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Treasuring Traditions

Yesterday was the start of December, and
to mark the occasion people all across the country cracked open
their Advent calendars. I grew up using one of the thin paper ones,
with little doors you pried open. A scripture verse was written on
the back of each door, and a picture from the nativity scene. I
used to love opening the Advent calendar, watching the days until
Christmas count down even as the scene of Christ’s birth was
revealed more fully each day.

The past few years have seen a huge resurgence of Advent calendars,
and those devices once the domain of Christians only have been
taken over by secular holiday celebrations as well. Now Pottery
Barn and Crate and Barrel sell wooden calendars, felt calendars,
metal ones, all with Christmas tree or Santa decorations. Each day
is another chocolate to eat, or a small treat to unwrap, as well as
another ornament to hang on the calendar “tree”. And
with my apologies to everyone out there who has one of those, these
calendars make me sad.

We have our own Avent calendar, one that
took me several years to find. I was looking for something
religious-themed – think Nativity scene, not Santa and his
reindeer. And I was hoping for something that would have scripture
behind each door, to remind us what the anticipation’s all
about. And of course, I wanted something my children would love,
would look forward to every year as part of our Christmas

And that got me thinking about our Christmas traditions. I’m
big on traditions; for as modern and hip of a girl as I am,
I’m not so much a big fan of change and doing things
“differently”. So in the past I’ve had a tendency
to take something that was Always Done and idolize it, want to put
it in a snow globe and keep it that way every year. But my dad
pointed something out to me when I was a newlywed and complaining
on the phone to him about Brian’s lack of, um, similar vision
for our Christmas festivities (he wants to put a STAR –gasp
– on the tree, instead of an angel, Daddy!). He told me
there’s a big difference between habit and tradition, and
perhaps I should look at why I cling to My Way of doing everything;
was it simply because I’d never questioned it and
That’s How It’s Done? Or was it because those
traditions were really meaningful for me?

I’ve spent the last several years keeping that in the back of
my head as we made our own home, then started our own family (as if
getting married isn’t starting your own family as well!).
Brian and I have tried to be deliberate in the choices we make
surrounding holidays, digging into the reasons behind each habit
before turning it into a set-in-stone tradition.

I encourage you to look at the holiday season and think of the
special things that are part of your family rituals. All kids love
routine, and the holidays are a perfect time of year for them to
anticipate what’s about to come next, having the experience
of last year to fuel their dreaming. Maddie now remembers one
(maybe two) Christmases, and already speaks authoritatively of what
we “must” do – go see Santa, make the family Chex
mix, and so on. She’s explained to Cora the food that we
leave out for Santa – cookies and milk for him, and carrots
for his reindeer – and that on Christmas morning the cookies
will be gone and the carrots will have teeth marks!

I’ve read some wonderful ideas online for holiday traditions
to start with your kids. One family said that Santa leaves a photo
book behind every year for the whole family: it’s not just a
regular “year-in-review” album, but a book documenting
accomplishments and growth, so the kids look back and see how much
they’ve learned or experienced over the year. Another family
said Santa leaves pieces to a puzzle in each stocking, and the
family gets together and does the puzzle as a group. I like this
idea a lot, and am hoping Santa will do a photo puzzle of the girls
and split it up between the two of them.

Going beyond Santa, think of ways you can get outside of the
“food and presents” rut the holidays can bring: go for
a family drive and look at Christmas lights, singing carols at the
top of your lungs. Or better yet, go for a family WALK and look at
lights, singing still at the top of your lungs. Christmas carol to
every house in your cul-de-sac. Volunteer as a family at a soup
kitchen one day during the Christmas break, when spirits are down
and loneliness is at its peak. Buy a gift for an Angel tree, and
make sure your child has input on the gift and understands where
it’s going.

I guarantee you that when your kids go back to their gray, daily
lives in January, they won’t be talking about the loot in
their stockings, but about the time Dad almost forgot to tie the
tree to the roof of the car when you went to cut your own. And next
year, they won’t be reminiscing about the favorite (already
discarded) toy they received; they’ll be looking forward to
picking out a new tree, checking out the neighbor’s updated
house lights.

So back to the Advent calendar. Now you understand why I had to
look for one with meaning, not just a Christmas tree one. And I
finally found one that’s a large wooden frame, with doors
hiding a different piece of the nativity scene – a star, a
sheep, a shepherd, and so on. Each wooden piece is magnetic and
attaches to the board, and by the 24th the whole scene is set. The
only thing it didn’t have was scripture to go with it, so one
night I sat down with a Bible, pulled twenty-four verses
surrounding Christ’s birth, and used my label-maker to print
and stick the verses on each door.

Last year was our first year with the calendar, and Maddie was
entranced; every evening before dinner she’d open a door,
pull out a figure, and we’d read the scripture verse and talk
about it over dinner. Yesterday when I told her it was time to get
the calendar out she squealed with delight and began describing it
in great detail. She placed the first object – a star- very
carefully, and promised Cora she could open the next day’s

“And this is making the picture of the baby Jesus’
birth,” Maddie said to Cora, then pointed at the last door.
“That’s the door he’s behind, because he comes
last. He’s the whole point of this thing, and that’s
how we always do it.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.


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