True Meaning of Christmas: Family Traditions, Giving, and Children
I don't think there is any one True Meaning of Christmas—rather, there are as many meanings as there are people. Yes, Christmas has a history, and that history affects us all, but each family has their own Christmas traditions and meaning. Children find yet a different meaning, and theirs is one that changes as they grow and develop.
As a secular family, we don't assign much meaning to the traditional role of religion in Christmas, but we have our own Christmas traditions. This article is dedicated to my family as they experience and amplify the wonder of Christmas through their traditions, through giving, and especially through the children.
As you read, keep in mind that I certainly don't propose that all of our traditions and activities will fit every home, but also keep an open eye for those things that look enticing and fun—they might end up being part of your True Meaning of Christmas.
Our family has, over the years, developed many traditions just for Christmas. Although the world and stores begin "celebrating" Christmas around Halloween, we don't. Everything waits until after Thanksgiving (although gift purchases may start as early as the day after Christmas for the next year).
The Christmas Tree
For several years, it was a yearly event to find and cut a Christmas tree. Waiting for a snowy day, with the family bundled up and warm, we searched through a nearby field that was thick (too thick) with small pine trees. We usually ended up with a "Charlie Brown" tree that wasn't perfect by any means but was a wonderful start to the Christmas season. Those days are gone, the field no longer available, and we now use a (shudder) fake tree, but it is still a big day when the tree comes out for decoration and our home begins to look like Christmas.
Our Tree Ornaments Include the Whole Family
Before our children were ever born, my wife made a few Christmas tree ornaments by hand. Ceramic figures of various kinds, with our names on them, and she also made a good number for future use but without names. As children, spouses of children, and grandchildren came into our lives, names magically appeared on those old ornaments, and it is always with wonder when grandchildren find an ornament on our tree with their name on it.
Those ornaments are now 30 years old and more, but they still go up every year. Children always help decorate the tree and are encouraged to add their own handmade ornaments (some of those, too, are decades old). When finished, our tree is not the prettiest or neatest around, but it carries memories that are irreplaceable. It is not only a symbol of all that makes up Christmas but of the good times from years ago. Our tree is special to us, and something that always reminds us of what the True Meaning of Christmas really is: the love and sharing of Christmas.
Traditions Remind Us of What's Truly Important
Some of our traditions are just that; traditions for no other reason than to remind us it is Christmas Day. It wouldn't be Christmas without a ham for dinner, or without rotten egg pie for dessert. These are just fun little things that mean Christmas is here. There is nothing special or meaningful about them; they just are after so many years of observing them.
Christmas movies are a staple through December, watching as a family with the young ones. A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, The Polar Express; all are staples to be watched and discussed every year.
Festive Home Decorations
Decorating our home is again a family tradition. Children are enlisted to help put window decorations up while Dad puts a few lights on the house. Our feeling on outside decorations is that we need not make the most lavish display around, but that we do need to participate in the neighborhood decoration. It adds to the enjoyment of all, friends and neighbors, acquaintances and strangers, as the magic of Christmas blooms everywhere.
Santa Is for the Secular, Too
Santa Claus plays a part in our Christmas; we find no harm in the idea of Santa Claus and feel that it adds to the magic and wonder of Christmas for the children. For us, Santa fills the stockings put up on Christmas Eve; he drinks the milk and eats the cookies left for him. He leaves many of the gifts that magically appear late on Christmas Eve, long after the children are in bed. Other gifts come from Mom and Dad, brother and sister, but Santa always brings some, too.
Everyone Can Participate in Christmas Cooking
Christmas Eve is always a time of family, singing carols, hanging stockings, and remembering past years' Christmases. Cooking begins for Christmas Day, with children helping to make cookies and candies—that evening or the next day, they get to offer everyone some of their own work.
Christmas Giving and Sharing
Certainly Christmas is a time of giving and sharing with those around us, but that sharing is not limited to those that we love and care for. It is also for the person that we have never met and will never see; those that are not so fortunate in their lives as we are and that could use a helping hand.
