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Broken Christmas Traditions

With Christmas just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about the traditions of the season, the activities and ways of doing things that make the season “feel right,” the way the season should feel. Watching Christmas movies, I’ve reflected on how things have changed slowly and subtly over the years in media portrayals of the holiday. In the process, I’ve recalled one particular time when our family spontaneously and radically changed its tradition–and the effect that change had on us. And I’ve thought of the lessons that are hidden in these memories.

When I was a kid, one of the most popular Christmas songs was “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” sung by Gene Autry, “the singing cowboy.” The other day, I was pleased to hear that our two-year-old granddaughter had just added a new word to her vocabulary: reindeer. I thought that perhaps it was from listening to Autry’s song. I soon learned, however, that the source was a different song: “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

When I was growing up, my parents established some Christmas traditions that lasted until we kids were all married and living out of state. Every Christmas Eve, my mother cleaned and decorated the house and cooked all day for a special supper. My paternal grandparents drove from their house on the far side of the cow pasture of their dairy farm to our house on the other side. We had a sumptuous feast and talked and laughed around the table for a long time. Then the ladies cleared the table and served dessert and coffee, and we talked and laughed some more.

After everyone was so full that we couldn’t eat another bite, the ladies again cleared the table, washed the dishes, and cleaned the kitchen. The men (and we kids) retired to the living room, where we talked and laughed some more. During all this talking and laughing, however, we kids were eyeing the gifts under the Christmas tree, especially those that my grandparents had brought with them. We wanted the talking and laughing to stop so we could open those gifts!

When the ladies finally finished in the kitchen and joined us, we exchanged gifts–but only the ones that my grandparents had brought and the gifts that we had for them. All the other gifts we reserved for opening on Christmas morning.

On the big day, we kids were up early, digging into our stockings to find the traditional orange, English walnuts, candy canes, and perhaps a small toy. Then all of us exchanged gifts as a nuclear family. Christmas music played softly in the background. We laughed and oohed and aahed and shrieked with joy as we opened the gifts.

After opening them, we cleaned up the wrapping paper and bows, saving everything that could be used to wrap gifts the following Christmas. Then we went to the kitchen, where we ate Mother’s delicious fruitcake–dark, moist, laden with real fruit, not the dry, light-colored, artificial-tasting stuff one could get at any store.

But one Christmas it was different. We broke with tradition. And we paid for it.

When my grandparents left after our dinner and gift exchange that Christmas Eve, we were all feeling awake and festive.

“Oh, Mother!” my brother said. “I can’t wait for you to open the gift I got you! I wish you could open it now.”

“Why not?” I asked, looking at Daddy for approval. “You could open just that one. You’d still have plenty for tomorrow.”

Against Mother’s strenuous protests, Daddy nodded his approval. “But just one!”

Then someone suggested that we all should open a gift. Just one gift each. Some arguing ensued, but Daddy gave in to our pleas. Mother, with great animation, expressed her dissent as each of us unwrapped our gifts.

Before we knew what had happened, that one gift became two, and two became three–until we had opened all of the gifts under the tree. We felt really good that we had received so many gifts and had enjoyed watching the excitement and surprise of each person as we saw what others had given and received. We all went to bed with a warm feeling inside. Everyone except Mother.

The next morning, we all got up early, as we usually did on Christmas morning. But when we rushed into the living room, we were greeted with the not-so-warm realization that we had no gifts to open. We sat there looking glumly at the Christmas tree. Nothing was under it, except some bits of torn wrapping paper, a stray bow or ribbon, and a lot of dry pine needles.

I looked around at the other family members. No one was happy. Mother was crying silently.

“I tried to tell you not to open them all, but you had to do it!” she sobbed.

It was a miserable Christmas Day. Not the worst, but bad. The worst occurred several years later, just days after Mother had been killed and Daddy and my sister were hospitalized when their car was hit by a drunk driver. We had no control over that latter Christmas, but we could have controlled the former one.

As the Hallmark Channel has run its Christmas movies this year, I’ve noticed another change that has occurred over the years. All of those movies are really merely variations on the same theme: A single mom (or dad) faces personal or financial difficulties (or owns a small business that is about to be gobbled up by a large corporation run by greedy, anti-Christmas grinches) but is rescued by a newly found heartthrob just in time for Christmas, and everything rights itself–and it suddenly begins snowing.

In those movies, there is never any mention, or even an allusion, to the real reason for the Christmas holiday. It’s just a traditional time for friends and family to get together and enjoy each other and exchange a few token gifts over hot cocoa while the snow falls outside. No religious content whatsoever.

Granted, in “the good old days,” not everyone who wrote, produced, directed, or starred in Christmas movies was religious. But they at least realized that at the heart of the holiday is a religious theme and that many of their viewers were aware of that religious significance. Even in those “secular” movies, they often quoted Scripture and perhaps even showed a family reading part of the Christmas story from the Bible. (Think about the religious themes in the classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Some are subtle; others are overt. But they are there nonetheless.)

Not so today. Someone might be offended, so they omit anything that might hint at any religious significance of the holiday. And they thereby obliterate the whole meaning behind the season. Yes, the season involves gathering with friends and family. It involves sharing and gift-giving. And it involves serving and doing good for others. But even more, it’s about the birth of Jesus Christ, the Person who gives all the gathering, sharing, giving, and serving real meaning. Without that fact at the center, all one has left is the materialism, commercialism, and “feelgoodism” that pervade the season today. And those are like the bits of wrapping paper, isolated bows and ribbons, and dried pine needles that my family and I witnessed one sad Christmas morning.

I’d like to see someone produce a sequel to some of today’s Christmas movies. After the last sip of cocoa has been downed, the last gift has been opened, the last hug and kiss has been shared, the snow stops falling, and everyone goes back to “normal” life, what is left? I suspect that, truth be told, such superficial celebration would end with the same empty feelings that my family had when we opened all the gifts early and had nothing left for Christmas morning.

I hope that all who might read this will have a very merry Christmas. But I hope that they also remember that there’s more to the season than the materialism and good feelings. And it’s found in a Person–not just the Babe of the manger (although that’s a good start) but in the God who came to earth to redeem mankind by giving us the best gift ever–He became the Savior on the Cross.

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