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Let’s Stop Bashing These 5 Christmas Traditions

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‘Tis the season for self-appointed experts to tell us which Christmas traditions are silly, self-absorbed, unhealthy, materialistic, excessive, or utterly beside the point. I’m all for trashing traditions that give us only glitz, gluttony, and maxed-out credit cards. But many of the traditions that get a bad rap, including these five, remain cherished by our family each year. 1. Sending a Christmas newsletter. I once read a letter, written three months after Hurricane Katrina, from a woman who earnestly thanked God for allowing their basement to flood so they could undertake a desired remodel. Annual letters can be awful, but they don’t have to be. I continue to send a newsy letter with our Christmas cards and enjoy receiving letters regardless of how well they are written. Writing our letter invites me to slow down long enough to reflect on our family’s year. Receiving other people’s letters invites me to pay far more attention to what’s happening in their lives than the occasional Facebook status update allows. I read every letter I receive twice — once when it arrives, and again after Christmas when I go through the cards again before bundling them off to be recycled. 2. Piling gifts under the tree for my children. While my privileged kids don’t want for much, I provide a small bounty of gifts under the tree on Christmas morning — lots of practical presents (like pajamas or gloves) and one or two special items I choose deliberately for each of them. The giving and receiving of Christmas gifts reflects God’s generosity and echoes the wise men’s gifts to the infant Jesus (which were, after all, more symbolic than needed). I also want to model for my children what a gift should be — an opportunity to show loved ones that you’ve paid enough attention to know what they really want and/or need. Rather than scale back on Christmas gifts and/or give to charities instead of each other, I’d rather scale back our purchases the rest of the year, and invite the kids to work with us throughout the year to identify charitable giving opportunities. 3. Focusing on us instead of them. Opportunities for charitable giving and activities abound in November and December — but for the most part, we opt out of such activities to turn our attention inward, to home and family. Having worked for nonprofits, I know that our help is just as needed (if not more so) in March or July than at holiday time. Also, the week between Christmas and New Year’s is the only time all year that our whole family is at home, with our calendars nearly empty. I want to be fully present to these fleeting moments when my kids still live under my roof. Christmas is indeed a time for giving — and our unhurried, unscheduled time and attention is a rare and precious gift we can offer to one another. 4. Planning for Christmas as soon as Halloween is over. Around November 1, complaints about retailers’ rushing the Christmas season proliferate at about the same rate as displays of red- and green-wrapped candy. While I’m not yet ready to hear Christmas music then, I’m happy to start planning and shopping for Christmas as soon as Halloween is over. Spreading holiday tasks over two months instead of one is far gentler on our budget and household mood than cramming everything into the three-plus weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Allowing plenty of time for planning and shopping also guards against impulse purchases and makes it easier to take advantage of sales and coupons. 5. Doing entirely too much. I work harder on the home front in December than any other time of year — baking, decorating, wrapping, and more. It is exhausting. But every tradition we undertake is meaningful; the work I do is a choice, not an obligation. And I can’t help but wonder, with the drumbeat to “simplify” Christmas pounding more loudly each year, if excessive, extravagant preparation and celebration doesn’t have to be a distraction from the true meaning of Christmas, but can instead be a reflection of it. What could be more excessive, more worthy of extravagant preparation and celebration, than God giving himself to us by becoming one of us? That doesn’t mean we have to maintain traditions that have become nothing more than drudgery. Nor does it mean we should give in to the siren song of an overly commercial, budget-busting Christmas. It does mean that I have no interest in a pared-down, simpler Christmas season. The Christmas traditions I maintain are, in a way, sacramental. Material things (cheerful lights, delicious food, carefully chosen gifts) become tangible reminders of the intangible realities of love and grace. A central message of Christmas is that God, far from being disinterested or separate from the material world, is revealed in the material world. At their best, Christmas traditions remind us to look for God everywhere, not just in candlelit quiet but also in flour-covered kitchen counters, letters to and from far-flung friends and family, a child’s delight in a just-right gift, and the transforming presence of a newborn baby.