My family usually gets together around the holidays, but sometimes it’s for Christmas day, and sometimes it’s not until New Year’s, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. We exchange presents in some fashion most years, but the process is always a bit uncertain, lacking both guidelines and routine. One year we might gather under the tree Christmas morning to tear apart wrapping paper, and another year, I might have Amazon ship my folks a box in early December. We used to set up and decorate a tree every year, but that custom grew more sporadic after the cat knocked down the Christmas tree so many times its stand broke. Even after the cat got too old to jump up the tree and eventually died, we started being away from home for the holidays more, and setting up a tree felt less worthwhile. Three years ago, Lawrence and I bought a little artificial Christmas tree for our living room, and we haven’t taken it down since, but that’s long lost the luster of tradition and probably better qualifies as background decor these days. For a few years past our breakup, I tried to keep alive the breakfast tradition I had learned with my ex-boyfriend’s family — cinnamon scones and scrambled eggs and bacon — but eventually that, too, faded into obscurity.
But planning a wedding this past year meant that I spent a lot of time holding traditions — bridal showers, bachelorette parties, cocktail hours — up to the light, examining them, and deciding whether they were right for me. In many cases (including all the aforementioned ones), they weren’t, so we skipped them. So maybe it’s not surprising that now, as Lawrence and I lay the foundations of our own family, I find myself turning that same scrutiny to Christmas. I want to apply that same care and thoughtfulness to the rituals of Christmas, elevating those that genuinely resonate with or hold meaning for me and discarding those that don’t.
Last year, just before Christmas, I saw a random tweet about an Icelandic tradition of receiving books and chocolate on Christmas Eve. The idea of spending the night before Christmas curled up somewhere cozy sinking into a new novel while slowly suckling chocolate sounded absolutely divine to me. I knew I had to make it happen. Once may be a whim, but this year, we once again treated ourselves to new books and fancy chocolate the night of Christmas Eve. So now it’s a tradition. My Christmas tradition. My only Christmas tradition.
After a Christmas Day yesterday that somehow managed to feel perfectly ordinary despite being in a new state, I’m already bursting with ideas for potential Christmas traditions that I want to test out in the future, rituals that make sense for me and my new family, structures to elevate the day with significance. Here are a few:
Christmas CD Advent Calendar
During this busy December, Lawrence and I seldom spared a thought for Christmas, and I think this lack of build up may have inadvertently curbed our enthusiasm for the holiday. We already own a Christmas CD collection large enough to listen to a different one each day of the month, but right now, that just means that we end up going through a Christmas season without listening to most of our Christmas CDs. My idea is to designate a specific Christmas CD for each day of December leading up to Christmas next year. It’ll be a two-for-one for getting in the holiday spirit. I always think that anticipation is half the joy of something, and a daily countdown would certainly help build anticipation. And, of course, a daily dose of Christmas music should help to set the mood.
My family did have Christmas stockings sometimes when I was growing up, but we used them primarily as decor rather than as a repository for gifts. As immigrants from a country without a Christmas tradition, I think the difference between tree presents and stocking presents was one of those things that got lost in translation when we tried to adopt a holiday wholesale without any examples or instructions along the way. Were they for gag gifts? Presents that were small in size? Who knew? But, looking back, I can remember at least one childhood Christmas when having a Christmas stocking and clear instructions could have spared a lot of grief.
Back then, I got exactly one present each Christmas, and I got to pick it out (within a budget). That year, I was getting a dollhouse where each room could be assembled from building blocks, some kind of Lego knockoff, and I couldn’t wait to start playing with it. On Christmas morning, I woke up in the dead of night, and there it was, waiting under the tree. I dragged it to my bedroom, tore off the paper, and had been happily playing with it for a couple of hours by the time my poor parents awoke to find that I had opened my Christmas present without them. It wasn’t even that I had violated an explicit instruction to wait to open presents together; it was that they had expected me to know better without being told, to be considerate enough to wait. The details are fuzzy so many years later, but I remember that my parents were furious, and I’m pretty sure the occasion ended in tears.
Here’s the distinction between stocking presents and tree presents that makes the most sense to me: stocking presents are those you can open by yourself, as soon as you wake up on Christmas morning. Tree presents are those that you open together, everyone gathered together leisurely, probably after breakfast. In that vein, it also makes sense to me for stocking presents to focus around self care and pampering and to be primarily consumable items rather than permanent objects: a box of tea, a bath bomb, lip balm, comfortable socks. A favorite snack; another bar of chocolate. Something to entertain an eager little girl who gets up hours before her parents (the sequel to the book from the night before?). And citrus fruit in the toe, because Lawrence’s aunt told me that’s what she did when she was a little girl, and as a lover of oranges, who am I to argue with tradition?
I’m already looking forward to putting these together — and opening them — next year.
Last year, we spent a magical Christmas afternoon snow tubing in the mountains of Washington state, and this year, we took three walks around the neighborhood of our AirBnB in a San Antonio suburb. In some sense, I suppose you could say that we have this tradition already. Both times, we felt invigorated and refreshed by the brisk air and the activity, but I can assure you that the two experiences were not equal. I’d like to give this tradition more thought in the coming year and formalize it enough to plan for it, so that when we return to it, we can have more playing in the snow and less strolling through the subdivision.
In a recent conversation about Christmas traditions with a friend, she described a problem I’ve never experienced: having so many Christmas traditions that it felt burdensome to perform all of them. It was a good reminder for me not to get too carried away when adding new traditions. Much like my material possessions, I only want to keep my Christmas traditions if they have meaning, serve a purpose, or bring me joy. And that means that the most important Christmas tradition of all might be to continually examine my traditions, assess them, and honestly choose the ones that are right for me.