Today I asked Juliana @ Urban Simplicity to join me for day two of my Christmas Guest post Series.
Good morning! Elia asked me to guest post on her Christmas Traditions series, so here goes!
I should start by saying that I had a hard time figuring out what to write for my post. Elia provided a few prompter questions, but I still had a hard time deciding how to approach it all. The primary problem lies in the fact that my celebration of Christmas as an adult is very different from the celebration I had growing up. I grew up Protestant, and I love all the Christmas traditions that my family had (and still has). We lit an Advent wreath for all the Sundays leading up to Christmas; we opened small presents and read Scripture verses every day for the Jesse Tree (which was conveniently located on the Advent wreath); we listened to lots of Christmas carols (Steve Green, Acapella, and The Carpenters were perennial favorites); my mother decorated the house from top to bottom (including a Nativity scene for each room of the house); we each received an ornament every year so that when we left the house, we had a “starter tree’s” worth of ornaments for our own homes. At Thanksgiving, my mother gave all the women of the family (and now all the grandkids, regardless of gender) a pair of Christmas socks. My mother always made fudge, and some years, we girls made and decorated sugar cookies.
On Christmas Eve, we went to church for a special Christmas service. We had stockings on Christmas morning, which we could open before my parents got up. The stockings usually had a bag of whatever candy we were particularly fond of (I was often given chocolate covered raisins or Whoppers) and some little item. We’d have a fancy breakfast as a family (usually some kind of egg-y casserole), take pictures in front of the tree, and then open presents.
I’ve always loved that we go in turns and the present-opening takes all morning. It allows us all to enjoy the process of gift giving and receiving. My mother’s language of love is gifts, so there was always a story to accompany each gift we received. Every year we did presents in a different order—sometimes oldest to youngest, sometimes youngest to oldest, and, once there were grandkids, grandkids first, and then adults, and so on.
After presents, we get the main meal of the day ready. It is usually a “special” meal—my mother has several casseroles that she makes only for holidays—turkey divan and Zesty Italian casserole being two of our favorites. The table is set with the good dishes and nice silverware from my parents’ wedding registry, and the red cloth napkins and plaid tablecloth come out.
It was usually my job to make the table look pretty, although in recent years, that job has fallen to my youngest sister, who has a knack for it as well. Before the meal, my father reads Luke 2, and my mother often reads a short meditation. We eat dinner as a family and then, after everything is cleared away, we pull out the games, or perhaps go roller skating. It is a nice day together.
But that is the tradition of my parents, and not exactly how my husband and I are doing things now. I converted to Orthodox Christianity in my early 20s. My husband was raised Orthodox, but didn’t get serious about it until he was in his late 20s. His family celebrates Christmas in a fairly secular fashion, so we are still finding our way to our own family traditions. In the Orthodox Church, the 40 days leading up the Feast of the Nativity is observed by abstinence from animal products, including meat and dairy. It is supposed to be a time of preparation and anticipation. Social commitments should be scaled back, meals simple, and life quiet. I will say that online shopping has made my life in this regard so much easier. I am able to stay out of the hustle and bustle of mortar and brick stores and retain my sense of reflection during this season.
Main church at St. Herman of Alaska Monastery, Platina, California
Photo credit: panoramio.com
When my husband and I were still dating, we spent our first Nativity at a monastery in northern California, with no running water or electricity. The monks don’t decorate at all until Christmas Eve, and the service for the feast begins at midnight and runs into the wee hours followed by a huge festal meal in the middle of the night. Surrounded by the quiet of the snow-blanketed Shasta Mountains, it was lovely. My husband wanted to replicate the monastery practice in our family, and while I thought there were many good things about the practice, the fact is that we do live in the world, and I also wanted to bring something of my own family traditions forward as well.
We celebrate Nativity on the Julian calendar, which means that December 25 falls on January 7. This is the first year we are not traveling at all for the holiday season so this is the first year we have a chance to try out some things. This is also our first year to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas on December 19. In previous years, we merely went to church on the feast and that was it, but now that our kids are a little older, we can start the coins-in-the-shoes tradition, which I like very much. I found some dairy-free chocolate coins, and the boys are going to get a small gift each in their shoes on Monday morning. (Birdie is too little to know what is going on anyway) I’m going to make my husband’s favorite fasting meal (Mujaddarah, a Middle Eastern dish of rice, lentils and caramelized onions), and we’ll try to read the life of St. Nicholas.
Icon of St. Nicholas, feastday December 6/19
My husband doesn’t care about Christmas decorations, and certainly does not want to see them put up in the house before January 1st at the very earliest. His preference would be to put up decorations on January 6 if at all, and take them down at the end of the 12 days of feasting after Christmas. The first few years I didn’t decorate at all as a result. I couldn’t bear to put up Christmas decorations as most people were taking theirs down and only leave them up a short time. The year Piglet was born, we were given an artificial tree (I’m allergic to real ones) and so I finally got to put out my ornaments and other collected decorations. The year after, I couldn’t manage it. I’ve found now, as our family has grown so quickly, and the limitations of our house have expanded, that I really only have it in me to decorate every other year. I gave the tree away last year because we didn’t have the space to store it, and we couldn’t work out where to put it where the kids wouldn’t be in it constantly. I bought some garland on clearance (one advantage of celebrating January 7 is being able to get everything on clearance!) and hung it on the bookcases, high above the children’s reach, and hung my ornaments on that.
January 2011 (you can see the garland on the stairs over my shoulder)
Last year, I bought a few vintage nativity scenes on etsy.com and set them up on high shelves, leaving the baby Jesus in the box until the day of the Feast. I have a small Nativity diptych that goes into our icon corner during the Fast, and we sing O Come O Come Emmanuel after our family evening prayers. I try to take the children to see the two lights shows in town (at Macy’s and the Comcast Center) sometime during the month of December. My husband and I have started a tradition of seeing Anonymous4 in concert during the Fast, as well as going to see a professional production of The Messiah. I’ve continued buying an ornament for each child each year plus one for ourselves. I try to find something to represent the year as my mother did.
January 2011 (you can see the garland on the bookcases behind Piglet)
Starting on the Feast, we sing the troparion of the Nativity at meals and prayers, at least until the leave-taking. When the children are older, we will go to the Vigil for Christmas on the eve of the Feast, but while they are little and our commute is an hour, we stay home on the eve. The Christmas music comes out on Christmas day, (although I admit to sneaking some during the Fast while my husband is at work), we go to church for the Divine Liturgy on Christmas morning, and then come home to eat a festive meal with lots of meat and dairy and dessert.
We open one present each on Christmas Day, and then one present each of the 12 days after (or until there are no more to open; with two sets of grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, there are usually more than enough to go around for the kids). My husband and I decided when we married that we didn’t want to get into an “arms race” of presents, so we have always set a spending limit of $30 per person for gifts. I like the limitation, as it keeps the gift-giving part in proportion to the rest of the celebration. We have dessert every day during the 12 Days, and there is no fasting at all, not even on Wednesdays or Fridays as is usual during the rest of the year. My husband and I have our namesdays during the 12 Days of Christmas, plus Piglet’s birthday is Christmas Eve, so we usually have a big family party sometime during the 12 Days and invite about 75 people to our home for food, carols, and conversation. It is loud and crowded and lots of fun.
My goal right now is to implement something new each year, so that by the time the children are older, we have a rich tapestry of family traditions that are uniquely ours, but also fit within the larger Tradition of the Church’s observance of the birth of Christ.