As we get ready to begin the holiday season, I came to the realization that we have rather a lot of family traditions. At ages 7 and 9, both kids love routines and still have a lot of enthusiasm for most of them, which makes this time of year a lot of fun. As they get older, I am sure we will have to scale back, but I hope not too much and not too soon. A few of the traditions have involved food we have had to adapt for Max’s allergy, but for the most part that aspect has been pretty effortless.
Lessons and Carols:
This is a church service popular in our Episcopal tradition which alternates either Advent or Christmas carols (or some combination thereof) with nine Bible lessons beginning with Genesis and Adam and Eve and continuing to the birth of Christ. Attending this service is something Jason and I have been doing together since before the kids were born. He tells me one of his all-time favorite holiday memories is holding a sleeping infant Max as the congregation at All Saints Chapel Sewanee sang What Child is This. As the children hit preschool years, I worried about squirminess and whether they could sit through the hour-and-a-half-long service which, unlike regular church, is usually at the end of the day. The music, though, always seem to have a almost hypnotic and soothing effect. Now they also love that they receive their own candles for the final part of the service.
The Advent Wreath is another church tradition we have brought home and followed since the kids were young. The wreath has four candles and each week we light a new one. After dessert and before clean-up, we light the candles, have Jason, the former music major, lead us in singing O Gracious Light to Tallis’ Canon and say a couple of specific prayers. With two kids, it can be a be a battle over who lights and snuffs the candles. We resolved this by assigning Claire to light on odd days and snuff on even days and vice versa for Max. Again there is something soothing about candles and quiet music at the end of the day. Since it is too dark to play outside after dinner this time of year this routine is still welcomed by both kids. Plus it is followed by candy. See below.
The Advent Calendar is something I remember from my childhood. Each day of December I would pin a new felt ornament to a felt tree on a felt calendar my mom had made from a craft kit she got one of my first Christmases. Nothing builds anticipation more than a countdown. Today a lot of store calendars include a piece of chocolate. We have two calendars: one my Mom made similar to the one I had growing up and one with slots for candy which the children stuff with safe choices, one piece each for each day. In the past, it has been smarties and starbursts, but this year I am thinking of melting dairy-free chocolate chips into pieces, two (or maybe three so my chocolate loving husband won’t pout) for each day. Having this event after the Advent Wreath each night, probably increases the enthusiasm for the Advent Wreath as well.
St. Nicholas Day:
Jason earns part of our living teaching French, so it seemed somewhat natural to follow the European custom of letting the kids put their shoes outside the door to fill with candy. It means different things in different places. Here Max and Claire seem to believe that it lets them know if they are on the right track to get gifts from Santa on Christmas. Max still marvels at how St. Nick delivers allergen-free candy every year.
Camp out the night we decorate: St. Nicholas Day is usually the earliest we like to decorate the tree and house. If I had my preference we’d wait until the week before Christmas, but kid pressure is too great as they start to see all the neighbors’ houses decked out. We usually pick a weekend before or after St. Nicholas Day depending on how organized I am. A tradition we began when the kids were young was to let them sleep in sleeping bags under the tree the night we decorate. It is kind of magical to look up at the twinkling lights as you doze off. I admit I started this as a way to compensate the kids for not letting them put the breakable ornaments on the tree. Now I trust them with the breakable ornaments, but the camping out tradition continues.
St. Lucia Day:
This is a tradition Jason and I discussed starting while the we were on our honeymoon and the kids were still glimmers in our eyes. On a tight budget when we got married, we honeymooned in Chicago. Being aspiring foodies we of course had to stop by the legendary Ann Sather. Jason has some Swedish heritage, and we also decided to hit the nearby Swedish museum. We saw the displays of St. Lucia crowns and discussed how sweet it would be to have our own ceremony if we ever had a little girl. The feast day for St. Lucia is Dec. 13. In Sweden the tradition is the oldest girl dresses in a white gown with a red sash, puts on a crown of candles (we use battery powered) and delivers sweets, usually a special kind of saffron bun, to her elders. The Swedish tradition commemorates St. Lucy, martyred in 304 A.D., who brought food to persecuted Christians living in the Roman catacombs. She was said to wear the candles on her head so she could have her hands free to carry more food. Claire was about 4 when we had her play the role for the first time. We made the traditional cookies, called pepparkakor, the first year and then discovered the next year we could special order them, and that several commercial varieties are made without eggs or dairy. Traditionally Lucia would surprise her parents or grandparents with the treats. Since we have always lived far away and it’s tough for a 4-year-old to surprise anyone, we modified this tradition by leaving the treats on a neighbor’s doorstep — supposedly anonymously. I use “supposedly” because we have been thanked every year. I guess we’re not too good at anonymous yet.
Caroling in the Forest:
This is a tradition at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, which is the Arkansas state park closest to our house.They advertise it and anyone who wants brings flashlights and meets at the entrance to one of the park’s easier trails. The rangers hand out sheets with lyrics and participants take turns choosing songs. Last year, Max pouted because they didn’t get around to his favorite, “I Saw Three Ships.” The year before Claire was cold and cranky, but when I suggested skipping it she burst into tears and insisted it wouldn’t be right not to go. The event ends with participants gathering at a park pavilion with a fireplace and sharing hot cocoa and cookies. We pack a thermos of Max-safe cocoa and bring Oreos or homemade cookies.
I remember as a kid riding around with my dad in the medium-sized town in Missouri where Jason and I both grew up and looking for decorated houses and light displays. It was usually exciting at first but before long the houses started to blur together and by the end of the night it felt more like a hostage situation with the passengers begging to call it quits and my dad wondering why we didn’t appreciate his latest find. To keep Max and Claire interested, we up the ante somewhat. We pack hot cocoa and pick up cinnamon twists, a rare treat, from the drive through at Taco Bell. Then we choose the house with the best decorations. The winning house, usually after heated discussion, receives a box of ribbon candy and our thanks.
Christmas Eve for the Animals:
This is one of my personal favorites. It usually fills the the afternoon of Christmas Eve before we get ready to leave for church. We spread pinecone ornaments with Sunbutter (before Max outgrew his peanut/tree nut allergies) or peanut butter (which we use now) and then roll the cones in birdseed. We also string cranberries and tear up pieces of bread and then take them outside to leave for the animals. We have a woodsy area behind our house, and this is a way to help the animals and get rid of some of the pent-up energy before the Christmas Eve service at church.
Birthday Cake for Jesus: We started this tradition out of necessity because the church we attended at the time served a birthday cake in the nursery during the Christmas service. The rector of the church wanted to make sure even the youngest kids understood the holiday was about Christ’s birth and not just Santa and gifts. We moved away from that town several years ago, but we still make the cake. We even still light the candles. When I thought we would skip that part last year, Claire made a point of reminding me. At her insistence, we went back and added candles and sang the birthday song even though we had already cut the cake.
Pepparkakor or Swedish ginger cookies
1/2 cup Crisco
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup light brown molasses
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups all-purpose flour
Cream the Crisco, brown sugar, molasses, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Blend in the flour and baking soda. Chill for at least 45 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
On a lightly floured surface, roll dough to 1/2 inch. Cut shapes. Place on cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake for ten minutes or until lightly brown. Move to separate rack to cool.