Holiday rituals


Christmas is my favorite holiday.  This month is a special time for those of many faiths, but since I am Christian I will refer to Christmas in this post.  I hope it does not offend.  This is also a season that is now driven by an overwhelming institutional materialism that really bothers me.  Do I buy presents for my children and other people close to our family?  Yes.  And I enjoy it.  But do I feel a mounting unease at what Christmas seems to have become, all around me?  Yes.

I’ve written a lot about ritual and how important it is to my family.  That’s more true at this time of year than at any other.  More and more, our small family traditions feel like a beachhead against the rampant commercialism out in the world.  I find myself turning inward, this year as I’ve done in the past, touching our small olive wood creche from Jerusalem almost reverently and hanging a boxwood wreath on the front door with a deep feeling of joy.  I’m not sure exactly why, but our rituals feel more important than ever.  So I wanted to share some of them.  I’d love to hear how you mark this season, if it has meaning to you and your family, whatever your faith.

We burn an Advent candle on our kitchen island (see above), and every single time I light it I think about how important one of my most treasured themes – darkness and light – is at this time.  Dusk falls earlier and earlier, but we have our small steady candle in our kitchen, and the light of our every day lives.

We only buy presents for the children in our families, our godchildren, and a couple of very dear friends.  This cuts way back on the shopping we have to do, and allows me to really focus on choosing gifts for the people in my life that I know will be most delighted by them.  I do give a lot of books, but there are games and electronics and clothes in there too.


Every year I tie a celadon satin ribbon around the large boxwood wreath on our front door and put out some special decorations around the house.  Our stockings aren’t as special as I would like (I’m still working on the needlepoint stocking I started when Grace was born) but our tree brims with memories.  We pick out a tree in a couple of weeks, not and on that day each child chooses a new ornament.  So we have all the new ornaments from each year, as well as a sterling bell marked with the years that Matt’s mother always gives us and many other dear ones.  A wooden bridge to commemorate the Covered Bridges Half Marathon, an Adirondack chair for Basin Harbor Club, a golden snitch and so many more.  Every year I also have a personalized ornament made for each child (silhouettes one year, doll-like fabric faces another, their names on porcelain disks another) .  I grew up with the annual tree trimming being a huge celebration, and like my childhood trees, ours is sentimental more than elegant.  Years ago Grace asked me why our tree wasn’t “as fancy” as many of those she saw at others’ houses.  I told her that our ornaments may not match, but they were full of meaning.  After a long, appraising look at the tree, she concluded that our tree may not be fancy, but it was “full of love.”  And how.

For several years we’ve participated in a program with the local homeless veterans shelter.  We receive one vet’s holiday wishlist and buy gifts for him or her.  Grace and Whit help me wrap the gifts and write our veteran heartfelt cards.  Christmas carols feature in our traditions: one weekend afternoon we bake and decorate cookies and dance to carols in the kitchen and we sing them after dinner on Christmas Eve with my oldest and dearest friend and his family.

It was that friend whose family was at the heart of the annual Solstice tradition, which ended in 2012 and which I still miss.

If this season is holy to you, how do you mark it?

9 thoughts on “Holiday rituals”

  1. Lovely. We have many traditions too and you are right- it seems with each year they become more important to me and to the girls. If something slips my mind, they are sure to remind me. They love their advent calendar which is a felt tree with an ornament to be hung each day that my aunt made for me when I was little. Somehow, the tradition has now become that I place a piece of chocolate in each pocket along with the ornament and the girl are able to eat the chocolate before breakfast. Makes for a very sweet month! Ha!

  2. I really love hearing about everyone’s traditions/rituals for this time of year. Even though my family is not Christian, we do celebrate Christmas, though with a slightly different focus that revolves around reverence for the winter season and all that it evokes. Since Maddy was around two, we’ve taken to hiding a stuffed red cardinal around the house each morning for her to find (admittedly my half-baked protest against the Elf). She still loves looking for him. We get our tree from the same place every year, and trim it with a collection of ornaments that sound much like yours, including the annual crystal snowflakes that my dad has sent us since we started living together. And it’s funny, because they are often hung right next to the cheap, factory-made K-Mart glass balls that were our first ornaments that we could afford as a couple when we moved in together in 1997. Can’t bring myself to toss them! Love your advent candle–you are wise to add that element of light.

  3. We have lots of traditions that are kind of ever-changing, if that makes any sense. I live in a family of Christmas and Easter Christian Extroverts Shiftworkers… so Christmas is big and filled with an open door, stragglers, and days upon days of celebrations so that everyone gets to visit/participate, even if they are working Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, etc.

    A few years ago, I started taking to the haven of my big sister’s house for Christmas Eve. It is always just her and I and it gets me grounded and away from the chaos. My sister is a police officer, but has a lot of seniority… so she is usually off, but on call. We wrap gifts, drink grey goose, do last minute running around, sing karaoke, etc. We often pop by the police station, bringing treats to her co-workers stuck working. We get up early Christmas morning and go to the police station to cook breakfast for the shifts coming on at 6am or 7am.

    Then we head to my brother’s for 24-48 hours of chaos to begin…

  4. Our tree is full of mismatched ornaments, too. The kids put out their boots on Dec. 6 (St. Nick’s Day) every year with their lists, which are swapped out for some candy and a new ornament (usually ones that have something to do with what they have embraced that year). I still have a small tree with all of the ornaments that they made growing up on it. I never tire of looking at the angel on top of that tree that my now 18 year old daughter made when she was four, though it is showing its wear.

  5. My wife and I loved what you had to say about holiday rituals. I loved it for the plain spoken ordinariness of traditional practices. Seems we’ve been circling the wagons, tighter and tighter for years to ward off the commercial tsunami that threatens the acute beauty of holiday simplicity. When we were only parents we tried to restrain this onslaught from capturing our children. Now as grandparents we feel so much less formidable trying to hold back the tide of blatantly crass selling and trickery to create false need among our youngest. One wonders, where does it stop.

    Early on in our relationship, almost forty years ago we had piecemeal decorations, the fragments leftover from previous marriages and limited budgets. They were so enough though. Bits and pieces from those years continue to adorn our trees along with ornaments collected from the journeys of lives and the many and beautiful and wonderful places we’ve lived.

    Thank you for so lucidly expressing the feelings we touch on and discuss every holiday season. Now we must apply ourselves to find four small, meaningful St. Nicholas Day mementos for our lovelies.

  6. This is beautiful and I love your traditions. To be honest, I don’t really have that many Christmas traditions. Scott is the Christmas guy in the house, so this year, things will be different … I had zero luck trying to hang lights outside but I am putting up a lot of the kids’ old christmas art and it’s so fun to see it around the house. They also put up a Christmas train which they love. I would like to get into a service project as well – something meaningful.

  7. This was great— I love reading about rituals and traditions, especially ones that are different from mine. Beautiful and thanks for sharing.

  8. I am curious where you found your advent candle. We lived in Denmark for a few years and love them but since we moved back to the US I have not been able to find them.

  9. I found it on a website called Terrain … I think it’s a store in New York, too! I have not seen them anywhere else. xox

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