Celebrating the Holidays Can Be Very Personal

I was still in graduate school when I was a young adult and starting my own Christmas traditions with my new wife. Even after I finished taking classes, my wife was still working as a teaching assistant, so we were still tied to the rhythms of the school year. This meant that we did not get serious about Christmas until exams were over and grades were posted. This left seven to ten days to get ready for Christmas. Even after we had children I was still tied the school year since I was a professor teaching physics. The idea of putting up a tree or lights during the Thanksgiving weekend strikes me as odd. Even going Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving weekend seems odd to me.

This year I bought our tree on December 13 at the urging of my youngest. I remember years when we got our tree on December 22 or 23. It was easy to pick a tree, since there were so few to choose from, but we never had settle for a real Charlie Brown tree. Our tree is not decorated yet. Maybe we will get to it next week, when my other daughters get home. I also put up our small display of lights over the weekend. We frame the door in lights and put a wreath with lights over the door. It acknowledges that it is Christmas without inflating the electric bill.

We have developed our own traditions for the Christmas tree. My wife objects to tinsel, so we don't use any. We have reflective balls on the tree, but many of the ornaments are family traditions. I have received many penguin ornaments for Christmas and they all make on to the tree. Others are from my wife’s family, and others are made by the girls in school. It is not the most glittering tree, but it very much reflects who we are.

We start to play carols about a week before Christmas. We mix it with up with old and new. The family really likes the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas album, and I like Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas, The Pretender’s 2000 Miles, The Alarm’s Happy Christmas (War Is Over), or the songs from A Charlie Brown Christmas. As Christmas gets closer, we play more religious carols with Joy to the World being the most played. My daughters love to hear me sing Joy to the World due to my enthusiasm rather than my skill. They especially love it when I sing Joy to the World at mass on Christmas Eve.

We also go our own way with Christmas cards. I am always surprised when we get our first Christmas card. "Already?", I think. There was a time when we did not even get to the cards before Christmas. They went out on the 27th or 28th, still early enough to make it by New Year's Day. We aren't that bad anymore and we almost always get them out before Christmas, but not so far before that they are guaranteed to show up before Christmas. My wife has liked to send Christmas letters for quite a few years, but she always wants me to write them. Well, we haven't settled that debate yet this year.  

Starting a week or so before Christmas, I greet my Christian friends with “Merry Christmas”, my Jewish friends with “Happy Hanukkah”(although Hanukkah was too early for that this year), my pagan friends with “Joyous Solstice”, my atheist friends with “Want to have a beer?”, and anyone whose traditions I do not know I greet with a “Happy Holidays.” Despite what you hear on the news, I have never had anyone complain to me about wishing them “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” If anyone did complain, I would just reply, “I thought you might be Jewish, and I didn't want to take a chance at offending you.”

Over the years I have developed a real affection for Christmas Eve mass. It started when my daughters were young. Christmas with young children can be many things: rewarding, sweet, memorable, and but definitely hectic. We started to go to mass on Christmas Eve to allow us a relaxed Christmas morning after the gifts were opened, but I came to find the mass to be relaxing too. It was a dramatic break from all of the preparations of the last few days before Christmas. Singing the carols brings back memories of many previous Christmases. By the end of mass I find that I have achieved a sense of calmness and well being.

My family has developed its own Christmas traditions by combining the traditions from my childhood and my wife’s while adding on new ones of our own suited to our unique circumstances.