What do you do with your Christmas seasons?
Christmas – the most wonderful time of the year. For many, they look forward to it all year long and can’t wait until they can crank up the music, set up the tree and wear their Christmas garb. There is something magical about the season and it can bring out the best (or the worst) in anyone. Our Christmas seasons are the years we get to participate and enjoy it all, start new traditions or continue old ones.
When does the Christmas season actually begin and end?
For the shops, it’s pretty much Nov 1. In the Philippines, it seems to be September. Some families the day after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of Christmas so they put their trees up, others wait until mid-December or even Christmas Eve (this is often the case in Europe).
When do you take your tree down? Is it the day after Christmas (so Dec 26) or after Three Kings Day (Jan 6)? What is the end of Christmas for you?
FAMILY CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS
Every family seems to have their own traditions, some passed down for generations. When you get married it can be fun to pull together two different ideas of tradition and mix it up. Or maybe this is where compromise comes strongly in!
Our family tradition
Our family is trinational. Carsten, my husband is from Germany. I am from Australia. The girls are officially German, Australian and American, but have only ever lived here so are surrounded by American tradition for Christmas. But we have made it our own.
Carsten grew up helping his mother, brother and sister set up the Christmas tree during the day on the 24th, Christmas Eve (or Holy Evening as it is called in Germany). They would then go to church for the Heiligabend service and come home to be in their room until the bell rang. When the bell rang they were able to come and open presents. They would have a special dinner together as a family. Christmas Day they went and visited different family members (most of his lived in the same village or close by). Second Christmas Day was the same thing. There were church services also on First and Second Christmas Day.
I grew up with Christmas being in Summer. None of that snow stuff for us! It was definitely swimming weather. I don’t remember doing much on Christmas Eve, but Christmas Day we would, of course, wake up early to open presents. We would then go to church and either go to a family member’s house for lunch or come home to ours, where other family members would gather. There would be nibbles, more present opening (and my grandfather usually counting how many he received, putting them in a pillowcase with a big note saying how many he got) and then a veritable feast.
If we had Christmas Day at Aunty Dawn’s place or at my grandparents’ then we would swim, because they had pools. If it was with my father’s side of the family then there usually was some raucous game, like who can throw the empty bottle into the big bin (trash can). Sometimes in the evening, we would go to the beach but usually, we were too full and happy to just do nothing much. Boxing Day (Dec 26) is still a public holiday so we generally did nothing much, or maybe saw the other side of the family that we didn’t spend Christmas Day with.
When we got married we moved to the States. Here was the moment of truth – how do we celebrate Christmas? We’ve mixed it up some. I think I have adopted more European traditions, but as the girls grow older we are adding things to truly make it our own.
We start Christmas on December 5 to mark St Nicholas Day (on Dec 6). We sit down before the fire with the girls and tell them the story of St Nicholas and they put their slippers/house shoes out by the fire in anticipation of the little gift Mummy and Papa will put into them to honor St Nick. From here on we can listen to Christmas music, put up the tree and do all things Christmassy. (Their birthday is Dec 2, so we like to celebrate them first and separate that from Christmas.) In the coming weeks we go on drives to look at Christmas lights, we bake traditional Weihnachtsbäckerei (German Christmas cookies), and the Pentatonix and Wiggles Christmas albums are on full and heavy rotation.
Christmas Eve, we call family in Germany and Australia, open presents, eat a special dinner and watch a Christmas movie. Christmas Day is quiet. Sometimes we take up an offer to come and spend the day with friends. It depends on how we feel or how busy we are in the weeks leading up to Christmas. We don’t do Santa and we keep our tree up until after Three Kings Day.
Fun side note:
We still debate whether or not Jesus was born on the 24th or 25th (yes, we know that the exact date is not known and wasn’t December anyhow). For me, Christmas Eve means “the evening before Christmas”, therefore Jesus was born on the 25th. For Carsten, Heiligabend (Holy Evening) means just that and therefore Jesus was born on the 24th. The evening means “the evening of” not “the evening before”. I just really want to be right. Ha.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE DIFFERENT CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS?
There really is a great variety of different traditions you can incorporate in your Christmas seasons (year in and year out). Some of these you might know and already do. Others might be something you could start doing.
