by Jessica Langdon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Take a step back from the holiday bustle and think about what you remember — and love — most about Christmas.
Chances are, the most cherished memories don’t revolve around anything you can unwrap under the tree, but are instead family traditions.
In fact, Michael Morrisey, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation, says a tradition started in his family because he and his wife Patty didn’t really need anything, but their two children still wanted to do something.
The kids were younger then, and they decided to take their parents out for dinner on Christmas Eve. Their son chose a nice restaurant and they enjoyed the evening.
Well, this gift turned out to be a little pricier than the younger generation expected, laughed Morrisey.
“I wish we had a picture of his face when the bill came,” he said. “It was classic.”
The parents handled the check that year. It was the time together that was the true gift.
So now, every Christmas Eve, “We go to Mass together, and then we do our thing,” he said.
No tradition is too big or small, and the special touches that go into the holidays now will very likely be passed on to the next generation — and the ones after that. Maybe it’s a special food you look forward to that’s always there and a part of your heritage.
“Christmas isn’t Christmas without the family making povitica!” said Cindy Werner, a member of St. Joseph-St. Lawrence Parish in Easton.
Or maybe the tradition is the time spent making the season bright.
“I think, especially in the 40 years that Barbara and I have been married,” said Deacon Tony Zimmerman, lead consultant for the archdiocesan office of marriage and family life, “there’s the anticipation that comes when we put up the Christmas tree and decorate the tree.”
Those were special times as they raised their six children.
“My wife does this with such care,” said Deacon Zimmerman.
He sees three traditions as vital parts of the holiday season for families:
1. Decorate the tree together and include symbols, such as light, of what Christmas is about.
2. Go to Mass together. “It’s being with all these other families, our own family, being with all the ones you love,” said Deacon Zimmerman. He has many memories of Midnight Mass. “The church is so beautifully decorated . . . the beautiful carols, the incense, the Gloria, the song of the angels.”
3. Another tradition is “to somehow make sure that we have cared for someone else, another family that needs help.” Christmas is also a time to pray for the people you have helped.
Advent calls for a penance — not the penance of Lent, but a way to rid your life of the things that block Christ’s presence, said Deacon Zimmerman.
It is a time to see Christ in — and celebrate his birth with — the people you love.
The aroma of a favorite cookie baking could conjure happy childhood memories. Or maybe it’s the places, the sights and sounds.
The Leaven’s advertising manager Jennifer Siebes remembers when all four of her kids were under five. They were all excited about Christmas, and nearly impossible to get to sleep.
“I would put them all in their footed pajamas,” said Siebes. Each set of little hands would get a spill-proof cup of hot chocolate and they would load into the minivan.
“We had more fun singing Christmas carols and drinking hot cocoa from sippy cups and looking at Christmas lights,” said Siebes, “till they would pass out one by one.”
Family has been a big part of her kids’ memories.
Ellen, 20, recalled “Grandma taking all the granddaughters out for dinner and to ‘The Nutcracker’” and going with family to Midnight Mass.
Audrey, 18, loved “Mom’s homemade cookies” and waking her siblings on Christmas morning to race downstairs and check their stockings. A
ndrew, 16, fondly recalls “Mom’s homemade snowman and Santa Claus cookies.”
Allison, 14, especially remembers “family dinner with all the cousins on Christmas Eve and coming home from morning Mass to have breakfast with Grandma and Grandpa, then opening gifts around the tree.”
Ron Kelsey, consultant for the archdiocesan pro-life office, said his family split the Christmas holiday into two distinct celebrations.
“So that way, the kids got to celebrate both aspects,” he said.
On Christmas Eve, their eight kids got to celebrate Santa.
“We went out looking for Santa Claus,” he said.
They reserved Christmas Day for Jesus’ birthday celebration.
“Christmas Day, of course, was Mass and sometimes a birthday cake for Jesus,” said Kelsey.
One family anticipated notes from Dad. They were often poems or clues about what was in the packages beneath the tree. In another home, parents wrote a heartfelt letter to the kids.
And no matter what traditions make the holidays shine at your house, it’s never too late to start a new one — even this year.
For Catholics, noted Deacon Zimmerman, Christmas Day merely begins the Christmas season. Although radio stations will stop playing Christmas songs by the end of Christmas night, and some decorations will come down, it’s still Christmas until the feast of the Epiphany, he said.
Six ideas for family traditions
1. Share your blessings with others.
Put together a plate from your family’s Christmas meal or a tray of homemade cookies and have your youngest guest deliver it to a neighbor.
Find a way to volunteer as a family.
Have your party guests write messages of hope through the Give. Hope. campaign of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. Or ask each person to bring canned food or a financial gift — even $5 — to help those in need through Catholic Charities’ food pantries or emergency assistance program.
2. Read a holiday story with your family.
3. Try a new form of family prayer.
Deacon Dana Nearmyer’s son wanted to do night prayer.
“We listened to it through the Divine Office,” said Deacon Nearmyer, lead consultant for the archdiocesan office of evangelization and Catholic formation of youth. Now they now run the prayer on the stereo in the living room.
“It’s real meaningful,” he said.
4. Celebrate family heritage through food.
“The one thing we do every year as our Christmas meal is always German food,” said Rose Hammes, archdiocesan director of communications and planning. Every year, the family has sauerbraten and spätzle in honor of its German heritage.
5. Bond as a family.
Get a new board game and keep it on the table during the holidays so you can turn a few minutes of downtime into a chance for your busy family to laugh and reconnect.
6. Make decorating a process — just like Advent is a process of preparation.
Life gets busy with work, family obligations, social engagements, activities — you name it. And family dynamics change, whether it’s through divorce, kids growing up, or other circumstances. Those factors can have an impact on old traditions, but they also open room for new ones.
With three of her four kids away at school this year, Jennifer Siebes, advertising manager at The Leaven, decided instead of gathering everyone for one day of intensive decorating, to do a little at a time.
Each night after dinner, she and her daughter Allison would work on one task, maybe putting 10 ornaments on the tree or setting up the crèche.
The process of preparing the house for the New Year can be similar — if in reverse.