Celebrating Christmas, Preserving Ritual

Christmas has always been a special time for our family. It’s a tradition we enthusiastically embrace, even though we’re not exactly church-goers. In fact, I would go so far as to call us unbelievers, or even atheists.

But spoiling the magic of Christmas? Not on our agenda. Christmas is too important a tradition for us to abandon.

I think this in large part goes back to my childhood. My step-dad loved Christmas. No, that’s not enough emphasis. He. Loved. Christmas. For him, Christmas-planning started on boxing day.  He would spend all year planning and buying presents and hiding them away for the big day.  In our house, the decorations went up at the same time as the stores (He worked in retail, so that made it easy). And the Christmas music started at December 1.

Now, most people might have one, or heaven-forbid, two Christmas albums. I’m not sure how many he had. Dozens? Hundreds? From 12 different performances of Handel’s Messiah, to 1950’s Carols sung by the likes of Doris Day and Frank Sinatra. It was all there. It. Was. All. There.

We also did the usual decorating the tree and house, and when we were little, did the advent calendar. Each of us would get a turn to open a door.

On Christmas Eve we’d always put out food and drink (preferably a glass of wine) for Santa, and some reindeer food. And then we’d try and stay awake long enough to see Santa…

Christmas Day was always special. All the kids would be up at dawn – and then we’d wake up our parents. But it was the rule – no opening presents until they were ready. It was agony to sit and watch our unopened presents while our (probably extremely tired step-dad) got ready and dressed.

When everyone was ready, we would each get to open one present as a time. Each opening was an event and we all showed each other our presents. In a way, it helped extend the excitement of getting presents, but it also emphasised that the act of giving and getting presents was important – not just the volume of presents at the end. It might seem cruel from the outside, but it was a ritual that made the present-unwrapping an event for the whole family. And for those non-Santa presents, there was always a little story to go along with the present – whether it was the origin of a certain song on a CD, or the strange journey needed to buy a particular item. Story-telling was part of the Christmas event.

These memories from the past have certainly influenced the Christmas rituals in our house. We still do advent calendars, trees, decorations and food for Santa (but we have left out the Christmas music!). And yes, on Christmas morning, everyone gets to open one present at a time and the unwrapping is an event. (If you want to find a fairly accurate but not-PC or kid-friendly version of exactly what this felt like as a child, go and find Bottom’s Christmas episode, ‘Holy’). Perhaps it’s my stubborn, not-quite-Englishness (my step-Dad was English) that makes us do this each year. But we’ll probably continue it for as long as our kids will put up with it.

For all the waiting-torture, bad music and tinsel that keeps turning up in unusual places, Christmas is still very important to our family. Even though we may not (ever) talk about the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas (but you probably don’t want to get me started on that – I’m a history buff!). We will still keep the ritual going, because tradition, because sentiment, and most importantly, because we can. In memory of my step-dad, who knew how to make Christmas special.

So from this non-believer traditionalist, I would like to wish you a very merry Christmas.

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