Advent is the 4 Sundays and weeks before Christmas. It is used to prepare and remember the real meaning of Christmas. You can have a wreath that holds 5 candles that you light – one each Sunday and one on Christmas Eve. Each candle has a meaning: the prophecy candle which represents hope, the Bethlehem candle which represents love, the shepherd’s candle which represents joy, the angel candle which represents peace, and the Christ candle.
Advent calendars begin on Dec 1 and count down to Dec 24. Most advent calendars have little numbered doors that have a picture, verse or piece of chocolate. They are getting more elaborate now with toys, etc. You can even get wine, cheese or beer ones. It depends on how much time I have, but I like to make ours so that we can start on Dec 5, not Dec 1. The girls enjoy the advent calendar either way – whether made or bought. Do you do advent calendars in your house? Do you make or buy yours? I know of families that have reusable ones. That sounds fun too, keeping something the same each year. There are some great resources on advent for kids if you are interested in teaching yours about it.
St Nikolas Day/St Nicholas Day/St Nick Day
There are different stories behind St Nicholas, but most will agree that he was a bishop from the 4th century that did a lot of good in his community. Biography.com states “Saint Nicholas was born circa 280 in Patara, Lycia, an area that is part of present-day Turkey. He lost both of his parents as a young man and reportedly used his inheritance to help the poor and sick. A devout Christian, he later served as bishop of Myra, a city that is now called Demre.”
Some of the St Nick traditions have a side-kick or servant who delivers the punishment if children have not been good. Children can put out their shoe on the evening of December 5, and in the morning there will be small gifts in their shoe. Oranges and chocolate coins are common treats that represent St. Nicholas’s legendary rescue of three impoverished girls by paying their marriage dowries with gold. Candy canes, which have the shape of a bishop’s crosier, are also given. My husband said he usually got an orange, some nuts, and a small toy. It is also agreed that the Santa Claus tradition is a direct translation of St Nicholas, and is viewed as the gift giver, but on December 25, not December 6.
Santa can be somewhat controversial, especially in religious communities – do you or don’t you do Santa? I know I get asked this a lot. We don’t. That is our choice. We have no thoughts about families that do other than “that’s great – you do what you want to do”. For some families, Santa is the magic of Christmas and they enjoy all things jolly – the letter to Santa, the milk and cookies, going to see him at the mall and getting photos taken, keeping the idea of him real for as long as possible. Many cultures do not have Santa, or have Christmas.
For a number of countries – mostly of British Commonwealth, December 26 is known as Boxing Day. Boxing Day originated in England during the rule of Queen Victoria during middle 19th Century and was traditionally a day off for servants and the day when they received a ‘Christmas Box’ from the master. The servants would also go home on Boxing Day to give ‘Christmas Boxes’ to their families. It is a public holiday for countries who observe it. Countries like Germany just have it as Second Christmas day.
Three Kings Day
Three Kings Day, or the Feast of Epiphany, is the final celebration of Christmas. It is the end of the 12 days of Christmas and signifies when the three wise men — Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar — presented the toddler (or baby, depending on how you read the account in the Bible) Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Many Christians across Europe and in Latin America celebrate this holiday. In some homes, it is the tradition to take down the Christmas tree and the children get to feast on the edible ornaments. Other homes will put out their shoes again for the Three Kings to leave gifts.
Elf on the Shelf
This is a new tradition for many families. It comes from the book written in 2005 about how Santa has sent elves to houses to tell him who has been naughty or nice. For some families the elf becomes a part of the family, appearing at Thanksgiving before heading back to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Many families go all out to present different scenes with the elf each day. The rule is that the elf may not be touched by the family members although they can speak to it and tell it all their Christmas wishes so that it can report back to Santa accurately.
There is also a Jewish version called “Mensch on the Bench”. Elf on the shelf is up there with controversy like Santa – should this be something we have our children believe in? Again, it is entirely up to every family about what they want to do, how and why.
Carols and Christmas Songs
There are so many great Christmas carols and songs. Radio stations dedicate weeks to playing on Christmas music. For some families, it is all that is listened to once Thanksgiving is over or December hits. Did you know that there is a difference between a Christmas carol and a Christmas song. A carol is of religious theme and are most of the traditional songs, and a song is generally not religious.
