Nothing was more exciting than Christmas time at my childhood home. My father was from Scandinavian descent, and that meant the family gathered around the griddle making lefsa (a potato tortilla served with butter and sugar) to grace the Holiday table a couple of days before Christmas. It meant oyster stew and lutefisk and fried chicken were served at the Christmas Eve dinner. It meant cut-out sugar cookies decorated with buttercream icing, and loaves of Mom’s famous fruit cake made with her secret ingredient, a touch of brandy. It meant the kids cleaned up the dishes from the Christmas Eve meal and when everything was done, we hid in a bedroom (no peeking) while Santa Clause made an early visit to put the presents under the tree. It meant opening presents Christmas Eve and eagerly going to bed because we knew Santa would come again to fill our stockings. They were hung on our bedposts with fruit and candy and one more very special gift, like a watch or a camera.
It meant a calm Christmas day where the Christ Child was the center of the mood. We enjoyed the adult company that came to dinner: Grandpa, Mr. Miller, my teacher Mrs. Dunlap, even the intern Pastor and his wife. They all sat around the cozy living room after dinner as we children played with our new toys and games. My brothers always engaged in a fiercely competitive chess game. At some point, we children bundled up to play outside in the snow, maybe for an hour, maybe for ten minutes – depending on how cold it was.
After a while, Mom whipped the heavy cream to go on the cherry, chess, and pumpkin pies she baked the day before. She cut slices of her fruit cake, with strict orders not to tell the preacher the secret ingredient that made her fruitcake so much better than any other. Cookies, homemade fudge, and pure white divinity with walnuts were placed on a tray. We snacked throughout the afternoon on these heavenly desserts.
Mom’s famous Christmas letter was complete, the scores of Christmas Cards from friends were in a decorative basket on the hutch, garland graced the doorways, and tinsel shimmered under the colorful Christmas tree lights.
All of these childhood Christmas memories flooded back to me. I was at Bible School, and my fiancée drove all the way from Pennsylvania to Texas to get me and drive me back to Montana. I could hardly wait. I was going home for Christmas!
Anticipation grew as we drove 1,500 miles from Dallas to my home in Montana. Everything was perfect, just like I remembered, and I was eager to have Donnie spend this special holiday with me.
He was a good sport and helped with dinner clean-up, but he was a bit surprised when it was time to open presents. He protested, “No, you can’t open it until tomorrow morning! Santa comes in the night!”
I had seen pictures of kids sneaking down the stairs in their pajamas to open presents early in the morning. Mom said that’s how they did Christmas at her house when she was growing up, but Daddy’s family opened their presents Christmas Eve, and Daddy was rather insistent that’s the proper way to do Christmas so that became our family’s tradition.
Donnie conceded, and participated in the Christmas Eve gift opening of all the presents presented by my family, but insisted that I would have to wait until morning for my gifts from him. I could hardly wait for him to open my presents, but he insisted, so by morning, we met at the tree. Mom had already turned the colorful lights on, and we sat on the couch as we opened the gifts we purchased for each other. I bought him a beautiful pocket watch engraved with loving words, and a couple dozen leather tools to enhance his talented leather working hobby. I opened my gifts, anticipating a beautiful diamond ring. To be honest, I don’t even remember what he gave me. The gift I had anticipated wasn’t there!
Before going back to Pennsylvania in September, Donnie had proposed to me. He told me he had to ask my father for permission to marry me, so we weren’t really officially engaged yet, and he bought me a little promise ring to remind me of his love while he was away. Within the first 10 minutes of arriving home for Christmas, he managed to blurt out his request, and my father, a bit dumbfounded by the awkwardness of the moment said, “I suppose.” I was pretty sure the official engagement would require an official engagement ring!
As we sat at the Christmas dinner table, he took a serving of lutefisk. I was pretty sure you had to be full-blooded Norwegian to enjoy it. I warned him and tried to remove any pressure for him to try it, but he was curious, took a big chunk, and dipped it in butter like the other adults did. After a bit, he leaned over to me and whispered semi-audibly, “Let’s not make this one of our Christmas traditions.” Everyone laughed, and so our own traditions were beginning to develop.
