“What are some of your family Christmas traditions?” our young friend recently asked us over dinner—not an uncommon question this time of year. Christmas, more than any other holiday, seems to draw up deep longings. We revere the ancient story, eternal in its significance and surrounded by mystery. We yearn for the season to be filled with meaning, a meaning we can embrace and pass on to others. So we look for special ways to celebrate Christmas, to make it our own.
I was a mess our first Christmas alone. I had my Ray, but we had always traveled to celebrate with family. This Christmas our first baby was due. We were housebound. We had no tree, no decorations, and nothing to sell as Jim and Della Dillingham did (in O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi) to help finance my Christmas expectations.
But it was Christmas, after all, and Christmas is about Jesus. Surely Christmas should be one of the happiest and faith-filled days of the year. So we began building our own traditions, built around the anticipation and wonder of God with us. We decided that the most important thing was that we had him and each other. That was all that truly mattered.
The apostle Paul helps clarify why spending time together is so valuable: “I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith” (Phil. 1:25). That has been our goal in building traditions with our family through the years—progress and joy in the faith. What helps us see and follow Jesus more clearly? What gives great joy to him and gives us more joy in him?
Decorations, Stories, and Meal Times Together
Christmas in the Ortlund house begins the day after Thanksgiving, with turkey soup simmering on the stove and carols filling the house. Soon evergreens and nativity sets replace the pumpkins and cornucopias. Our huge handmade felt Advent calendar is hung on the wall to begin the countdown. Decorations are pulled out of drawers and closets. We smile when we unwrap the old ornaments from that first Christmas alone—cookie cutters we still use 40 years later with colorful ribbon glued around their silhouettes. On the day before Christmas that hard first year away from family, Ray convinced the corner tree lot salesman to sell us a scraggly tree at a price we could afford. Although we had no lights, the gingham bows and handmade decorations made it memorable. Traditions, like faith, can start small and grow in beauty and meaning through the years.
Traditions in our home include lots of Christmas music and storytelling from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve. When our children were small, we used our Advent wreath or a picture Bible during family worship for their “progress and joy in the faith.” And we had many other Christmas books to read during story time. Why not invest in a new book each year, books that tell this 2,000-year-old story in faithful ways but also show the newness each Christmas brings? Build a small library of beautiful books used just at Christmas and discover the joy of sharing them around the dinner table or fireplace.
If you are just beginning to develop your own traditions, decide on some foods you will prepare only at Christmas. Maybe there are foods you grew up eating. If not, choose something you love! Our favorites are five special types of cookies my mother made year to year. And we always have a Swedish smorgasbord on Christmas Eve, in honor of Ray’s ethnic heritage, complete with fruit soup and rice pudding (but we draw the line at lutefisk—sorry, Dad). The traditional food is shared with words about the faith passed down in Ray’s family, and the faith that blossomed in mine as my parents grew to understand the true meaning of Christmas.
Importance of Generosity
After church on Christmas Eve and a late-night viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life or Scrooge along with Christmas cookies to enjoy, we would tuck the kids into bed, and Ray and I would bring down the gifts. On Christmas morning we lined up on the stairs, youngest to oldest, with me bringing up the tail. Ray would tell us to gently cover the eyes of the one in front of us, and he would lead us down the stairs to the tree where on the count of three, four excited children would jump and squeal with the wonder of overflowing bounty. Then we would open our stockings, share breakfast, and spend the day slowly opening our gifts and playing with them.
Year by year we tried to teach our children that giving gifts was God’s idea. The joy of generosity for both the giver and receiver originates in heaven. We give because God gives. We never want to take lightly the cost of Christmas to God the Father or his Son, Jesus Christ, who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Each Christmas Ray and I ask ourselves, Who can become “rich” through what the Lord has given us? How can we give so that others experience “progress and joy in the faith”? And then we give until we laugh for the joy of it all. Sometimes the gifts come out of our savings, other times our budget gets shaved in creative ways. Bibles for overseas students, food for hungry families here and abroad, bills paid for someone in need, ministries that need special help at this time of year—Christmas is for giving! One Christmas when we were the “poor” someone slipped us $100 cash, explaining it was a tradition of theirs. We felt like millionaires and have made this act a special part of our own giving traditions. Indeed, it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Another tradition we cherish is recording our “progress and joy in the faith” in a holiday journal. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas we ask family members and visiting friends to record their thoughts in this much-cherished book. Some write what they are thankful for, others share a favorite gift or memory, little ones draw pictures, and we include a small snapshot when possible. This is a visual record of our “progress and joy in the faith.” Each year we bring it out, rejoicing over what God has done in the past and anticipating what new things he will do this holiday season.
Enjoy a cherished tradition. Develop a new one. And as you celebrate may your Christmas be with filled with progress and joy in the faith!