Over the years there have been a number of songs that have become popular at Christmas (and some of them I wonder why – like “My Favorite Things”?) and many recording artists have put their hand to a Christmas album. Mariah Carey, Michael Buble and Beyonce are big hits. Personally, l pretty much listen to Pentatonix and very much try to avoid the song “Christmas Shoes” (5 years in a row not hearing that song – winning for me!). When do you start listening to them? Are you a right after Thanksgiving or December 1st person? Or do you start earlier? Or later? What are your favorite songs and carols?
12 Days of Christmas
Do you know what the song is about? And did you know that the twelve days of Christmas start on December 24, therefore signifying that Christmas starts then and not before? It is believed to be of French origin dating to around 1780 and is actually a memory game. There are thoughts swirling around that it is of Christian origin and that the song was written to help Christians learn and pass on the tenets of their faith while avoiding persecution. It has been proven that that is not the case, but you can still use it that way if you like. Why not?! It’s fitting.
It is a fun Christmas song, even if many people find it annoying. Can you sing the whole thing?
There is something so comforting about Christmas foods. I remember my Mum not liking to cook a traditional Christmas dinner like my Nanna wanted because it was so hot in Australia, so things got switched to salads and cold meats and fresh seafood. For Carsten, they had fondue or raclette. Here in the States we tend to change it up. Mostly we do fondue on Christmas Eve but sometimes it is a fancy steak dinner. We like to mix our cultures.
Do you like to stick with comfortable favorites like ham, turkey, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole? Do you have other foods you just have to have? Or are you a walk on the wild side and do new things all the time? I have friends who always have cinnamon rolls for Christmas breakfast and others who always do green eggs and ham. What fun.
Cookies at Christmas are always fun
I do not remember actually having any traditional ones in Australia. Have I just completely blanked that all out? I remember doing rum balls (very strong rum balls, just as my grandfather liked them!) and “chocky rocks”, which is where you melt chocolate and pour it over a bunch of salted peanuts, spoon it onto a tray and let them set in the fridge. Cookies/Biscuits? No idea.
We bake Weihnachtsbäckerei every year. The shape of the Vanillekipferl is something I get highly stressed about. Apparently, they should be a certain shape and I just can’t do it. Now, a playdough snake I am a master at! Vanillekipferl? Nope! (I might just be completely honest and say there are often tears.) We have about 7 different Christmas cookies that we bake annually. Last year I salvaged some that didn’t work as they should be, but with my tweaks they were lovely. I might do those again this year……make another family tradition. What are your traditional cookies? Do you have any?
I always have every intention of making Gingerbread houses or men with the girls but I usually forget. Maybe now that they are getting older we will be able to introduce it – even if my husband doesn’t like gingerbread…..he doesn’t need to eat it. And it’s not about the eating, it’s about the making. I have bought one – whether or not we make it is yet to be seen. I am sure we will and I will have to put my expectations of a beautiful house aside.
Why is eggnog a Christmas tradition? It comes out once a year. You are either an eggnog drinker or a non-eggnog drinker. You love it or loathe it. It seems to have its roots in England several hundred years before it made it across the seas to America. There is plenty of non-alcoholic eggnog but traditionally it was made with alcohol, which served as a preservative. I have heard that homemade eggnog is better than store-bought. I am yet to be convinced that eggnog is tasty – I just can’t get into it. But conversely, I do make the German version of it – Eierlikör, which will never come without alcohol. I actually have a “grown-up chocolate milk” version (it has Nutella in it) that is requested by a number of friends. That is our seasonal drink. What is yours?
FUN CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS
I have to admit that as the girls get older there are some traditions I would like to introduce. When I was teaching, I loved to set a personal interest project where the students got to pick a country, research its Christmas traditions and then do a presentation on it. I am really looking forward to researching Christmas traditions of different countries with the girls and trying to make the traditional foods. That is the teacher and the nerd in me coming out.
Here are some fun traditions several of my friends have shared with me:
- Brand new pajamas on Christmas Eve (bonus if they are all matching)
- Making mugs of hot chocolate and driving around to see Christmas light displays at homes
- Going to see light displays at places like the Botanical Gardens
- Making ornaments as a family for the tree
- Making Gingerbread houses
- Everyone gets a new book to read on Christmas Eve
- Green eggs and ham for Christmas breakfast
- Secret Santa presents for a family member (everyone has picked a name out of a hat)
- Every family member picks an appetizer and makes it for Christmas Day
- Christmas present scavenger hunt
I would love to hear your traditions. I love seeing what people do…..and getting some new ideas myself. May you have a wonderful, fun-filled Christmas.