I grew up with good, normal, American Christmas traditions, but in my late teens and throughout all of my twenties, my family went through a deep and visceral fracturing that did not leave holidays unscathed. For most of those years I distanced myself from any family holiday gatherings because it felt like taking sides in a war I couldn’t win. It may not make sense to some, but it often felt like the choice between walking into a war zone or pretending the war didn’t exist—and selfish as it may seem, the way to survive for me was to not choose sides with my presence.
For most of the those years I was co-opted into other family’s gatherings, an extra seat at their table, a pair of socks or a book or nothing under the tree for me. I was so glad to be there, though, that gifts mattered little to me. I wanted the feelings of the season, the reminder that even though my world felt broken, there was hope and wholeness somewhere. What I learned, spending Christmases with so many different families, is that hope and wholeness exists in Jesus alone. Every family was a mere shadow of the family yet to come. This freed me on the cusp of my thirties to begin crafting traditions of my own, whether or not I would ever have a family of my own. I didn’t want to wait for marriage to begin traditions; I wanted to start now. I began to craft them on my own, and invited others into them. Those traditions helped build on the traditions that Nate and I are now making as a family.
I know it’s only the beginning of November, but some of my Advent traditions begin in late November, so I wanted to share them with you now so you can get a head start.
The first family who invited me into their family Christmas makes these every year. They are so popular in our hometown, that nearly everyone makes them. Here’s a funny story: I was once at party where they were served and where one of our pastors and his young son were. After trying a few of them, another attendee leaned over to my friend, the pastor, and said, “You might not want to let Jack have any of those cookies,” pointing at the Rum Logs, “I think someone spiked them.” We all had a great laugh afterwards. These are alcohol free but you wouldn’t know it from the taste. They are our favorites and they never last long.
Last Christmas a friend introduced us to Good Earth Sweet and Spicy Tea and I have not turned back. I drink both of the caffeinated one and the decaf one almost every day throughout the fall and winter. It is my favorite drink without question.
A few years ago a family from my church invited me to Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb in Dallas. I was spellbound the entire time. Not only was the performance funny, somber in all the right places, and felt like being in a living room with the musicians, it was poignant and felt so full of expectation. I’ve tried to go every year. Here is the list of cities it’s coming to this year. Go. You won’t regret it.
Partially because Christmas has felt more sad than hopeful for me every year for the past fifteen years, and partially just because I think by nature I tend toward being more melancholy during the winter months, I find I’m less of the Holly, Jolly Christmas sort, and more of the In the Bleak Midwinter sort. I have to not only listen to the deep and soulful music, but also the fun and jovial sort. But I also find my heart swells with expectation when I let it enter into the darkness we would feel without Christ. Young Oceans Christmas album has been a constant for me the past several years. Also, I am loving Christy Nockles new’s album, A Thrill of Hope this year.
A few years ago Russ Ramsey released Behold the Lamb, a book of readings leading up to the birth of Christ, and I have always gravitated back to it in December. He’s a very descriptive writer and you feel like you’re right there with Mary when she gets the news, with Joseph in his dream, with the Shepherds by the star. But he’s also deeply theological, and there’s some convicting work in this book of what it means to follow the babe born in the manger.
One thing I’ve noticed about myself around Christmas is I tend to get fixated on a certain song or certain passage of scripture and it plays on repeat for me. This isn’t bad of course, but a book I’ve come to appreciate each year is Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. It begins in November and some days the chapters are long, sometimes they’re just poems, sometimes short observations, and they’re all by different authors, so it doesn’t feel dry or the same every day. I cannot endorse the theology of each one of the chapters, but if you’re a discerning reader, I think there’s some great food for thought in here.
Last year for my birthday some friends in Denver took me out for breakfast and gave me this candle as a present. December felt really dark to me last year for a lot of reasons, but this candle felt constant and its scent strangely just gave me hope. It reminded me that we were not alone and that a great Light had come. Plus, purchasing these candles supports cool things. And they last so long. I’ve had a few now and they’ve all lasted longer than other candles of similar size.
Nate and I have been in purge mode for the entirety of our relationship (moving from Texas to Colorado to Virginia and soon (hopefully!) to Tennessee in only 16 months makes you pare down your belongings pretty quickly). We also have been formulating some principles behind gift-giving and, if the Lord gives us children, how we want to instill generosity but also intentionality in our gift-giving. For us, right now, we’ve adopted a four gift rule with a catchy rhyme. It’s working for us, and helps us be really mindful about what we’re giving and why. Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.
If you know me, you know I’m adverse to shopping almost always, but especially at Christmas time. I will do almost anything to stay away from malls, Target, even grocery stores during December. About a decade ago, though, I realized I was always forgetting gift-wrapping until the last minute—and I realized I was spending $30+ for just a few gifts to be wrapped and then unwrapped (likely the next morning because I procrastinate…). So I started looking at those brown paper bags from the grocery store a bit differently. Recycling and avoiding last minute wrapping rush and fitting wrapping into my philosophy of simplicity? I have been wrapping my gifts in brown paper tied with bakers string for over ten years now and I don’t see that tradition ever changing. Some years I stick a sprig of evergreen or rosemary in the string, some years I’ve wrapped up a bit of bark or a candy cane. I mix it up a bit, but it’s usually always the same. This helps me keep it simple. It also helps me remember that everything under the tree is just a thing. It’s special for a season, but it is still ultimately just a thing, and someday will be recycled itself. I don’t know about you, but I need all the reminders of that that I can. I saved some images on Pinterest over on my Traditions board so you can get some ideas. My best advice is just look at what’s around you and make it work. Save money, time, and still make it special.
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I hope your Advent season is rich and full. And I hope if you’re still unmarried you don’t wait for a spouse and children of your own to start traditions. Start now, even if they’re just small things no one knows about but you. Redeem this time, even if redemption in this season feels weightier or harder than it might appear to be for others. And if you’re a parent, remember this, the things I remember most about Christmas when I was small are the oranges and Granny Smith apples in our stockings, the oatmeal breakfast with craisins and cinnamon, and waking up to a cold house but a warm home. I cannot recall even one gift I received throughout my childhood, though I know I had them. I remember the presence of my parents and the warm simplicity of our home and holidays.