On Advent Sunday, the fittest member of the family climbs up into the loft to retrieve the Advent calendars (we use the same ones every year), the Christmas CDs and DVDs and the decorations. The Christmas cake (made during the October Half Term) is fed with more brandy; the kitchen table candle changes from cream to red; the John Rutter Christmas CD is on repeat play in the kitchen and we prepare for the first of our December film nights curled up together on the sofa in front of a log fire. Christmas, like all festivals is a time for tradition, for doing things together as a family which ‘lend a certain magic, spirit and texture to our everyday lives’.
If tradition was a rock band, I’d be its number one fan. We have rituals and traditions in our house for all sorts of times of the year, not just Christmas. Traditions are important. They provide a sense of identity, strengthen bonds with family and friends, connect generations, teach values, offer comfort and security, pass on cultural and religious heritage, add to the rhythm and seasonality of life and create lasting memories. In other words, they’re uber-good for our health and wellbeing.
Some Christmas traditions are pretty universal. Most people decorate a Christmas tree, although this is a relatively ‘new’ tradition, not becoming popular in the UK until the early nineteenth century, whereas others are more personal. Most of us maintain some of the traditions from our own childhoods but some are new introductions which come about after we have our own children. And even these change as they get older. For years we did the whole ‘Stir up Sunday’ thing like a friend of ours who remembers the making of the Christmas pudding to an old family recipe. Everyone in the family from youngest to oldest had a stir, a taste and made a wish. The huge mixture was divided between a range of bowls for members of the family to take away. However, guess what? None of the five of us actually like Christmas pudding so we very quietly stopped this tradition. Now we have a homemade chocolate roulade (my recipe), which is made on Christmas Eve, whilst we listen to the Carol service from King’s College, Cambridge. What’s more, it has reduced the potential stress of how to steam it on the top of our hob, when there are so many other foods to cook on Christmas Day. We transferred the stirring ritual to the Christmas cake instead. I like the idea of providing my children with a memory box of traditions, some of which have been in the family for generations, from which they can evolve their own when they have their own families.
I asked some friends about their Christmas traditions and rituals. Many Christmas traditions concern the preparing and eating of special foods. The making of the Christmas pudding, the recipe for Christmas cake, the journey with Dad to the butchers on Christmas Eve to collect the turkey, satsumas in stockings and making mince pies with mum whilst listening to special songs.
Others are to do with decorating the house – the ritual of choosing and bringing home the tree, making the wreath for the front door, putting up stockings and making or buying one new tree ornament every year for each of your children so that they have a beautiful collection for their own tree when they leave home.(I love this idea!)
Still more are about the giving of gifts, the sending of cards and the writing of letters. We have friends who remember having to book a Christmas Day telephone call to relatives overseas in September. Others phone friends in Australia, after returning from the midnight communion service on Christmas Eve. The whole ritual of giving out the gifts struck a chord with many too – when it happens, who does it and whether or not they wear a special hat to do it.
The modern day Christmas has evolved from centuries of tradition. Some elements have their origins in the pre-Christian pagan festival of Yule, celebrated around the winter solstice. The traditional yule log was ceremoniously brought in and burnt all through the winter festival. Decorating the house with evergreen boughs hails from here too, although in the fifteenth century the church adopted the tradition, recognising that evergreen boughs and red berries could symbolise the gift of a child from an ever-loving god, whose blood was to be shed on our behalf. The traditionally round Christmas door wreath symbolises the love of God which has no beginning and no end. The Roman festival of Saturnalia (beginning around December 17th) gives us the idea of exchanging gifts and the wearing of special hats (now made of paper). Christmas Carols, I believe, have their origins in the January wassailing ceremonies which took place in rural communities to awaken the spirits of the orchards to bless the trees and give a good harvest in the year to come.
The prevailing atmosphere of Christmas has continually evolved over the years. In the middle ages it was more raucous and community based. In the nineteenth century it became a more peaceful family and child-centred festival. Much of the modern day ‘traditional’ Christmas is the invention of Charles Dickens and the Victorians. The shift from a church and community based celebration to a family-centred one with seasonal food, Christmas trees, Christmas cards, lights, tree decorations and a seasonal spirit of generosity only dates back a hundred and seventy years or so. In fact, even up to the 1950s families with modest means celebrated with a joint of beef on Christmas Day and a stocking with an apple, an orange and a few sweets for the children.
Traditions are important but they can change. Whether you are decorating your home with evergreens, lighting candles, trimming the tree in red, green and gold and looking forward to a family day of seasonal food made to traditional recipes, or having a barbeque on the beach with a few friends, it’s good to store up some special memories and establish some traditions for your own family.
I’d love to hear what you do.