By Anne McKay Garris
Some people have Christmas customs that never change from year to year or generation to generation. The only lights on my mother-in-law's Christmas tree are small candles. The clip on the holders are rusted and, for safety reasons, the candles are never lit. But the custom of candles on the Christmas tree goes so far back in her family that she has never adapted to the strings of electric lights other people use.
I tend to go in the other direction. We scandalized the family and most of my friends the time we decorated our tree with a charming string of miniature Chinese lanterns, given to me when we lived in Taiwan. "It looks like you are celebrating Halloween instead of Christmas," my sister informed me.
"Are you aware the dragons on your Christmas tree lights are the symbol for Satan in China?" questioned my missionary friend.
As I recall, that wasn't the year we decided to have a traditional Japanese Suki Yaki Christmas dinner. We did that a few years later, after our friends and relatives had recovered from the shock of the Chinese lights.
Most people fall somewhere in-between clinging to customs and trying something new, with a pleasant mixture of both. However, we need to examine our way of celebrating, from time to time, to see if we are doing it in a way which builds loving relationships and creates happy memories. Our celebrations also should reflect the "reason for the season."
One mother was appalled at the "gimme" attitude her three young children demonstrated at a Christmas Eve celebration with their grandparents. She watched with dismay as her children snatched at their gifts, tearing the paper off one, then grabbing up another. They didn't pause to appreciate the gift, or thank the giver. By Christmas morning this mother had a plan. Each person, in turn, was asked to take one of their gifts from under the tree and hand it to the recipient. This way the children discovered the pleasure of giving as well as receiving. The interaction between giver and receiver was enhanced by a brief moment of direct contact and the whole family found joy in this simple custom.
My favorite custom is writing and receiving family letters at Christmas, though this has been much maligned and satirized in the media. Most of our friends claim they appreciate our Christmas letter. Even if they didn't, I would continue. More than just Christmas greetings, these brief, yearly records of family history are treasured by all of us.
I always appreciate my friends' Christmas letters, except for the time a casual friend "filled us in" on the details of her messy divorce which was, of course, all her husband's fault. Not much Christmas spirit in that one!
An Advent wreath helps us celebrate the true meaning of Christmas in the midst of the holiday bustle and excitement. This wreath lies flat on the table and holds five candles. Family members light an additional candle each Sunday, starting after Thanksgiving and ending with Christmas Eve. Most families read some part of the Christmas story, followed by carol singing as they light the candle. It doesn't need to be an elaborate wreath, or an elaborate ceremony.... just a simple custom for a family to share and remember.
Customs and celebrations are part of the invisible threads binding the fabric of our lives together. They bring us joy in happy times and comfort in the sad ones. Ask anyone about Christmas memories and chances are they tell you about their favorite customs, repeated from year to year. It's best if they have some relationship to Christmas, however. I'm still trying to explain the Chinese lanterns to certain family members.
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