Christmas Traditions

Our family has two fun holiday traditions worth spreading. On Thanksgiving evening, our extended family, many of whom have eaten dinner elsewhere, meet at Grandma & Grandpa’s to play bingo. There are probably 200 wrapped prizes for the 30 or so players. Each family has brought several dozen prizes; my mom’s brought more. The fun part, at least for the adults, is seeing what super deals everyone else found: a bunch of Mom’s prizes are Chapsticks she found on sale for $0.25, Grandma found dish towels on closeout, someone bought tons of crayons during back-to-school, Spencer got a deal on a lot of What About Bob?s, everyone’s brought gobs of candy, and of course there are white elephants (a candle in the shaped of a bowling pin and ball has been “won” for years). Throw in some sudoku books, toothbrushes, dollar store stuff, still more candy, and a $2 bill or two from Grandma, and we’re ready to go. Grandpa calls the numbers. Without fail, at some point he’ll call “Beeee-quiet.” Everyone laughs, not because it’s funny the 22nd time we’ve heard it but because we see it coming. (Grandpa’s timing and delivery are perfect, too. He’s emceed more ward parties than anyone I know.) According to Grandma Thanksgiving bingo has been a family tradition since about 1960. None of us, as far as I know, actually enjoys bingo, but it’s a fun catalyst for our whole family to laugh together.

This year we’re playing bingo twice, the second time will be at Salt Lake County’s overflow homeless shelter. It’s in Midvale and apparently receives much less attention than the primary shelter downtown. We were told to plan on 200 people being there, about 125 on the men’s side and 75 in the unit for women and children. We’ve been loading up on necessities and treats ever since. In October I got 74 ringer-Ts at Old Navy for $0.99 each, Mom bought the whole inventory of imperfect Hanes sweatshirts from a couple dollar stores, plus we have dozens of inexpensive gloves and hats. Our idea is to ensure each person gets one “nice” prize, like a shirt, and then three to four smaller prizes like toothbrushes, nail clippers or candy.

Another tradition that’s worth sharing is one that’s been in our family for a total of four days now. Mom mentioned it to me on Monday as we were going through her collection of Christmas books and gift books. She said my cousin Holly wraps their family’s Christmas books and, starting on December 1, let the kids take turns opening the one to read that night. I liked the idea and knew my kids would too. When I got home that day I promptly wrapped our Christmas books and brought the stack of presents for the kids to admire. I told them our new tradition and it’s worked — they’re much more excited about our Christmas books now that they’re wrapped up. For the past four nights now, after the kids have changed into their pajamas, one of them unwraps the book we’ll read.

What are your favorite traditions, especially those that the rest of us could pattern?

26 comments for “Christmas Traditions

  1. When my kids were very small, I made pillowcases out of Christmas fabric. They are magic pillowcases because when you sleep on them, you have sweet Christmas dreams. I bring them out on December 1 and the kids bring their pillows downstairs. They put on the pillowcases, then lay down while we read a story and have hot chocolate. They love sleeping with them all month long.

  2. I’m glad you brought that up, Sally! My mom sews Christmas pillow cases, too, and it was a fun family tradition. I’d guess my mom has sewn 500 of them — they’re probably her favorite gift. One year someone bought her enough fabric to make them for children in a large orphanage in Mexico.

    Another tradition — once each season we let our kids sleep in front of the Christmas tree, with the lights on all night long. They love it.

  3. Matt, I love this post! I like it that the family tradition persists, despite everyone (or many people, anyway) realizing that it’s not so much that Bingo is itself meaningful, but the laughter. I also love it that your service project is a natural extension of your family’s tradition–a way of drawing the circle wider to share something authentically meaningful and joyful with a larger “family.” Thanks for telling us about it.

  4. We have a Christmas ornament for every year since we got married, to commemorate the most important thing that happened during that year. (When we’ve been unable to decide, we get more than one ornament for that year.) When we decorate the tree, after the lights and garland are on, we sit the whole family down and put the ornaments on the tree in order, going over the history of our family with each ornament.

