Tradition has become a much maligned and co-opted word in our polarized and politicized culture. Traditional families, traditional marriages, and traditional values are thrown around so much that traditions are often seen as suspect, a throwback to a bygone era that has minimal value in this modern world.
What are traditions? Do they have any real meaning?
Traditions are anchors. When I’m river fishing from a boat, I toss out a couple anchors to hold me steady on a particular hot spot, otherwise I’d quickly be washed downstream by the current. And that’s what traditions do. They are anchor points that provide perspective.
Traditions are repeated patterns, or customs, that help us remember our place in the ongoing story that we’re a part of. They are familiar practices handed down from one generation to the next that provide a sense of meaning and belonging in a family, a community of faith, or an ethnic group. They remind us where we came from and who we are, both of which can provide perspective that helps us focus on where we’re going.
I loosely group holiday traditions—those surrounding the winter trilogy of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations—into four categories: faith-based, family-based, fun-based, and food-based traditions. And while there are no set rules as to how to do traditions, here are some ideas that my wife and I have found meaningful as we raised our kids.
As Christian parents, our desire is to pass along our faith to our children in the everyday activities of life. Holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, provide a special occasion to remember, reflect, worship, and tell how the story of Jesus impacts the way we celebrate the holiday seasons. We’ve tried to be intentional and flexible about handing down traditions that symbolize core biblical truths.
When our children were younger, we used tools such as Advent calendars to help them focus on the reality that Christmas is not merely about sparkling decorations, delicious foods, delightful gifts, and fun family gatherings but primarily about remembering and celebrating the most important Person’s birthday of the year. We read the Old Testament promises about the coming Messiah and sang songs about His coming.
As they got older, at the suggestion of some friends who were further down the parenting path, I made an advent wreath from a Styrofoam ring with room for 25 tapered candles. Each day we progressively lit another candle until on Christmas Eve all 25 candles were ablaze. What a sight! Of course the kids loved it (it involved fire!) and enjoyed lighting and extinguishing the candles each evening (under strict parental supervision, of course, and a fire extinguisher close by ). But the progressive glory and accumulating light from the candles was a vivid reminder of the anticipated glorious coming of the great King under the cover of a dark wintery night in a humble stable so long ago.
We also found a book that told the stories behind all the favorite Christmas songs we hear and sing throughout the holiday season. It provided the “back story” that even we as parents never really knew. It’s still a favorite part of our Christmas tradition each year.
Reading the Christmas story on Christmas Eve is one of the highlights of our celebration. For us, Christmas Eve begins at 6:00 p.m. Often we begin with attending a early Christmas Eve service at our church. Afterward, we eat dinner (Chinese takeout—more about that later). We light the Advent candles. We read the Christmas story—usually from Luke’s gospel (2:1-20). We sing Christmas carols, allowing everyone to pick some of their favorites. We pray together, thanking God for sending His perfect Gift, His only Son, to show us how much He loved us (John 3:16).
Christmas Eve is not a time to rush through these preliminaries to get to the main event—the gifts we give to each other. This is a precious moment, a sacred space set aside to savor the true wonder of Christmas: that the infinite God of the universe chose to confine Himself in the body of a helpless baby who grew to be a man to show us all what God looks like in a man suit!
These are some of the traditions that have helped us as a family focus on what’s most important at this special time of year. But as I mentioned earlier, I’m sure that many of you have your own deeply meaningful traditions that help you focus on the One who is the reason for the season. So it’s your turn to share your traditions so that we can all benefit. And, who knows, I just may start a new tradition in my home based on some of your suggestions.
I’ll share some additional traditions in my next post.