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Christmas Traditions

This was originally an e-mail I wrote in response to a question about celebrating Christmas when one isn't Christian and avoiding a total focus on materialism. We've made some modifications over the years, especially since we now live in two households, but the essentials are the same.

First of all, I'm kinda anal-retentive :-), so we approached this in a really methodical way. My husband grew up celebrating "Christmas" on Christmas Eve. Everyone would gather at his grandparents' house and open their gifts together. Santa arrived somewhere around dusk. So my hubby was sorta attached to the Christmas Eve thing, but also said there was little "magic" associated with his childhood Christmases. No going to bed tingling with anticipation, or looking forward to stockings or any of that. I wanted the magic for our kids.

Well, for my daughter's first Christmas we just went crazy. I'd always had a lot of packages when I was a kid so I made sure she got a lot of packages. I made gifts and bought things and then I wrapped everything separately (4 pair of pajamas, wrapped individually). She was also a first grandchild, so grandparents went wild. Many of our friends sent her gifts since she was the first child born in our circle, and to top it off, her birthday in January 1. She did, indeed, have a "glut" of gifts.

She was interested for the first few minutes...opened about five packages and then crawled upstairs to look at books by herself while dad and I spent two hours opening her presents for her. It was an enormous chore, not fun at all, and the giant pile of wrapping paper made me very sad for the trees. So we decided we needed to do something really different in the future. Having a huge Christmas made her birthday seem like a non-event, and since they are so close together it was turning into goody week. We thought this might cause problems down the road when we had more kids.

So....here's what we did. I should mention that our Christmas traditions have been evolving as we've found some ideas didn't work out well, or came up with new ones.

First I read Unplug the Christmas Machine. This is an excellent book based on a workshop that helps people decide what they really want to do for Christmas, instead of getting caught up in the commercial fever of it all. It also has lots of ideas for activities and craft projects and such. Then we sat down with a calendar and a piece of paper and literally plotted out our Christmas activities and traditions.

This seemed awkward and not a natural development at all, but now that we've put them into practice they feel quite natural. One of the problems with Christmas is that many of us have these Christmas magic fantasies and we darn near kill ourselves trying to produce them. By plotting everything out we were able to spread the activities out so that the whole month of December is enjoyable and we also manage to avoid burn-out.

In the book (Unplug the Christmas Machine), they point out that Christmas is often overwhelming and disappointing for children. There is so much build-up (beginning before Halloween these days) and then it is all over in a day. We wanted to make the fun last. I wanted to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, but that would obliterate my daughter's birthday, so we spread everything out over December instead.

When we first did our chart everything was pretty much lumped up on Sundays since that was my husband's "short" day at work (he used to work 7 days during Christmas), but after reading Madeleine L'Engle's story The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas, I decided the approach in the book was a more appealing way to go. So now we do something every day before Christmas. (Don't freak out, these are often little things).

I'll try to start at the beginning and progress up to Christmas. The weekend after Thanksgiving or around the first of December (I'm not rigid about this) we pull out the rope that we hang Christmas cards on and the Christmas music. Received our first Christmas card yesterday, so I know it is time to start. Then gradually over the first week we hang up lights and start to decorate. We put up the indoor lights one day, outdoor lights another. I put up most of the inside decorations in one day. And then we make things.....we'll make paper chains and hang them (one day), paper snowflakes (one day). See, this already covers six days . We get our tree 2 weeks before Christmas and dad puts the lights on (this is his project, he won't let anyone else do it). The next day we decorate the tree. We buy new ornaments each year. The kids each get one and we also get a family ornament. When they move away they will each get their own set of ornaments collected over the years. The trip out to choose and purchase the ornaments is another "day".

I have a collection of Christmas movies, all the traditional puppet films..... Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa Claus is Coming To Town, also Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty, the Grinch, Miracle on 34th St. and It's A Wonderful Life. We watch one of these on each Sunday before Christmas as a family activity. The Sundays are counted back from Christmas. We watch It's a Wonderful Life on Christmas afternoon. I also have a collection of Christmas picture books and stories. These are brought out one at time, again a new one each week.

We also go out to look at Christmas lights, we bake cookies, make dough ornaments and several other activities. Each of these is a "day". It is really very easy to spread everything out.

Now, for some more of our traditions. Last year I made fabric bags for our gifts and we don't use wrapping paper anymore. I think that over the years the sight of those familiar fabrics will bring that warm glow. We also made permanent gift tags out of fimo clay. We have a Christmas Eve party every year. This is quite casual, sort of an open house drop-in party. All of our friends come, but they are rarely all here at the same time, so it stays low key and pleasant.

When we get up on Christmas morning we make crescent rolls and eat them before we open presents (the kids get their stockings right away.) After gifts we prepare our Christmas brunch. We are vegetarian and doing away with Christmas dinner eliminated the difficulty with meatless food. Then we take a walk, play games, watch our movie and have a comfy relaxing day. I suppose I ought to mention that all our extended family lives quite far away, so we spend Christmas by ourselves (which I enjoy).

