Kelly and I were at a wedding reception last Saturday night and the couple across the table from us asked Kelly if she had any motherly advice for first-time parents because they are expecting a baby girl the week of Christmas.
They weren’t asking specifically about Christmas, but if I had thought about it at the time I would have suggested they should start their own family traditions now and stick to them as the baby grows up.
I say that because our first Christmas as a married couple 17 years ago got pretty overwhelming because we tried to visit everybody under the sun. We spent the afternoon of Christmas Eve with my parents, then drove an hour to Kelly’s parent’s house and spent the night there Christmas Eve. Then Christmas morning we drove another two hours to my grandparent’s house (my mom’s parents), visited my dad’s side of the family Christmas afternoon, and drove an hour home Christmas night because Kelly and I hadn’t exchanged presents yet. After running that brutal circuit we decided to make our own new family tradition because there was no sane or joyful way we could keep up that pace once we had kids.
So we spent our second Christmas morning at home, went to 8:00 Mass, relaxed at home some more, and then visited family. Now instead of trying to get to every side of the family in two days, we alternate different sides of the family on opposite years or visit some at Thanksgiving and some at Christmas.
Another little family tradition we started recently is making “waffle Santas” for breakfast Christmas morning after Mass. Whipped cream beard and hat, cherry nose, chocolate chip eyes. I think we got that idea from Shrek — I can’t remember — but the kids love it. It’s the little things, right?
I have friends whose family tradition is that everyone only gets three gifts at Christmas, which is to represent the gold, frankincense and myrrh from the Christmas story. They say it helps keep things in perspective, but their “gold” gift is very special and more expensive.
Looking back, my mom had little ways of keeping things in perspective when my brother and I were growing up, too. She told us that Santa might bring the presents, but mom and dad still had to pay the bill for everything. I thought that was clever.
Somewhere along the line I heard somebody else say they always had some presents from Santa and some from “mom and dad” on the tag, but mom and dad always gave the really good stuff.
A few years ago Kelly and I started the tradition of Christmas adventures. We’ve always preferred spending money on experiences rather than trinkets and gadgets, and our boys understand that. So one year we watched a live production of Rudolph at the RiverPark Center. And last year the big box under the tree had pictures that revealed our Christmas adventure getaway. Beau is still in a dinosaur phase so there were tickets to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, where they have a really cool dinosaur display. And Luke had been saying he wants to be a chocolate maker when he grows up, so there was a picture of a candy store where we scheduled a tour on the way to Indy. They got less toys last year, but way better memories.
Doing an Advent calendar is another small tradition we enjoy as a family. It’s like a countdown to Christmas where you open a new tab each day with a little activity or reading or something like that. Sometimes it’s scriptural, but one year we found a Minions one. Either way, it’s a chance to focus each day on the true meaning of Christmas as the day gets closer.
I think it helps slow down time a little bit too because December can zoom by in a flash if you’re not careful. There are certain things we do every year like put our tree up the Saturday after Thanksgiving and bundle up for the Holiday Stroll downtown the first Saturday in December. But other things just happen spontaneously, like walking through the lights at Legion Park or driving through Panther Creek.
The thing is, some of the best traditions start out completely unplanned. So I would tell that couple, ‘yes, make a list, but be ready for those magical moments that just randomly happen.’
Those are the ones you may still be talking about 10 or 20 years from now.
This year, I’m gonna make it a point to enjoy every day as we tick off those tabs on the advent calendar and make each day count.
Hopefully, our best traditions are yet to come.