Creating Christmas Magic Through Simple Family Traditions
(Reposted from December 2011.)
I can’t not do holidays. I just love them. I mark my year by them. I plan for them. I dream about them. I imagine what they will look like, who we will share them with, how our traditions will evolve over time. I think about sounds and smells and tastes and memories that will inevitably be made.
And the holiday of all holidays—Christmas—is my absolute favorite. I love it far more than I even know how to describe.
Of course living overseas where the seasons are flipped around from what I grew up with makes for some big changes during the holidays. Instead of skiing we are swimming. Instead mugs of hot cider there are tall glasses of ice water. Instead of bundling up to brave the Black Friday sales (non-existent here) after Thanksgiving (also non-existent here) we are stripping down to our tank tops and flip flops and seeking the relief of the beach, or—if it’s just still too hot—the air-conditioned malls.
As much as I can get homesick during this time of year, I also love the fact that Ryan and I now have our own family and can create our own memories and traditions. We have a mix of American and Australian traditions… and being a young family, they are still evolving as we grow and get new ideas.
I believe in going big for the holidays – not necessarily in spending big – but in celebrating big. Extravagance, generosity, and lots of memory making.
For now, here is how we do it:
Deck the Halls.
Like many families, we put up our tree and decorate the house on the last weekend of November (so we can have an entire month of Christmas). We pump up the AC, drink hot apple cider, and sing along to Frank Sinatra’s carols. Love. It. So. Much.
Sleeping Under the “Stars”.
On the first night that the tree is up we drag our mattress into the living room and all sleep together under the tree. (Yes, even mama.) Just a way to usher in the Christmas magic a little and do something fun with the family. We watch Charlie Brown’s Christmas (or another family fave) before snuggling into bed with our AC on full blast. This year’s family slumber party was pretty hilarious with our crazy little ball of energy (also known as Levi) and 8-week-old Judah in his bassinet nearby. And honestly, thought it’s not very convenient, this is probably our most cherished family tradition. It’s just so fun and the stuff childhood memories are made of.
I picked up these gorgeous little stockings a couple of years back thinking it was a perfect, easily portable advent “calendar” that I could pull out each year as well as pack easily if we were having Christmas with one of our families (who live interstate and overseas). Each day I put in a small treat or sticker, and a note with a family activity that we will do together that day. I also include the daily Advent reading from the Jesus Storybook Bible (free printable reading guide here).
Celebrating Saint Nicholas Day.
I love to help my kids understand the correlation between Santa and Jesus and so Saint Nicholas Day (as celebrated by the church on December 6th) is becoming increasingly important to our Christmas celebrations. We watch a VeggieTales movie (Saint Nicholas – A Story of Joyful Giving) and I talk about the real Saint Nicholas – a priest who lived his life being guided by God to be generous and practice acts of kindness to those in need around him. The kids wake up to find chocolate coins in their shoe (to understand why, you’ll have to read up on him a little) and we do a deliberate act of kindness for another family on this day.
With a traditional Advent wreath you light one candle each Sunday before Christmas for four weeks and then the final candle is lit on Christmas. While the candle burns we read part of the Christmas story and talk and pray about the coming of Christ and the miracle of his birth and life. This year I made up this little non-wreath “wreath” with a sleigh and five candles that I already had.
Christmas Open House.
We like to have a Christmas Open House for friends to drop by sometime the week before Christmas. Our philosophy is that the wonder and joy of the season is best shared with friends. The more, the merrier. We put out sugar cookies to decorate, make a big pot of apple cider, light lots of candles, and just enjoy friends coming and going throughout the night. It’s very casual and low key. (Well, the kids amped on on sugar? That’s not always low key…)
Learning the Story.
I love Christmas decorations, and nativity scenes are definitely among my favorite things to pull out each year. I think I have five of them in various shapes and forms. (Don’t worry, most are very small – it doesn’t look like a barnyard in here – ha!) My favorites are a hand-carved wooden one from Bethlehem that my parents got me on their visit many, many years ago, and a stone-carved one with little Asian-looking shepherds and wise men (wearing rice hats!) that I got while I was in Vietnam several years back. (Anyone who knows me knows I love Asia!) We also have a Fisher Price “Little People” nativity that lives under the tree each year. We hope to encourage the kids to learn the story of Christ and remember that God-stuff is fun too.
Delivering Gifts in the Christmas Wagon.
My clever husband made a wagon out of pallet wood and we like to decorate it with tinsle and battery-powered lights and then load up the kids (in Santa or elf hats, of course) and take gifts, cookies, treats, or Christmas cards to friends that live near-by. (For added fun, bring squirt guns if you’re celebrating Christmas by sweating your guts out Down Under like us.)
I adore Christmas carols. Adore. I have a beautiful Tasha Tudor book that I got from my grandparents in 29 years ago that is full of Christmas poems, stories, songs, and hymns. It might even be my very favorite Christmas item that I own. This year I’ve started pulling it out at each of Levi’s nap times and bedtimes so that we can sing a few Christmas songs after stories and before bed. He is loving it! He sings along (has no idea the words yet, but no matter!) and points to the sheet music in rhythm as if he’s actually sight-reading the notes. We love singing together, especially at bedtime when Ryan’s home and it’s all four of us together!