  5. I love this post, Matt! This has been an incredibly hard year for our family and I haven’t really mustered the Christmas spirit yet, but I do find that as I begin decorating, memories of past years (including my own childhood) come with redemptive power and make me hopeful.
    We also have ornaments depicting events ofverthe years (starting with an ornament I made when Bruce and I got married and moving on to each of our children’s “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments.) Last Summer in Guatemala, I bought some little dolls to use as Christmas ornaments. And I have certain recipes which I use ONLY at Christmas time.
    On Christmas Eve, we light a Menorah and tell the Chanukah story, emphasizing the symbolic nature of the oil which was used in the temple’s Menorah. And I have a beautiful book of great art depicting scenes from the Nativity story, which we read with some care, looking at the various artists’ work. It is a sweet time.

  6. I love holiday traditions, Matt; thanks for sharing yours.

    My sister does a family pie night the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Her kids are older and sometimes have other commitments, and she vowed that she would never force them to do two Thanksgiving meals or to feel as though they have to come over on Thursday. But this is a more low key event at enough of a different time that they all make it home for it, and they would strongly object to any effort to stop the tradition. She makes a whole bunch of pies of different types (if I were doing it, I would just buy some Baker’s Square pies probably), and this year she also had a potato bar. It’s a way to lessen the stress on your kids who are being pulled in too many directions at holiday time.

    My own family has a tradition of eating at Yu’s Mandarin on Christmas Eve. One Christmas Eve we wanted to go out to eat, and everything was closed. So on the way back home we noticed this one place that was open, called Yu’s Mandarin. We went there, and that place was hopping! They cook in an open kitchen, and you can watch as the flames leap from the woks. It was great, and we’ve been back every year since. (Sort of our own Christmas Story.)

  7. Every Christmas, instead of new year’s resolution my family gives a gift to the baby Jesus. Sometimes it’s read scriptures everyday, pray more, call everyone on their birthday – that sort of stuff. It gives the goal setting a little more meaning and hopefully we will stick to it better.

  8. We schedule similarly to Kevin’s sister: our big family Christmas event is the Sunday before Christmas Eve. We have a cottage-meeting of sorts with carols, sabbath-appropriate seasonal music, musical/rhetorical/histrionic performances by the kiddos, Grandfather’s reading of Luke II, and kneeling family prayer. Every family (there are ten) brings two dishes of finger food, one sweet and one not-sweet, so preparations and clean-up are low-key.

    Well, sort of low-key. Each family member has a stocking with their name. There is some labor in making the new stockings, hanging and un-hanging 100+ stockings, and then re-painting the walls. For me, few things more poignantly symbolize my place in the cosmos than my name in glitter on green felt on a wall with all the others.

    Scheduling early we (usually) avoid schedule conflicts with in-laws and free up the nuclear families to establish their own traditions closer to Christmas Day. It has worked well for us since the early 70s but will probably break up pretty soon as we move from a three-generation group to a solidly four-generation group. Another difficulty is that since it’s so far from Christmas Day, work, school, and travel schedules don’t always work out for the out-of-town families.

  9. Amy, we do that gift to baby Jesus too, but recently found that we just can’t remember all year long what we wrote and put in the special stocking to read next year! So the past two years, we give our gift the first FHE of the Christmas season, and put the notes in a beautiful box that is the first present under the tree (to be opened first on Christmas morning). Easier to remember to do something for a month :-)
    Along with our advent calendar, this year I put a scripture in each day’s pocket to read about different gifts from God. (This idea was among several good ones in this month’s Ensign).
    In addition to Luke 2, we read 3 Nephi 1 on Christmas Eve and our kids like to act out the falling to the earth part.
    We don’t do Santa, but our kids do get three gifts (like the 3 Wise Men)–a book, a toy, something to wear–and then if there’s a family gift like a game, it’s from the “camels” on the back porch. We’re really trying to simplify and turn away the materialism focus, which is hard with 4 kids!
    I heard about someone who does a “family tree”–making new picture ornaments every year with the grandkids and placing them in order for the generations. You could do a neat ancestor one too! Maybe next year…

  10. We would let each person in the family choose their favorite food to be included in the Christmas-Day eat-when-you-want buffet. This way, we all enjoyed each other’s favorites.

    My girl friend has extended family come to her house Christmas evening, after nuclear-family celebrations. We all take turn reading the Christmas story from verses one of her daughters and I selected 7 years ago. It has an amazing effect of building togetherness. My videos of this from years past are priceless.

