Year after year at Christmas time, families and loved ones look forward to spending time together and treasure their traditions and unique memories they create. Among the blessings of the annual family gathering are the shared customs, beliefs and values that are passed from generation to generation.
Christmas is a time for families to get together, and as they gather to share gifts, food and good cheer, they also share traditions.
Families cherish the activities and rituals they have in common, and their traditions, some serious and some not, are often the most anticipated pleasures of the holiday season.
Joe McBrayer, a Florida-based author and speaker, shares the story of a friend of Sicilian heritage who salivates at the mere mention of the tradition his family follows every Christmas Eve. The popular seafood-centered “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” known simply as “The Eve,” is a mouth-watering ritual that many Italian-Americans observe.
Generous platters of lobster, linguini, cod, cannoli and other culinary delights are washed down with ample servings of homemade red wine. The warm glow of candles and faces young and old, belly laughs and cross-table conversations fill the air.
“After feasting for hours, full of food and drink, they stagger to church for midnight Mass,” recalls McBrayer. The decadence of the feast, tempered by devotion to faith, has been part of the family's tradition as far as anyone can remember.
The McBrayer family, however, takes a different approach, and their tradition is grounded less in cultural significance and more in originality. On the evening of Dec. 24, just as they've done for the past 20 years, the whole clan will head over to the local Waffle House for a simple spread of eggs, grits, hot coffee and a smorgasbord of family-style chitchat.
“Weird, I know, but it's not Christmas Eve for the McBrayers without the smell of hash browns in the air, Elvis' 'Blue Christmas' on the jukebox, and the wackiest of conversations with the restaurant staff.”
The low-budget breakfast fare is nice. But what McBrayer's family loves most is an annual rite that “keeps us grounded in an otherwise unsure world.”
What about a pajama party and chili dogs?
“We've always done that,” says country music star Luke Bryan when asked about his family's quirky Christmas Eve activity. “It's special any time you can come up with fun traditions and hold true to them. Cooking chili dogs in a onesie is pretty special.” The Bryan family tradition may be unusual, but it's a cherished ritual that his kids are likely to perpetuate for generations to come.
Americans agree that the meaning of Christmas is found in faith, family, traditions and giving to others, and the time spent with family and friends is what people look forward to the most, surveys show.
You could say Christmas is a kind of glue that strengthens the family's bond.
“Traditions foster closeness between family members, provide family stability and create feelings of belonging,” says Utah State professor Shannon Cromwell, who has created a list of 20 holiday tradition ideas to bring families together. “Our values and beliefs are often reinforced through family traditions. Family traditions do not have to be elaborate, expensive activities. The significance of a tradition is for families to have time to relate and communicate with one another. Spending quality time together helps to affirm family values, faith and life experiences while celebrating the season.”
Whether your family's treasured memories involve “Silent Night” and sugar cookies, eggnog and ugly sweaters or white elephants and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, they are all worth having.
Just ask some of the folks at Legacy Plan, whose employees have an array of favored traditions. One colleague howls with laughter as she recalls the annual competition with her sister to see who could come up with the ugliest gift for each other. One year it was a lamp complete with velvet shade and ball fringe; another it was a gaudy mirror with hideous sconces jutting from a mustard-colored frame. To this day, another colleague says he can taste the Christmas Eve lasagna just by talking about it. “It started as a kid, and it's all I remember having,” he says. He honors his mom's memory every year as he savors his favorite, yet sentimental, holiday meal. For a third co-worker, it's all about the bonbons. The white orbs of gooey crunchiness made from graham crackers, walnuts, chocolate, condensed milk and other goodies are now favorites of his youngsters, ages 6 and 4. “The kids love them, and they asked for them again this year,” he says.
The thrill that Idaho-based author and self-described family man Dan Harmon anticipates each Christmas is a certain sense of satisfaction. Harmon enjoys his family's annual tradition of spending several hours volunteering at the Salvation Army. He'll remember forever the reaction of a grateful little girl after receiving her gift.
“They headed for the exit when the little girl suddenly stopped dead in her tracks, handed the special doll she had chosen for herself to her mother and dashed back toward me with her pigtails flying. Frightened at her own audacity, she nevertheless threw herself at me and with a whispered "thank you very much" gave me a big hug, planted a kiss on my cheek and dashed back to mom,” Harmon writes. “That 30-second episode more than made up for the long days in the store. It was the most wonderful experience of the joys of giving I've ever had. That was 30 years ago, and I've never forgotten that little blonde girl in her plaid dress.”
For Harmon, the best part about the holiday season is the annual opportunity to help those in need and earn a heartwarming reward of a child's appreciation.
Even if you have a long journey and are debating hitting the road this year to the old homestead, family traditions are well worth the time and travel, Harmon says, offering some valuable advice.
“So, go home for Christmas, wherever home might be, and soak in the healing familiarity. … There is no reason to stop now.”
As life goes on, family traditions become as important to the future as they are to a celebration of the past. Christmas offers a unique annual opportunity for the older generations to share their traditions, values and unique history with the entire family - and it can be the most wonderful time of the year to remind us what is important in life.