We have tried a couple different things to deal with the gift glut. First of all, both Unplug the Christmas Machine and Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World make the same point.....children are not able to really process and enjoy a large number of gifts. They enjoy opening the first 5 or 6 or so, but after that it just becomes a frenzy of tearing the paper open. If they receive too many gifts at a time they become overwhelmed. So, we decided to limit our gifts to 5 for each child, plus on from Santa. We often give joint gifts to the kids and these count towards the limit, so they still don't receive more than 5. I won't lie to anyone and say that this has reduced our spending, because it hasn't. I just funnel the same funds into a few gifts instead of into a lot. I feel this is an advantage because it has allowed us to purchase some things that are really lovely and we otherwise could not afford (like a $200 wooden toy kitchen from the Natural Baby catalog). By most standards, however, our spending is quite low. About $400 for the entire family (kids to parents, parents to kids, kids to each other and parents to each other).

We have not been able to crack the nut of the indulgent grandparents. We tried to implement a family gift for the kids. I was hoping that I could talk the gp's into buying musical instruments, or a collection of puppets, or good blocks instead of a bunch of little things. No luck. When I explained what we wanted to my mil she said "that's a really good idea and I understand why you want to do it, but I think there should be an exception for the grandparents." sigh

In order to avoid the Christmas Day goody bonanza, we open the gifts as they arrive via mail and UPS. Since my mil sends between 6 and 10 gifts per child, I put them away and spread them out over several days. This way the kids get a chance to become acquainted with their new belongings without being overwhelmed.

Remember, traditions are the things that you do every year, that let everyone know that yes! THIS is Christmas. They don't have to be big or expensive. Making cookies, breakfast with Santa, cracking nuts together while opening gifts, singing together in the evening...many traditions are free.

What your children want most is your time. And that is what they will remember.

We also buy gifts for the local tree of joy and when our kids are older we plan to incorporate some volunteer activities into our plans (like serving dinner at the shelter on Christmas day).

We have only recently started to work on a solstice celebration. For us this is a truly spiritual event and so we keep it sort-of low key to keep the emphasis on that aspect.


Related Resources

Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World by H. Stephen Glenn, Jane Nelsen
Paperback
ISBN: 0761511288, Published by Prima Publishing, 256 pages.

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Video
Details: Color, Closed-captioned, HiFi Sound, Animated, NTSC, not rated.
DVD
Details: Color, Closed-captioned, Animated, Includes bonus feature It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown, Full-screen format, not rated.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey
Paperback
ISBN: 0744554020 , Published by Walker Books, illustrated.
Gift Set (Hardcover book, audio cd & ornament)
ISBN: 0763613754, Published by Candlewick Press, illustrated, 40 pages.

Frosty the Snowman
Video
Details: Color, Closed-captioned, Animated, NTSC, not rated.
DVD
Details: Animated, Color, not rated.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Video
Details: Color, Closed-captioned, Animated, NTSC, not rated.
DVD
Details: Color, Animated, Closed-captioned, "Songs in the Key of Grinch" - Interviews with composer Albert Hague and vocalist Thurl Ravenscroft, Jump to Musical Selections, TNT's How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Special Edition, Pencil sketches of The Grinch and Horton, Commentary with animator Phil Roman and June Foray, voice of Cindy Lou Who, Full-screen format, not rated.
Hardcover
by Dr. Seuss
ISBN: 0394800796, Published by Random House, 72 pages.

It's A Wonderful Life
Video
Details: Black & White, Closed-captioned, NTSC, not rated.
DVD
Details: Black & White, Closed-captioned, THX, Theatrical trailer(s), Remastered from original film negative, Documentary "The Making of It's a Wonderful Life", A special tribute to Frank Capra, "A Personal Remembrance" from "Frank Capra Jr.", not rated.

Miracle On 34th Street
Video
Details: Color, Closed-captioned, HiFi Sound, NTSC, Rated PG.
DVD
Details: Color, Closed-captioned, Widescreen, Dolby, Rated PG.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Video
Details: Color, Animated, NTSC, not rated.
DVD
Details: Introduction with creator Arthur Rankin, ReadSpeak Action Captions, The song "Fame and Fortune", The original promo--not seen in over 30 years, Full-screen format.

Santa Claus is Coming To Town
DVD
Details: Color, animated, not rated.

The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas
by Madeleine L'Engle
Paperback
ISBN: 0440401054, Published by Young Yearling.

Unplug the Christmas Machine
by Jo Robinson, Jean Coppock Staeheli
Paperback
ISBN: 0688109616, Published by Quill, 207 pages.

The Year Without a Santa Claus
Video
Features: Color, Closed-captioned, Animated, NTSC, not rated.
DVD
Features: Color, Animated, not rated.

Christmas 2002
Our family's daily Christmas activities for 2002.

Christmas 2003
Our family's daily Christmas activities for 2003.

Christmas Traditions
Traditions and rituals we've developed in our family.

Non-religious Christmas
Celebrating Christmas in a non-Christian family.

The Truth About Santa
My family's approach to Santa.


Christmas isn't about shopping, it's about the way we care.
- Peter Alsop





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