    She also has one particular Nativity set from which she gives each visiting family a piece as they leave, to bring back the following year to reassemble as part of our joint celebration.

  11. The family of Ruth E. Parks has many family traditions. The one that is the most favorite is on Christmas Eve we eat pizza and agree to open one present. Usually that present is new pajamas which coincidentally we would wear on Christmas morning in time for pictures. Hope others have a similar tradition as the Ruth E. Parks family. Please share with the Ruth E. Parks family your family traditions. Sincerely, Ruth E. Parks

  12. Thanks Matt & everyone for sharing these! There are a few I’d like to borrow. And here are my ideas to add:
    When my family lived in Germany years ago we picked up the old Protestant? tradition of Advent. Our family really morphed it into our own LDS version but here’s what we do. On each of the four Sundays before Christmas, we read scriptures foretelling Christ’s coming during that time period. (You’ll find this is impossible to do without the LDS scriptures – esp. Pof GP) We use an advent wreath made of evergreens with 3 purple candles and 1 pink (tradition) and light each one successively on each Sunday. As we light the candles we talk about how light represents knowledge and also Christ, then read the scriptures that gave the knowledge of His coming to ancient prophets. We also sing some Christmas hymns (incl. auf Deutsch) and enjoy light refreshments (e.g. Lebkuchen, Stollen, Pfeffernusse and Wassail- YUM).
    Another tradition I loved, but which I’ve missed out on since I’m almost never with my “childhood” family at Christmas – My mom makes a big bowl of “Danish Rice Pudding” full of bits and pieces – even halves of blanched almonds. Then someone gets to drop ONE whole almond (blanched, of course) in the bowl and stir it in. We love stuffing ourselves with pudding topped with yummy cherry sauce and whoever finds the almond, gets a treat like homemade toffee – since we’re already to full to move. :) We’ve had some crooked guests over the years try to sneak in their own “false” almonds but the truth always prevails. Ahhh, what would Christmas be without family traditions?

  13. I’m from a good Catholic family; 7 of us children are still living but we are spread all over the Eastern half of the US, ranging from mid-40s to late-50s in age. When our parents died a few years back, it was a challenge for us: Now that our “home” is gone, how will we interact as siblings? How to balance our commitments to children and grandchildren with our relationships as brothers and sisters?

    What we came up with is to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with our own families and offspring, perhaps involving in-laws. Then the day after Christmas (which is Boxing Day for those of you with that tradition), we get together for 24 hours–just the sibs with no spouses or children. We meet for dinner and a movie, spend the night in a hotel (kinda like a big slumber party), then do a museum or something the next day. For the first few years we met in Chicago, which was a few hours drive for two of the siblings (coming from opposite directions), and offered decent flight connections for those of us arriving from farher away. I often have to get up at 4 a.m. to arrive in the early afternoon but oh well. Miraculously, we’ve never had flight problems–we all made it there and enjoyed a day together.

    Then a few years ago we came up with the idea of alternating Chicago with one of our hometowns. Last year we went to Austin TX, which is a great city on any day of the week, and while my sister currently lives there, I had gone to grad school there, so it was fun to share some of my favorite spots with them.

    I find our Boxing Day tradition incredibly relaxing because the demands of being a sister are so much easier than being a mother or grandmother or lab manager or whatever. I can talk with these people the way I can with few other friends. I always get ideas of books to read and films to watch. We try to avoid too much politics because one sister is a conservative Republican. We talk a lot about religion since one is a baptist, one LDS and one still very actively Catholic, with the rest kinda floating but interested.

    It’s funny how we fall back into patterns of childhood teasing. And I laugh more in that day than perhaps weeks before or after. People who see us assume we are drunk, when in fact half of us don’t drink alcohol.

    Okay, I realize this is probably lame, because it doesn’t have anything to do with the Christ part of Christmas or anything. But I do look forward to it at the holidays.

    Also, this year is a bit subdued. Our youngest brother is serving in Iraq, so there will only be six of us.

  14. Naismith, I love the idea you and your siblings came up with to keep the family together after your parents were gone. What a great idea, thanks for sharing it.

