Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas Traditions

The Christmas season is making me very nostalgic.  I have been thinking a lot about the traditions we had when I was a kid and the traditions that we are starting with J now. 

As a kid, the first tradition of the season was getting our Christmas tree.  We always had a real tree at our house and my mom was always the judge of which tree to get.  We would don our coats, hats and boots and trudge around a tree farm until we found just the tree she wanted.  She would slowly walk around the tree deciding if it was full enough and had no big holes.  We would cut it down, strap it atop the car and drive it home.  There were a few years that the tree was pretty big and I imagine it was quite comical to see what appeared to be an evergreen on wheels driving down the road.  We would get the tree home and almost always had to cut at least six inches off of the bottom for it to fit it the house.  We never seemed to be able to judge the size of the tree well and it inevitably occupied most of the living room.  My dad even had to create his own homemade tree stand to accommodate the size of our trees. The standard store bought stands weren't cutting it.  Several 2 by 4's and some guide wires later, our tree was up and we were in business. 

Then my mom got out the ornaments.  This was almost ceremonious each year.  Each family member had their own ornaments to add to the tree and unpacking them each year was exciting.  Every ornament had a story or a reason behind it.  Many of those ornaments still hang on our tree today.   Once the tree was nearly done, my dad would put the angel on top and my mom would add the three Wisemen ornaments (ornaments kept from her childhood).  Then the tree was complete and it was time to put the Nativity under it.  I always thought our trees were beautiful.  The ornaments weren't color coordinated or themed.  But, they were our family history. Each Christmas that our family celebrated was represented in ornaments on the tree (including the construction paper ornaments made by my parents for their first Christmas together when they couldn't afford real ones).  When J and I decorate our tree, I tell him the story of each ornament, many of which my mom gave me when I moved out.   I can look and find at least one ornament for each year from the year of my birth to the present.  And just like my parents got an ornament for me each year, I get one for J and when he has his own family and tree one day, he will have those ornaments to share with his family.

One of my other favorite traditions was writing our letters to Santa Claus.  My parents still have our letters and every now and then they pull one out on Christmas and read it.  The ones penned by me and my sister are usually lengthy and quite detailed. We elaborately listed and described each toy that Santa should bring.  Then there are the ones for my brother.  It is clear that for the first few years of his life, mom and dad let my sister and me write his letters too.  Our letters typically read like a thesaurus.  They are full of adjectives and run on for pages.  My brother's letters say things like "Dear Santa, I want a ball."

Then we would mail our letters to the North Pole and a couple weeks later, one would come back to us from Santa, whose handwriting looks a lot like my dad's!  Last year,  we started this same tradition with J.  We wrote a letter and mailed it.  And my dad wrote one back to J from Santa.  This year, J wrote his letter all on his own.   He listed out the items of choice and drew a picture of each one, just in case.

On Christmas Eve, we would start our holiday celebration with dinner at home. We would have spinach and salmon soup (among other things) as those were traditional foods that my mom would have on Christmas as a child. I love spinach soup, but I am certain no one likes salmon soup except my mom and grandpa. After dinner, we would head to church for the Christmas Eve service, which always ended by candle light with the singing of Silent Night.   After church, we would drive around looking at Christmas lights before heading home.  Once there,  we would leave cookies and milk for Santa and we do this with J too. Although we also leave oats and carrots for the reindeer.  After all, they are working had and get might hungry too!

On Christmas morning, we would wake up and run to the tree to see if Santa had come.  Mom and dad always made us sit in front of the Christmas tree for a photo and then we would open our gifts.  Once we had them all unwrapped, we would spend the day assembling new toys, playing new games and watching new movies.  Usually all while wearing new p.j.'s, socks or other clothes.  We even spent a few Christmas mornings standing out in the snowy yard clad only in jammies trying out new toys that couldn't be used indoors. 

All in all, my childhood memories of Christmas are great.  We didn't get every single thing our heart desired, but we always got more than enough.  And I know now that what our gifts were didn't really matter anyway. Because as you can see, what I remember isn't any one gift or toy.  It is the traditions and the time together as a family.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Giving & Getting

Once again, Christmas is upon us.  Like every kid, J is super excited.  He has a list for Santa and we will soon be writing a letter to him.  And like every kid, J wants just about everything he sees.  But, he has limited his list to four very manageable items this year.

This year J wants: a Darth Vader, a General Grievous (also a Star Wars character), an excavator and a game for his Mobigo. I have it on good authority that Santa has this one in the bag!

But, with receiving gifts should come giving.  Too often the focus is on what we get and we forget how fortunate we are to get anything at all. As adults, we know there is nothing better than seeing someone open a gift that you have given them and seeing their face light up with excitement. For kids, that is a harder concept to grasp.  And one that has to be taught.  Yes, it is fun to get gifts, but having a giving spirit is important too.  I personally believe that this is an idea that is taught and that too many kids are taught to be greedy, selfish and entitled now days (imagine me talking in my best old curmudgeon voice here).

With that in mind, we have been trying several ways to get J into the giving spirit.  One thing we do annually is Toys for Tots.  Each year we donate a few toys for kids who otherwise might not get any Christmas Gifts.  This year was the toughest so far for J.  He REALLY liked a couple of the toys we were planning to donate.  At first, I thought we were going to have a meltdown of epic proportions over donating the toys, but J pulled it together, put on a brave face and was okay with leaving the donation in the bin. 

Each year I allow J to be in charge of filling his dad's Christmas stocking.  He gets to choose the items for the stocking and we make a card for his dad.  Then on Christmas Eve, we sneak the stuff into the stocking to be ready for Christmas morning.  Last year, J had a blast picking things out. So much so that we overflowed the stocking.  He was so excited that I couldn't tell him to stop!

Also, at J's school they have an annual gift exchange.  Each year I have taken J to the store and let him choose the toy he wants to get for his friend.  I am sure some of the other parents have thought "why did they choose THAT toy for my child?" The answer is simple: by letting J choose, he has to think about the other child, consider their likes and dislikes and choose a gift that HE thinks will make them happy. I think that is important for him.  I could pick it myself, but this way, he is involved and gets to really consider giving a gift.  He is also in charge of wrapping it himself.

But, the most fun project we have done is a new one this year.  J has a love for cutting, pasting, coloring and creating "projects".  This year, I directed that into Christmas Card making.  We took wrapping paper scraps, stickers, ribbon and bows and glued them to construction paper.  I helped, but J did most of the work and he signed each card with various greetings: Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas or Peace, Joy, Noel etc.  He made about 20 cards total.  I then brought the cards to work and contacted family members.  We wanted to sell each card for $1.  The money collected would be sent to St. Jude's Children's Hospital.  The response was overwhelming! People were asking for 5 cards or more each!  The donation hasn't been sent yet, but currently he has made over $50 to send in.  If you ask him, he will tell you that the money if for "sick people".  And he has proudly stuck each donation in the money envelope that I have kept for him.  I hope to do something of this variety annually so that in the season of "getting", J will keep in mind that giving is important too.

Over the next few weeks, I have big plans for projects: cinnamon tree ornaments, salt dough ornaments and decorative cookies.  Some will be attached to gifts, some will go with J to share at school and others will be shared at work.  Hopefully we are laying the foundation for J to grow into a generous young man.