Traditions – the gifts that keep on giving
by Sharon Simpson
They say that some of the age-old Christmas traditions are slowly falling out of favour. The younger generations have either forgotten or no longer cherish some past favourite Christmas traditions.
One tradition that is slowly being lost is the traditional Christmas Eve carol service in our local churches. That is a shame, Christmas Eve service is so very special.
Our Christmas Eve service at church is nearly exactly the same as it was when I was a little girl. Family members travel from far and wide to be together. People are dressed up fancy and it all feels magical and special. There is a Christmas play of some sort with actors from within the congregation. The little children steal the show with their choir. Lasting memories.
The Christmas story is read from the Bible and the teenagers light the candles on the ends of the pews. We sing the Christian Christmas carols in candlelight. When the lights come up, the children rush to the front of the church to get their paper bag filled with candy, chocolate, peanuts and one mandarin orange. I remember when that was one of the only oranges we’d get in the Christmas season. My parents remember when a mandarin orange was their only Christmas present. Over the years, Christmas Eve service layers the memories that have built strong emotional bonds between individuals, families and the community.
One friend of mine who long ago left our church and our faith returns Christmas Eve to be with his family. “It’s like being in a time machine,” he says, “I feel like I’m a kid again. Nothing seems to change here.” At first, I thought it was a criticism. I wished that church could be more appealing so that he would come back to his faith. And then, I watched his face as he scanned the crowd. People were waving, acknowledging him. He was smiling back. He lifted his daughter high for his former Sunday School teacher to get a peek. He was laughing. He was home.
On the 23rd of December (and many other days prior), our family has a long-standing tradition. We invite friends and neighbours to sing Christmas carols with us in our home. We move the dining room table aside, fill the room with chairs and serve hot apple cider. The carolers arrive with baking and we spend time with each other singing favourite carols and ending with the Christmas carols that tell the story of Jesus, born in Bethlehem. My husband plays the piano that his grandparents passed to him. It is over 100 years old and was owned by his grandfather who was the mayor who bought it from the mayor before him.
One year, after a night of Christmas caroling, I found a carving on the side of that piano. It simply said, “Evan”. Our young neighbor, Evan, was busy, but not with singing! We have never tried to repair it. Evan, who moved away years ago is with us in this memory each Christmas.
Sometimes, our own children refused to join in the singing. We knew this was normal. Traditions for teens are tough. Sometimes they asked to go out with friends to escape the tradition. Every year, we asked them to sit in the room, shake the sleigh bells and just be with us. I remember when our teenage daughter reluctantly brought her group of friends to join in. Embarrassed, she invited them to sit on the hallway floor at the front door. They endured the singing, grabbed the snacks and left as soon as they could.Ten years later, they all returned with fond memories and joy for another round of singing the familiar songs.
Another year, a special “grandma” danced and acted out the entire Good King Wenceslas song. It’s a really long song, but it was her favourite. Grandma roamed the rooms of our home gathering fake pine logs and treading through winter’s freeze as she taught us that “you who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.” We all laughed and still fondly remember her crazy antics. She came with her daughter’s family that year. It was her last Christmas.
They say that traditions are the bedrock of our lives and I believe this. Traditions serve as an avenue for creating lasting memories, for the gathering of families and for reconnecting friends. Traditions remind us of our values and sometimes shake us out of our apathy. When we gather in this way, we are reintroduced to the meaningful relationships and the people who once held us dear and still hold us dear in their hearts.
Traditions help us understand that we are connected to those who came before us and those who will follow after us. We are part of something much bigger than our own life. Life came from someone else and is handed to another. Life is precious and life is special and life is shared.
And so, we prepare ourselves for another Christmas season, full of meaning, full of traditions. Your Christmas traditions and memories are one way to write the story of your life, year by year by year. And all the work you did when it was your turn to make traditions real – all that work wrote the stories for your loved ones year by year.
As so, dear elders, we pause and thank you for the traditions you gave to us.… the gingerbread house, the angel hair, the sprayed snow, the twinkly lights, the magical surprises, the chocolate orange, the sausage dressing, the story of Jesus’ birth and the harmonies in Silent Night.
We thank you for your gift of faith in Emmanuel, God with Us. We thank you for giving us the gift of comfort, joy and peace – for the way we felt like we belonged somewhere each Christmas Eve. We thank you for loving the One who first loved you, for honouring the baby Jesus and for trusting in His gift of salvation. We thank you for giving us the gift of spiritual Christmas traditions – a gift that gives us a solid foundation and hope for the generations who follow. We thank you with the biggest thanks we can give and look forward to being with you at the Christmas Eve carol service this year!
Sharon Simpson is the director of Communications and Stakeholder Engagement at Menno Home.