  15. Just a few from my family of origin:

    Grandpa reads “The Other Wise Man” to the family on Christmas Eve.

    Followed by opening up one present each (almost always a new pair of pjs that we’ll then get to wake up in the following morning)

    A Honeybaked ham and wassail on the stove on Christmas day

    An extended-family sub-for-santa in place of an extended family name-drawing for presents.

    The only things I’ll change (with my kids) is that instead of reading the other wise man I’ll begin reading a chapter a night from Andre Trocme’s “Angels and Donkey’s” about a week before Christmas, culminating in the final story in Christmas Eve.

    And instead of a single-punch sub-for-santa, we do a 12-days-of-Christmas anonymously for a family somewhere in the area (we figure out who needs help by contacting a handful of bishops in the area). Beginning during the night of dec twelfth, we sneak one of something followed the next night by two of something, etc etc. Maybe two pounds of homemade fudge or five long-sleeved tshirts or one holiday turkey. We try to be more creative each year. It’s exciting to try to leave the gifts without getting caught (like the rush of doorbell ditching as a teenager) and can be even more fun if you actually know the family (because of the secret). One year we did a family in which the mother was my wife’s close friend. She even brought us some of the fudge she got to share (“isn’t this stuff amazing?” I don’t think my wife could’ve received a better gift than that unintentional compliment that year). On the final night we bring twelve little gifts (like chocolate oranges or something) and then one big one–usually a $100 (or $50 in our poorer years) gift certificate to Target and some movie passes for mom and dad. By far the most fun we have every holiday season and this year we’re so excited to have our 4-yr-old son staying up late and helping us drop the things off and, most importantly, being in on the secret.

  16. We always get our children new pajamas for Christmas and they get to open them Christmas Eve. We also enjoy getting out our decorations and reminicing about where they came from or who made them. My family and I do not regularly attend Church but I try to teach my kids the real meaning of Christmas from my Sunday school days. Also, I love the Christmas book idea.

  17. I wonder whether this is a Mormon thing? When I was growing up, our family tradition was to open one gift on Christmas Eve, which was almost always PJs or something similar (a robe, or slippers). Do non-LDS do this, too?

  18. RE #19 Nope, this is a tradition on its 5th generation in our family, began by a good Catholic Italian set of great grandparents, down to our small granddaughter .All unmarried family members open 2 gifts on Christmas Eve, and one is always nightwear. It guarentees semi-respectable pictures Christmas morning. The other is something time- consuming, like a game or craft item, probably to cut down on wiggles.

    Sharing traditions is helping us a lot …please continue! Our son, the light of the family, is a missionary in England, out 5 months. I miss him even more than I expected. We need some new things to do around Christmas this year, so the hole won\’t gape open too wide.

    Have you heard the new policy on missionaries calling home twice a year? Thirty to forty minute limit! We’ll be okay…but it’s going to be really hard on families with lots of siblings who all wanted a turn to speak!

  19. Re 20
    We always used a speaker phone for at least part of the missionary holiday calls, which allowed the missionary to be able to tell their stories to everyone at once.

  20. These have been so much fun to read through! Naismith (#15), your Boxing Day tradition isn’t lame at all–my eight siblings and I are pretty spread out too, and while we’ve usually been able to get together for reunions and such back to our parents’ home, I’m sure that eventually there will come a day when we’ll have to create our own meeting times and places. And your comment about falling back into old patterns of teasing and joking, and laughing so much, rings very true to me–we’ve been ejected from restaurants when our gatherings have grown too loud! A major part of Christmas ought to be merry-making, so why not on Boxing Day?

    We’re a pretty strongly tradition-and-holiday oriented family, so our Christmas season is filled with rituals. One of the things we always try to do is schedule one thing–whether driving around and looking at Christmas lights, or going to a Christmas Primary activity, or whatever–for each day. Then we write down each event or plan on a slip of paper, and place them in the pocket of the appropriate day on an old felt advent calendar of ours. Each morning, the kids take turns reaching into that pocket, putting up the felt animal or person contained within, and then reading what is planned for that day.

    Some of our particular traditions include:

    A Christmas “story night,” where we all sit around in pajamas, drinking hot chocolate, and reading from our favorite Christmas stories.