It Feels Good to Give
I would like to digress just a little here with a story from our past that is pertinent. Long ago, my wife's grandmother was the pastor at the local Salvation Army church, and every year the church gathered toys all year long to give out to the needy at Christmas. We always helped staff the store, repairing toys, setting the store up, and displaying the toys.
It fell to me to check off the people entering the store (you had to be on the list to receive any toys), and it was often not a pleasant task. I watched as some people took the bag we gave them and simply walked the aisles scooping toys until the bag was full; what they took was immaterial as long as they got "their share" of free toys. Others were downright nasty, as the line was always long and the most prized toys went first.
One lady, though, came in with her daughter of perhaps 4 or 5. After receiving their bag, they carefully went down the rows of toys, choosing for each family member and thinking to leave some for the next person in line. Finished (although their bag was only half full), they headed for the exit when the little girl suddenly stopped dead in her tracks, handed the special doll she had chosen for herself to her mother, and dashed back towards me with her pigtails flying.
Frightened at her own audacity, she nevertheless threw herself at me, and with a whispered "Thank you so much!" gave me a big hug, planted a kiss on my cheek and dashed back to Mom. That 30-second episode more than made up for the long days in the store and the offensive behavior of some patrons. It was the most wonderful experience of the joys of giving I've ever had. That was 30 years ago, and I've never forgotten that little blond girl in her plaid dress.
Nor does the giving stop with the adults. The little ones love to put coins into the Salvation Army buckets where bell ringers ask you for help. They quite understand what it is about and wish to be a part of helping others. They learn giving here, and can that be a bad thing?
Teaching Children Generosity
The younger members of our family, beginning at 4 or 5 years old, participate in choosing and buying gifts for siblings and others. No, the gift won't remain a secret, and it is usually something they want, but they are starting to understand giving and wish to participate. A great time to introduce the concept to them.
Christmas is a time of generosity and sharing for us. It can be throwing a few coins into the bell ringer's bucket; it can be giving our time and work when we would rather be home, warm and comfortable; or it can be sharing our own Christmas. We often invite someone without nearby family to share our enjoyment of Christmas dinner and the camaraderie of the day. It all adds to the wonder of Christmas, and we are never poorer for doing it.
Christmas and Children
This article is getting a little long, but mention must be made of the children, the little ones in our lives. While adults can enjoy this time of year, it is truly a time of magic and wonder for children.
Beginning with Santa Claus, Christmas comes alive to children. Everywhere they look, they see signs of Christmas. The wait is interminable but also adds to the experience as we talk about Christmas, watch the movies, and take them to find gifts.
The Magic of Christmas
Yes, when Christmas morning finally comes and they find gifts left by Santa and finally get to open all these neat things, that is the culmination of that waiting, but the entire season can and does bring wonder and magic into their lives. It can become a period to spend extra time with Mom and Dad (never a bad thing!), with family as the focus of the holidays. While not always easy—the season is also one of extra duties, work, and often stress—that extra time and love we lavish on our children are important to their understanding and enjoyment of Christmas.
While Christmas is a season for everyone to enjoy, there are also times of the season that we dedicate to our children. Christmas morning gift-opening is one such period, and it continues through the morning as they play with the new toys. Taking our children Christmas shopping, seeing Santa in the stores or a parade, taking the extra time to help our children "help" us prepare for the holidays—these are all things that make Christmas so magical to our kids.
Putting It All Together
The True Meaning of Christmas is many meanings to us. It means the sharing of ourselves with others. It means giving to others that need our help. It means reviving the old traditions that we have formed over the years and remembering our past. It means promoting and participating in the magic and wonder that children find in Christmas. It is a time of love and generosity.
Most of all, though, our Christmas tradition is that Christmas is a time of family. Without family, Christmas would be a pale shadow of itself. There have been years when our extended family was not available to share in our Christmas, leaving just the two of us, and it just wasn't the same. For us, Christmas means family.
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© 2011 Dan Harmon