, I open the mail and find requests for donations to help buy toys for children of prisoners or orphans in a foreign country. I’m always thankful for these opportunities because they remind me how blessed I already am and that Christmas really is about giving.
As Dickens so vividly illustrated in his A Christmas Carol, donating time and money endure as timeless holiday traditions because they have a way of getting our priorities back in order. They remind us of Jesus’ lowly entry into the world on His way to the ultimate sacrifice. There He was, the King of the universe stepping out of eternity to enter human time and place as a mere baby whose parents couldn’t even get a decent room somewhere. Caroling at a nursing home, serving at a soup kitchen and buying toys for tots go a long way toward spreading Christmas cheer to people who are in difficult circumstances. But such activities also realign our own hearts. I need those tangible reminders that what I’m really celebrating is not a new sweater but the hope of the world.
The other night, after enjoying a traditional dinner-and-Christmas-shopping date (Steve and I were relaxing and focusing on our relationship), our babysitter had a surprise waiting for our return. She had helped the kids with a special art project: an Advent chain with a removable paper link for every day in December. But she didn’t include any activities on the links. No to-do items, just the joy of knowing we’re getting closer to the celebration of the Bethlehem baby who would be King.
Copyright 2010 Candice Watters. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.