Happily Even After
Christmas Presence & Traditions
Note: Below is a “Christmas special” of two posts from Josh and Stacey.
by Stacey Noem
Sometimes one of the challenges of celebrating Christmas as a family is figuring out how to reconcile some potentially disparate childhood practices with one another. For instance: when do we open gifts?
Joshua and I – as in so many aspects of our lives – could not have been more different from one another in this regard. His family opened all of their gifts (every one!) on Christmas Eve when they returned home from Mass. When it was time, they would sort out all the gifts from under the tree, making a small pile for each member of the family to slowly work through. Then they would head to bed. To this day I am not totally clear on what they did on Christmas morning. It definitely did not involve unwrapping gifts.
My family, on the other hand, allowed me to open just one gift (always new Christmas pajamas) on Christmas Eve. The rest we opened on Christmas morning sitting around taking our time together. One member of the family passed out individual gifts one-by-one making sure to finish with each person’s “big present” at the end. Sometimes when it seemed like all the gifts under the tree had been opened we might find a sealed envelope in the branches of the tree with a big finale, like the picture of a brand new television.
After so many fond memories of our big finales on Christmas morning, the practice of making sure to have a “big present” or “main gift” for each person in our family is a hard habit for me to shake. This Advent in particular as we have been making preparations for Christmas, I find myself paging through potential purchases in my mind to make sure we have everything ready.
Cue record scratch sound effect –
I just wrote a sentence that started, “This Advent…making preparations for Christmas…” and it ended with a statement about “purchases!” I find it really challenging to stay focused on the spiritual elements of this season in the face of billions of dollars in secular advertising.
So, going back to my opening line…
Sometimes one of the challenges of celebrating Christmas as a Christian is figuring out how to reconcile some potentially disparate practices — our Christian celebration of Christmas and the secular celebration of Christmas.
For me I think I fail as often as I succeed: I remember to spend a little time in prayer each morning with my Advent devotional, but then I squander most of my after dinner time on the computer shopping for deals. We put up the Jesse tree, but accidentally skip three days because we are just “too busy” to sit down together as a family to read the Scripture passage and place the symbol. I manage to carve out time to participate in our parish reconciliation service, but then I spend most of an evening bustling through the mall.
The pull between the Advent season and the shopping season is a constant tension I find. But I think it is a worthy tension. It requires me to struggle with my priorities and to choose to focus on the spiritual elements of this season again and again. When I do, when I turn my attention from presents to God’s presence in the Incarnation, God meets me with another gift of grace.
by Josh Noem
We live near and work at a storied university with a famous football team loaded with traditions. We are part of a Church that names Tradition as a source of divine revelation. Tradition is a way of life for us.
Christmas is an important time for traditions in the life of a family. When Stacey and I shared our first Christmas together, it became very clear that our holiday traditions were different. As kids came along, we had the chance to establish our own family traditions.
Many of our traditions involve food. Traditional foods involve so many of our senses—they are powerful tools to shape experience. Our Christmas Eve dinner comes from my family—apple pie and beer cheese soup garnished with popcorn are staples. Christmas Day food comes from Stacey’s family—a ham or a turkey for supper.
One of our family’s favorite traditional foods comes from my Norwegian roots: lefse, which looks like a flour tortilla, but is made with potato and flour. It is buttered and sprinkled with sugar and then rolled up. On Thanksgiving, I make lefse in the morning, and that feeds the family until we have our big feast midday.
Traditions are ways for us to pass on our family identity to our children. In fact, the word “tradition” comes from the Latin word for “handing on.” Traditions are arks that carry values and beliefs into the future, but they are also ways to reach back into the past and grab hold of key memories.
When I make lefse, for example, I think of my grandma and my aunts making it, and I remember running through the kitchen with a hoard of cousins and grabbing a roll of it on my way through. When we eat beer cheese soup, I think of being around a table as a child on Christmas Eve with my sisters and parents. These traditions put me in touch with all of the important people in my life who have made me who I am.
I’m confident that our children will one day carry on some of our family’s traditions, and they will be reminded of these days. Much more than recipes are handed down with traditions—these are ways to pass on family identity.
It is the same with our faith—the way we worship FUNDAMENTALLY involves food. Breaking bread and sharing wine have been a tradition for our family of faith since the time of Jesus (and it was a tradition for his family since the time of Moses). Gathering on Sundays has been our tradition since the resurrection. Telling stories and reading letters has been a tradition since Paul traveled to Corinth and Thessalonica.
We do these things because we are Christian, and they are a way to hand down an important way of life to later generations and to guide our children into the future. They are also a way for us to reach back to past generations and grab hold of memories that help us know who we are. These ways of doing things have come from faithful people who have sought and found God. In gathering for Sunday Mass, hearing the stories from Scripture, and coming together around the table, we join this family of faithful people.
Traditions tell us that we are not alone, that we are part of a family journeying through life together and with the same spirit. This is what I hope to hand down to our children with our family traditions—knowing who they are and who they come from will help them grow into faithful Noems and Christians.