I love all the traditions that come with Christmas, but what I’m learning is that not everything has to be a tradition. This time of year I feel like there is this enormous pressure, especially with kids, to establish and continue traditions. Activities we do every year, service projects, advent calendars, decorating traditions, food traditions, baking, movies, gift giving traditions and on and on. What I’m learning though, is that as the kids have grown and we enter into different phases as a family, we want to do things a little different year to year. So some of the “traditions” I thought I was starting, were really just fun things for those years. Really fun, wouldn’t trade them fun, great memories fun… but not to be repeated fun, at least not this year. Besides, I’m still learning too, and I may have a better idea for this year… something that fits our family a little bit better for this stage of life, for this year and where we are at. The real traditions are the things that have been passed down to us and we want to pass down to the next generation. The things that remind us of truth and honor the true “meaning for the season”. It’s not when we decorate or how we decorate, but it’s why we have the tree, why we deck the halls, and our heart behind it.
Our advent calendar is one of those things that morphs a little year to year. We always knew we wanted to start the tradition of doing an advent calendar with the kids every year, so when they were 1 and 2 years old we purchased a
beautiful wooden advent calendar with little doors they could open every day. Over the years, the wooden calendar has stayed the same and it’s a beloved holiday “tradition”… but what we’ve done with the calendar has changed every year.
The first year, it was a little slip of paper with a verse or two that told another piece of the Christmas story. We had little toys or treasures in each day. Another year it was a piece of candy. Another year also included an activity we’d do every day, or a clue for an activity written on the back of the verse. (These were the preschool days when we all had a little more time and needed things to do.)
A few years ago I stumbled on a new idea that we’ve been tweaking ever since. I bought a tiny tabletop Christmas tree at hobby lobby and an assortment of little ornaments to go on it – all sorts of Christmas icons – angels, wisemen, shepherds, Santa, snowflakes, sugar cookies, candy canes, bells, wreaths, and so on… Every day inside the advent calendar box was an little treat for each child, but also one of these ornaments. Before we put the ornament on the tree, we’d talk about they icon – the history, why it symbolizes the Christmas season, how the tradition started, but also how it reminds us of Jesus. Doing this began to put the meaning back into the traditions we see around us every day. Why do we have trees in our homes? Why do people put candles in the windows? Why do we bake so much during the holidays? Why do we send Christmas Cards and what’s the deal with Fruitcake?
Anyone with young kids knows they have lots of questions – so doing an advent like this was right up their alley. Honestly, Brad and I found it pretty interesting too. We’ve done this for three years now, and as with everything, it changes a little bit as they get older and we learn things. For little kids, seeing a wreath as a circle with no beginning and no end representing God’s everlasting love for us is enough. Or seeing a Christmas tree as an arrow pointing up to God is enough. They get a little older and they find the history a little more interesting. The story of Martin Luther and the first time he put candles all over a tree makes their eyes light up and they want to run out and look at the stars. They get a little older and you start adding in the beautiful symbolism written throughout scripture, Jesus’s death on the tree in 1 Peter, the fulfillment of prophesy in the star out of Jacob in Numbers, and the bright and morning star in Revelations. It can grow with their interest and understanding.
It’s also flexible. At first, we did it at breakfast time in the morning, I planned activities to coordinate for specific days (going to look at the Christmas lights or baking cookies for example). When they started elementary school and our mornings (and afternoons sometimes) were rushed, we started doing them at dinner, or before bed, or sometimes even after school. If we missed one day because of a spend over at Pops and Nanas, we just forgot or we unexpectedly ended up having company and plans changed… no big deal. It’s not a story that we needed to double up the next day – every day is free standing.
Since we started doing this, I’ve had several friends ask about what we do and want me to share. This year I was finally able to sit down and type it in a rough way from my notes. It started with the book The ADVENTure of Christmas by Lisa Whelchel, that’s where the idea came from. It’s a great resource if you can find it. I’ve added a lot from other sources and my own research too after watching my kids digest and ask questions about different things at Christmas time over the past 3 years. So, throughout the month of December I’ll post about different symbols/traditions from Christmas and include a little history, how it points us to Jesus, a verse, and some suggested activities. Feel free to follow along, share with friends, and comment with your own ideas and stories. I’d love to know what you think!
On a broader note though, in terms of traditions, I would encourage you all to take the pressure off defining everything as a “tradition” and just say “this year, we are going to do this” and leave it right there. If next year you want to do it again, then do it. You’ll end up developing your own traditions without trying because they are worth doing every year. People who know me well have heard me say it before, but you must fight for margin in your life. And during the holidays, it’s an all-out war. Fight for margin in your finances and fight for margin in your time. You don’t have to do it all. It doesn’t make it better, I find it actually makes it less. However, if you have margin in both finance and time then you are free to be used by God for the unexpected, and with that comes the better blessing, the deeper meaning, and the real tradition you want to pass on to your children.