Carols by Candlelight.
My favorite Christmas tradition in Australia is Carols by Candlelight. Every city has at least one organized in a park or church field. Crowds gather with picnic blankets and beach chairs and snacks for a Christmas concert outside sometime throughout December. (Ours is always the first Sunday in December here.) It’s so much fun to be out celebrating Christmas with so many others in the community.
Operation Christmas Child/Tree of Joy/Angel Tree.
Last year we “adopted” a family in Oregon while we were there for Christmas and filled an entire shopping cart at Fred Meyers with gifts for the mother and her two boys. It was a blast and we’ve decided we really want to do something like this each year. This year we are going to buy toys for two kids (from our two kids) in our community through the Salvation Army’s Wishing Tree.
Birthday Cake for Jesus.
We make a simple birthday cake for Jesus that I let the kids decorate themselves (yes, it always looks super pretty – ha!) and then we sing Happy Birthday Jesus and enjoy the cake for dessert after our Christmas eve meal.
Christmas Eve Dinner.
Since we celebrate Christmas Day dinner with our mission coworkers, we do a smaller family Christmas Eve dinner. (Celebrating with a big Christmas Eve meal is also reminiscent of my Norwegian roots since in Norway Christmas Eve is the main event.) We invite a table full of friends and cook up a huge meal with ham and other North American-style Christmas goodies. The tablecloths and cloth napkins come out. Every candle in the house is lit. The AC is maxed out. And the Christmas playlist carries us on through the night. We eat and laugh and eat some more, and then lounge around the couches eating some more. It’s one of the things I most look forward to each year.
Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
This is a tradition that I started about 10 years ago when I was still single. When I first moved to Australia I was disappointed to find that churches didn’t do Christmas Eve candlelight services like I had grown up being accustomed to going to. The only churches that seemed to gather Christmas Eve were the Catholic churches. Some friends and I decided to find the biggest, most beautiful cathedral in town we could find and get all dressed up and go to midnight mass. (Have you ever sung Christmas carols by candlelight in a cathedral?!) I loved it so much that I’ve done it every year since. There’s just something about coming home from church at 1:30am knowing that it’s already Christmas!! Ryan now loves this tradition too… and we’ll see how we go with the two littles this year. Ha!
PJs on Christmas Eve – the Family Christmas Eve Box.
Just like many other families around the world, we open one gift on Christmas Eve… and yes, it’s PJs or underwear! It’s fun to have new jammies to lounge around in on Christmas morning. We actually do a “family Christmas Eve gift” – one big box that we all open together. Inside it has everyone’s new jammies, a new Christmas movie, book, or CD, and sometimes a new Christmasy mugs for hot chocolate the next morning.
Stockings in Bed.
Christmas morning we all pile in mom and dad’s bed and open stockings together. Love the Christmas photos complete with bedhead!
Each year we get a new ornament in our stocking. Ryan and I buy each other one, and we get one each for the kids. Sometimes they are hand-made, sometimes they symbolize something significant from that year, and sometimes they are simply something that the person would enjoy. (Levi’s this year is a tricycle ornament and Judah’s is some little felt booties that I’m embroidering his name and year on since it’s his first Christmas.) This way when the kids move out they’ll have 18+ years of ornaments to take with them and start their own tree. My mom did this one for us and I love it!
Cinnabon Cinnamon Rolls.
We don’t have anything like American cinnamon rolls here in Australia unless you make them yourself. I’m not much into baking, but once a year I pull out the apron and make Cinnabon-style cinnamon rolls for Christmas breakfast. Love. Them.
We celebrate Christmas dinner Australia-style, meaning lots of salads, fruits, seafood platters, etc. (think summer!) together with about 100+ other people that serve with us at our YWAM base. It’s a whole lot of fun (that you’d have to see and experience to fully appreciate!) and we look forward to it each year.
We love opening our home to others and so most years we have friends dropping by to say hello, eat leftovers, and watch the old Christmas classics with us come Christmas evening. Very low key. Very unstructured. Very fun.
In Australia the day-after Christmas is not a shopping day… it’s a cricket day! People go to the beach, the park, have BBQs, lounge at the pool, play back-yard cricket, etc. We usually hang around the house being as lazy as possible, and then sometimes venture out to the beach or the pool for a swim in the afternoon.
Dreaming for the Year Ahead.
I heard this idea from a friend of a friend… and this will be a new one for us this year. When we’re packing up the Christmas stuff we’ll each write a list of hopes and dreams for the year ahead, pray for each other, and then tuck it into our stockings to pull out next Christmas and see our answered hopes and prayers and memories. These can be “normal” things (i.e. we’ll write “potty training” on Levi’s list) or more serious, faith-inspired or personal growth things. I love this idea so we’ll see how it goes!
There are so many other things we could do too… I love Christmas so much that I have to be careful to not over-do it!! (If you want more ideas, I’ll put some links below.) I’m sure Christmas will morph a little and change as the kids get older, but as much as possible I want to integrate traditions that promote togetherness, generosity, and fun as we celebrate this special time of year.
Dear friends, what do you do for Christmas?
Love, Adriel xo