Never underestimate your attachment to the Christmas traditions of your childhood. Trust me. You will hold on to those traditions as if they were the last Tickle Me Elmo on the shelf (or Cabbage Patch kids for my generation). Everything else is a knock off—not good enough. White lights or colored? Real tree or fake? Angel tree topper or star? Turkey or ham? The battle of the Christmas traditions plays out in real time around the yuletide of newlyweds all over the world.
The first Christmas my husband, Pat, and I spent together, we were only engaged. Christmas fell during the week and I had no vacation time to travel home so I spent Christmas with his family. I was excited and naïve. Little did I know the emotional toil being away from home the first time would have on me. We went to Christmas Eve Mass—I rushed out of work to sit in an hour and a half of traffic and barely made it to 4:30 Mass where we packed it in like sardines. Of course Christmas Mass was beautiful, but my mind kept wandering to Christmas morning Mass at home—the fresh crisp air as you head out the door to the frosty car. Not many go to 7:30am Mass, so the elbow room is heavenly.
After Mass, we went to his brother’s house for bratwurst and sauerkraut dinner. My mind wandered to what my family was doing at home. (We always had Kentucky Fried Chicken—I missed those fake mashed potatoes!)
Pat’s mom is from Germany and they have a tradition where Christkind (the Christ child) along with the angels bring gifts while the children eagerly wait in the other room. I fell in love with this tradition right away. Most of the family went upstairs with my nephews while Pat and his brothers stayed to help the angels. The kids could hear loud thumping (the angel’s wings) and the door opening and closing and then silence. A tiny bell rang and my nephews ran downstairs to see all the unopened presents piled around the lit Christmas tree. Pat’s mom read the nativity story from the Bible. We sang carols and then it was time to open the presents. That’s when my childhood prejudices raised their ugly head. We just attacked the presents. Where was the order? I had no idea who got what! Plus it somehow felt like cheating opening ALL our gifts on Christmas Eve. I’m pretty sure I almost burst in to tears right there surrounded by mounds of walled up wrapping paper. Thankfully my husband’s family is the best and they knew I was missing my family. (Instead of thinking: run, run away quickly from this emotional mess of a woman).
The next morning was another let down. No enormous brunch after church like I was used to—just Stollen and Panettone (European breakfast breads). There were no kids, so there was no Santa although I think Pat and I opened one gift. We hung out in jeans waiting for Christmas dinner. The whole time I was surrounded by people, people that would one day be my family and that I loved dearly, but I felt very alone. The reason? Their traditions were so different than mine—I was not only missing my family, I was missing my Christmas.
The next year we went to my family’s house for Christmas. I was sure Pat would see how awesome our Christmas traditions were. Christmas Eve my family bought their Christmas tree and put it up. We decorated the tree and of course BLEW the tinsel one piece at a time on to the tree trying to reach the top. As you get older you need to kneel down a bit. But seriously, no clumps allowed. We ordered KFC and I realized maybe I’m starting to move on from these fake mashed potatoes. We traveled to my aunt’s house where we visited with extended family—I enjoyed myself but I could tell Pat was thinking about his family and their Christmas Eve traditions. I realized that just how I had missed my family, he was missing his family. Just as I had missed my Christmas, he was missing his Christmas.
That’s the year I realized it was not about “my” family or “his” family. It was about our family. Every year since, we’ve made changes to our Christmas tradition. As our family grew and with my parents insistence, we stopped traveling for Christmas. Just two years ago, we stayed home for Christmas Eve as well—going to Mass at our parish church. Now Pat carries on the tradition of Christkind in our own house. Although we miss our extended family, it can’t match the magic of our kids seeing the beauty of Christkind leaving the gold packages under the tree and seeing their house transformed before their eyes just as they wait downstairs.
With every change that we have made, we have both felt loss. But it was important to be at peace with our Christmas traditions and to make them our own. When deciding about your Christmas traditions, remember to be patient with each other. Neither of you probably realize how important your customs are until they are challenged. Sometimes you can’t do both. Talk to each other about what’s really important to you. Keep an open mind. Something you don’t like at first might be your new favorite Christmas tradition.
Through all the ups and downs of creating your family Christmas traditions, always remember the joy of Christmas truly comes from the baby in the manger. So no matter what traditions you choose, always keep the holiday Christ-centered, reflecting on the great love God has for us, sending his only Son.