Christmas Traditions Secular and Sacred

Ghost of Christmas Present

Looks like the Ghost of Christmas Present plays handbells, I’d say an F4.


“Tradition is a gift of the Spirit.”  –Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy.

I would venture to say that most families who observe the holiday have Christmas traditions, and those traditions differ widely. I encountered this diversity in a dramatic fashion during one of my creative writing classes. Each student wrote a story about a holiday, and one young woman wrote about a family who spent their Christmas holiday at a hotel. She read her story, which was rather good, and I showed my lack of knowledge and sensitivity when I commented, “I like the story, but no one goes to a hotel at Christmas. Otherwise, your story is quite plausible.”

I’ll never forget her answer. “Mine does.”

Oops. I learned an important lesson that day which has to do with not assuming that anyone’s reality or experience matches anyone else’s. That seems obvious, but I ignored that fact that afternoon in writing class.

So, here are a few of our family’s Christmas traditions, some serious, some religious, some funny and some just plain odd. I hope they recall for you some of your traditions during this season.

To begin at the beginning, so to say, I remember that the Baptist church I went to as a child did not have services on Christmas Eve. When I joined Manassas Baptist Church in 1970, the pastor instituted a Christmas Eve service that year or the year following. We also had an 11 PM Christmas Eve several times in the past 45 years, but stopped when attendance dwindled.

I was convinced for quite a while that Baptist churches did not have services on Christmas Day, but recently I talked to a couple of people whose churches did. Wrong again.

For as long as I can remember, near the end of our Christmas Eve services, Becky has played an arrangement of “Silent Night” by Dudley Buck as the worshipers lit their candles from those carried by deacons from the Christ candle. (Ralph Powell, longtime choir member, lit the choir’s candles from his cigarette lighter.) Our daughters called the Buck arrangement “Spooky Silent Night” since it began with a series of ominous chords which eventually resolved into a soft rendering of the carol, suggesting the coming of light into darkness*.

When “Silent Night” was over and the congregation had lifted their candles, everyone launched into a spirited version of “Joy to the World” as they left the sanctuary. After that, the choir sang the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and a number of people stayed to listen, applauding at the end.

At home, we also have a number of traditions, of course. Instead of putting our name in the “from” area on gift tags, we use the people’s names the recipient can’t stand or has no chance of ever meeting. For example, I can’t abide the Today show and its cast. Naturally, last year I received presents from Al Roker, Hoda Kotb and Kathy Lee Gifford. Imagine my delight when I saw this. Not. I have also received presents from our cats and from famous authors. I didn’t know they cared. We have fun guessing who gave us each present, and we laugh a lot while we’re opening them.

Amy and Alyssa also do a lip synch version of Maria Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Alyssa channels Maria’s signature moves while Amy “sings” backup with the most vacant expression I’ve ever seen. I just about roll on the floor with laughter every time they do it.

Normally, after the brunch we go over to have a fabulous meal and open presents at my mother-in-law Wilhelmina Detwiler’s house. The menu is the same every year, but no one’s complaining. The women in the family are fantastic cooks, and they all have signature dishes they make and the food is great! Sometimes I am allowed to make the tea, which I suppose is my signature drink, although making it is incredibly easy with my Mr. Coffee Tea Pot. (Does anyone else detect a contradiction in that name? How can Mr. Coffee make tea? And yet he does, the versatile fellow.)

When it’s time to open presents, we sit in the same places, the older folk in the living room and the young ones out in the hall and on the stairs. We have a good time taking the paper off and commenting on the marvelous presents we’ve received.

After that, we clear the table, put the paper away and take our presents to our cars. I’m sure everyone takes a long winter’s nap after that, and another busy, bustling Christmas season is over.

I hope your Christmas was good and that this piece has caused you to think about your own traditions. And, as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, everyone!”

*Here’s a link to the song:



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