Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Our Family Traditions

Dear Friends,

Unless I was stirring up trouble and tormenting my sister, we were a nice quiet family. Christmas morning was the most exciting day of the year for us three kids, but our family ritual was so reverent it looked like something that Norman Rockwell would want to paint. We sat in a circle around the tree and one by one we took turns opening up one gift at a time. All attention was focused on the one whose turn it was and once the ooohs and aaahs were said and the commemorative photo was taken, we moved onto the next person. On one Christmas, we spent four hours opening gifts! We savored every moment and every gift. The family ritual, the filled stockings on the mantle, having breakfast with the grandparents, the ceremonial opening of the gifts. This was the right way to celebrate Christmas!

When I was a young man and engaged to an Italian girl, I was shocked at how her family did Christmas. First, they opened their gifts up on Christmas Eve which was just plain wrong to start with. Then it got downright violent. Their tradition was that the kids gathered in the hall at the edge of the living room. There was shouting and screaming and when the mother yelled “NOW!” they all rushed the tree. The brother pushed the little sister out of the way and she fell down. She got up and started slugging him as hard as she could. They were all grabbing gifts and as fast as they could they were ripping off the paper. As soon as a gift was unwrapped it got thrown into different pile. Sometimes in the chaos, you'd pick up a gift that wasn't yours but that didn't matter. You'd rip off the paper, and if it was a doll for little sister, you'd just toss it into her pile and grab another gift. There was laughing and shouting and gifts were getting kicked and stepped on. Any cards or sentiments on gift tags were not read and were immediately thrown in the trash pile. Tree ornaments were stepped on and the broken glass ground into the carpet. The year I witnessed this travesty and mayhem they called “Christmas,” there was so much struggling to get the gifts under the tree, the whole tree fell on them. It was irreverent, rude and chaotic to this Episcopal Church boy who had missed the Christmas Eve service to attend this family’s holiday havoc. The next morning, my now hung-over fiancee was so bored by my family Christmas tradition that she kept falling asleep. For weeks after, she and I argued over the “right way” to celebrate Christmas. For her family, it was the most fun they’d have all year! But before the next Christmas season, I broke off the engagement after she tried to kill me with a butcher knife, and I vowed to never again date a Sicilian girl from a New York mafia family.

One of the most wonderful things about family Christmas celebrations is that our family rituals are our’s alone. Your family traditions most likely have not looked like mine or hers. They looked like yours

But have you ever been curious about how others around the world celebrate Christmas? In Belgium, Christmas breakfast is a special sweet bread “Cougnou” that’s shaped like the baby Jesus. In Brazil, the poor families who can’t afford a tree use a dry tree branch and put cotton on it to simulate snow. At midnight In Finland, Christmas starts with a sauna. Dinner is traditionally boiled codfish or pickled salmon and herrings. In Germany, the children wait in the dining room until they hear the ringing of a bell and that’s when they rush into the living room to open their gifts. In Hungary, children go to a relative’s house and while they are gone, Jesus brings a tree and gifts to their house. 

In Portugal, the traditional dinner is salted, dry codfish with boiled potatoes. (I found many cultures that celebrate with salted, dried fish.) In Africa, the most important part of the Christmas church service is the love offering. It’s the birthday gift given to Jesus and each person comes up to the altar and lays down their love offering. On Christmas eve, children in Africa march up and down streets singing Christmas carols and shouting, “Christ is coming, Christ is coming, He is near!” In Bethlehem, the Christian homes are marked with a cross painted over the door and each house has a nativity scene that is handmade by a family member. 

In Russia, Christmas eve is a twelve course meal with each course in honor of one of the twelve apostles and it’s not Santa that brings gifts to Russian children it’s “Babushka.” Babushka means grandmother and the legend is that she declined to go with the Wise Men to visit Jesus because the weather was too cold. But when the Wise Men left, she regretted her decision and filled a basket of gifts for Jesus and hurried to try to catch up to the Wise Men. Ancient Babushka never found the Wise Men or Jesus and that’s why she visits each house leaving gifts for the children.

The passage of time in our lives has changed the traditions of our own childhood. We may think back to long-ago Christmases with fond, loving memories or we may be glad that our family circumstances are different today. Family members, rituals and traditions change with the seasons of life and yet, what has remained the same over our lifetime and over the past 2000 years is the unchanging, immutable Jesus Christ. That’s why, no matter what our Christmas day tradition looks like, perhaps we should stop to take a deep breath and just ponder the wonder of it all. “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.” Luke 2:20 The shepherds praised God for the birth of Jesus and we too give thanks and praise to our Almighty Father for the redeeming gift of His only Begotten Son. Amen?

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