    Starting the Christmas season on November 30, St. Andrew’s Day, with shepherd’s pie. We also put up the tree on December 6, St. Nicholas’s Day, and make rosettes (fried batter cookies with powdered sugar on them; a huge mess and lot of fun to make, but the only person who really likes them is me, and I tend to snarf most of the whole batch) on December 13, St. Lucia’s Day.

    Attending the First Presidency Christmas broadcast (tonight everyone!).

    Our “meager meal” on Christmas Eve–bread, cheese, some fruit, water–by candlelight to help us remember the poverty of Jospeh and Mary before we head out for Christmas Eve services that night.

    As mentioned above, a “light night”–sometimes visiting some particular display, but often just driving around neighborhoods at night, admiring others’ work.

    Eggs Benedict and ham on Christmas morning. That one goes back a ways on Melissa’s side of the family.

  21. When our oldest child was a baby, 12 nights before Christmas, someone started leaving small gifts on our doorstep each night. The interesting part was the weird funny poems, in the style of the twelve nights of Christmas, which were left with them. Of course we figured it was someone from the ward, but the crafty skills of the mystery giver (Santa’s elves, according to the notes) were not up to the usual Mormon standards, so we were a bit confused. After a few days, we heard that everyone in our little student ward was receiving them. (Or at least claimed to be receiving them. Perhaps someone was lying to cover up their involvement, we thought.) The elves came late at night, and always knocked and ran. One of our neighbors chased them, barefoot, through the snow, and found a vital clue– but wouldn’t tell the rest of us. One night they didn’ t come, and we were so sad, but the next note explained they’d had the flu. It turned out later that the vital clue was that the elves’ tracks appeared to be from two pairs of dress shoes, and it was indeed the missionaries, who’d gotten permission to be out late, and had also gotten help from some of the single folks in the ward.

    When our oldest was about three, we started the tradition ourselves, and would choose two or three families that had done something extra nice for us that year, or perhaps just seemed to need something extra themselves. It was kind of a pain at times, to come up with twelve cheap gifts, and witty notes, but over the years we have developed about 6 standard notes and gifts we take. My favorite is the night that we take a tape of me and our oldest who was about 4 at the time singing “He’ll be coming down the chimney when he comes” while my husband plays the banjo. We speeded the tape up so our voices sound sort of elvish, and my husband sounds like the world’s fastest banjo player. The note that goes with it is “On the __- night of Christmas, so I’d know that they weren’t phony, the elves made me a tape on their teeny tiny Sony.” For some reason, the kids never seemed to connect that this tradition might also mean that Santa wasn’t real, but if they did, they were smart enough to not tell us that they’d figured it out. It was a nice way of keeping them thinking about other folks at Christmas time, and of helping them keep track of the days.

  22. O.k. so Christmas is over. Whew…it made me dizzy reading ya’ll’s traditions…tho they were wonderful. Christmas has been hectic and overwhelming to me this year. With 5 kids 1-18 I just am worn out! I couldn’t wait until January! My Christmas decorations are all put I have had years where the tree (artificial, of course) lingered until Valentine’s Day. Ugh. My husband & I had to speak in church re: C’mas symbols on Dec. 10th. I think that was what ruined the season this year. The symbols I saw were congested traffic, long lines, commercialism, tacky yard decor, etc. It was so hard to keep Christ in Christmas and make it more than just another thing on my mental to-do list. Next year we’re going to shake things up a bit…like leave the country, or something. One year we read “Skipping Christmas” by Grisham as a family in Nov. It was great! We followed that up with “A Christmas Carol” & “The Mansion.” But the time of my family being gatherable –I now have 3 teenagers– is past & simply getting us all together consistently enough to get through a book is impossible. How do I return to those lovable Christmas’s when my children were little & the world was less with us?

  23. In our family we exchange the gifts from child to child on Christmas Eve. That way they have more time to enjoy their gifts to each other before the large amount of gifts on Christmas. We also have the children write letters to Santa and put them in envelopes (which we exchange for fake letters and keep the ones they wrote) and have the children toss their letters in the fire with the explaination that the smoke will float up to Santa. They love it and then we get to keep and enjoy their letters years later.

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