Everyone sat around and visited and enjoyed the evening. I was the youngest in the family we were now all adults. My brothers David and Paul were deeply engaged in the chess game that had begun an hour earlier, and I was enjoying the cozy fire from the coal stove and the warm conversation. But Donnie was antsy and wanted to go somewhere with me. I didn’t want to leave. He was kind of insistent and I continued to balk. It just seemed rude. He talked to my brother Paul. Paul took me aside and told me I should go with Donnie – show him around the countryside, look at the lights. He assured me everyone would understand.
We drove to town and on to the next community. We went down a few back roads, but there really wasn’t much to see. The snow glistened beautifully under the soft glow of the moon, but I was concerned with getting back home. People didn’t decorate much this year, so we finally drove back silently. Paul looked at Donnie and Donnie shook his head.
After a short while, everyone mysteriously got tired and retired for the night. We were finally alone. As we sat in the soft glow of the Christmas tree lights, I put my head on his chest and closed my eyes. His heart was nearly beating out of his chest. I opened my eyes. He held the most beautiful diamond ring I had ever seen. He quietly said, “Kathy, will you marry me?” I nearly crumbled. The entire day was leading up to this moment, and I had been so wrapped up in “MY” childhood traditions that he wasn’t able to propose to me the way he had dreamed of proposing.
As years passed, our own traditions emerged – a blend of my family traditions and his family traditions. My children always opened one present Christmas Eve but had to wait for Christmas morning for the rest. Only the most phenomenal gifts were given Christmas night – but not every year. Christmas night was reserved for the most important thoughtful gifts because it was the special anniversary of our official engagement.
Three of my sons got married this year. I watch each of them becoming their own family, working to include both extended families, but starting to work on their own unique family traditions.
1 Thessalonians 5:21 “But examine everything carefully, hold fast to that which is good.” As with all traditions you develop, stay sensitive to your partner’s needs. Remember, just as much as your childhood traditions mean so much to you, your spouse most likely has equally strong bonds to his/her past. So, will it be a star or an angel on top of the tree? White lights or colorful lights? Hang the Christmas Cards on the wall or set them in a decorative basket on the hutch? And just how will you handle Christmas Eve? A candlelight service, a party with extended family and friends, a frenzied evening where you are out shopping until the last store locks its doors and the rest of the night wrapping everything because you just didn’t get to it yet? So many decisions, such a busy time of the year. What did your family do? What did your spouse’s family do? What do you want to do?
Jesus said, on the night he was betrayed (Luke 22:19) Take, eat. This is My body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Just like this statement from Jesus at the end of his life, he set forth a “tradition” to remember Him.
Traditions can be a great way to pass to our children the stories of Jesus, stories to strengthen their faith, opportunities to talk to your children about your faith and the Christ, the center of Christmas. Make sure they know the Christmas story – teach them what the nativity scene means. If your community has a live nativity, take them so they can experience a life-size, breathing display. Teach them about gift giving, how the Maji brought gifts to the Christ child, and maybe take an Angel from an Angel tree or adopt a child or family, and buy presents for those who are less fortunate. Take them Christmas Caroling with a group of friends, visit a nursing home.
Christmas is not a happy time for everyone. Lost loved ones, bad memories of past Christmases, and tragedy that happened around Christmastime even years ago can steal the joy of the season. Always show the love of Jesus, speak a kind word, give a smile, be courteous at all times, even in the parking lot when you see someone heading for the parking space you had your eye on. Be kind to people you meet on the street, at work, and most importantly, show kindness to those in your own household.
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. Matthew 25:40, 45.
Oh, and do you know what? This opportunity to share the love of Jesus doesn’t end once Christmas is over. Start now, but Jesus will give you opportunities to create a tradition of showing His love and kindness every day until He calls us Home.