I think it’s probably the fact that most of my friends are spending their first advent season away from home that has gotten us talking about traditions. In the absence of them, we feel compelled to speak them, to give them life, even in a shadow form.
All traditions are different. Some friends celebrate Christmas with their extended families; others with life-long friends; some even celebrate with strangers. On Christmas eve alone the traditions are as different as the people who hold them:
Some people I grew up with spend Christmas eve together, all three families. They go to church together, eat dinner together, and put on a Christmas production, together.
My roommate and her family go see a movie every Christmas eve. A Christmas-theme is preferred, but not necessary.
My host family last year would bake a birthday cake a spend Christmas eve having a birthday party for Jesus.
My pastor’s family ends Christmas eve with a large open house, filled with people.
And all of those sound wonderful. But they are nothing like what my family does. Although there are some traditions in my family that have faded (we no longer light the advent wreath or sing Christmas carols related to ornaments on my tree) most have lasted my whole life. Here is a snapshot of the 48 hours leading up to Christmas day:
Swedish Christmas eve:
On the eve of Christmas eve, my family gets in our car and drives the familiar 28 minute drive to my cousins’ house, where we will reunite with their family and my grandparents. We do obligatory small talk. We fill our cups with our preferred forms of alcohol (or coke products). We eat too many hors d’ours and Christmas candies that are strategically placed throughout the house. We fill our cups again. We laugh. At each other. At my grandparents. We sing along with (or criticize) the music that has been selected.
Then, sometime before dinner, my grandma (Nana) will begin trying to round up the family in the kitchen for
The Main Event.
She will be unsuccessful. My father will summon us all from across the house. We will then obligingly pick up a fancy shot glass, present it to my grandfather (Pa, who is wearing plaid pants, and a red and green vest), and watch as he fills it too high with Akkavit, a licorice-flavored chilled liquor. The next stop is for a toothpick-skewer of either cold potato or raw herring.
Then, we reluctantly form a circle in the kitchen and slowly give our attention to Nana, who raises her glass and says (with assistance from Pa): ” Min skal, din skal, alle, vakre kvinner, skal!” The rough translation (which is provided) is “Here’s to you, here’s to me, and here’s to all the beautiful women!”.
We then throw back our Akkavit, while the women make a horrible expression, since it tastes foul, and the men try to act as though they do this every day. It is followed by the aforementioned cold potato or raw herring. A general outcry of distaste goes up, and we are told that we have a few minutes to get ready for dinner, a variation of Swedish meatballs, Korv, Swedish rye bread, and more typical foods.
The night ends with presents exchanged, generally resulting in tears from Nana and Pa, typically elicited by my most creative, oldest cousin. We then return to the Village and await Christmas eve.
In my family, Christmas eve is not as well-scripted as Swedish Christmas eve. In the morning, my sister and I will get up. A sense of anticipation will be in the air. Mid-morning, we will build a present-tower, resembling an extremely multi-colored and structurally unsound castle, while listening to Christmas classics play scratch on our record player. Pictures will be taken. The tower will be taken down.
We will then have a light lunch, and my father will hurriedly announce that we have to take a walk right now! in order to have enough time left in the day to get ready for…the rest of the day.
We will put on our walking clothes and stroll through the neighborhood, greeting any other brave souls who happen to be outside and reminiscing about our best Christmases.
When we return, my mother will get dinner ready and we will all get ready for church. By 4 o’clock, we have taken a family photo (complete with the dog) in front of the tree, dinner is in the oven, on a timer, and we are in the car heading to church.
We are the first ones there. We drop our coats off in my mother’s office and go to man our stations. My father and I stand by the front door. My mother and sister pick up programs and find the other family that has been recruited to greet for the “family” service. They guard the entrances to the sanctuary and pass out bulletins to excited children. At the front door, my dad and I shake hands with everyone. I see people I haven’t seen in years. Some of them don’t recognize me. Some of them have known me since I was born. They tell me that.
The service starts. A few hundred more people come in. As the crowd thins out, I go to the sanctuary and hear the roar of hundreds of excited children, talking over the kid-friendly sermon. The service ends.
Typically, we head back to mom’s office, eat some pumpkin bread and grab our coats to save ourselves seats for the second service while we help with the transition. We would then sit through the second of four Christmas eve services. The choir would enter to “He is Born”, which my father would quietly sing along to. It would be wonderful. Sometimes we would stay for the next service, the “rock-and-roll Christmas eve” service, as my father calls it.
But usually we would linger, and we would go home, where the smells of dinner would have filled the house. After dinner, we would read Jeremy Creek, a story about a boy who had too many toys, who ended up having his presents delivered to a small town named Jeremy Creek. Then, the Night Before Christmas. Maybe the Polar Express. We would talk about going back to church for the late service, but put on our pjs instead. We would put out cookies for Santa, and carrots for the reindeer, and head upstairs.
My sister and I share a room on Christmas eve. I drag my mattress onto her floor, and we expectantly await Christmas morning together.
This year will be different. There will be no Swedish Christmas eve. Our jobs and vacation time have stepped in the way. My grandparents will celebrate Christmas with their other grandchildren. Instead, we’ll have a Christmas eve brunch with the family who are in town. We’re still ushering at the 5 o’clock service, but we’ll go home after that. Eat dinner at a normal hour, at a normal pace. Perhaps we’ll read Christmas stories then. Or bring back singing Christmas carols inspired by the ornaments. Then, we’ll head back to church, for the 11 o’clock candle light service. We’ll sing Silent Night at midnight, and drive home on Christmas morning, the (hopefully) new snow, reminding us of the newness of life in Christ’s birth.
Whatever you do this Christmas season, I hope that you are with those you love, and that together, you can remember the miracle of that first Christmas.