Growing up, my biggest and warmest memory of Christmas was our creche.
The handmade figures, the huge stable built by my dad. The quilt batting and snow that covered a spattering of white Christmas lights, which created a shining snow-blanketed ground. The tree branches set as trees surrounding the creche, with the dark blue sheet posing as a night sky in the background.
Christmas tree lights hung from the ceiling like stars in the night. A light glow surrounded the figures of the Holy Family as Mary tenderly held her sweet new baby boy.
The smell of sweet hay filled the air as I sat there in the early morning hours, fire blazing in the woodstove, gazing into the stable with its hay and handbuilt animals. I remember sitting there with a cup of coffee, listening to quiet Christmas music, and just drinking it all in.
To this day, when I think about that particular memory from years back, I get a cozy feeling in my heart, a longing for home, and gratitude for those precious moments.
As parents blessed with six beautiful children, my husband, Trent, and I have worked hard to build our own traditions as a family. My hope and prayer are that someday when my children are my age, they’ll look back, get that cozy feeling inside and long for home–grateful for each moment and for each and every memory.
And my hope is that when those memories hit, they’ll feel that tug, drawing closer to God. That when they get to be older and have their own children, they too will tap into these traditions and add in a few of their own to create memories within their families.
My prayer for you in reading this article is that perhaps you can get some ideas to add to your own repertoire of Christmas traditions, create these warm fuzzy memories, and through it all, and most importantly, draw closer to the new-born Christ.
May He be born in your heart in a new way this Christmas Season.
Without further adieu… here are the Twelve Traditions of Christmas.
1. Secret Santa (or Advent Angels)
Because we have so many kiddos, we decided years ago to do Secret Santas so that the kids could really put a lot of thought and care into a nice gift for one of their siblings, versus buying gifts for everyone and spending money on a bunch of lower-priced items that may or may not have as much quality and/or meaning.
So on Thanksgiving day when everyone is feeling stuffed and grateful, the older kiddos write everyone’s name on a sheet of paper, and we all take turns choosing a name out of the hat to see who we will have for secret Santa that year.
What I love about this is the time and care each child puts into the gift, making sure that they’re really thinking about what would be meaningful to their sibling or parent. And when it’s time to open these gifts on Christmas Eve (more on that in a bit), I love the joy in their eyes and heart as they watch their sibling unwrap their present.
2. Picking out and Bringing Home our Christmas Tree
Every year, right after Thanksgiving, we pack everyone up in our old suburban on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, search out local Christmas tree farms and head out to find the perfect Christmas Tree.
A few years ago, we started this fun tradition to search out the ugliest Christmas tree. We had gone tree hunting and couldn’t find one we loved, but then happened upon a big tree that looked more like a haphazard wildly giant bush instead. We joked around and started this story about the wild Scottish Christmas tree that wanted to find a home, but no one would take him because he was so ugly.
By the time we finished making up the story, we were sold…he (at this point sentimentally named “Louie”) had to come home with us. He was seriously the BEST Christmas tree ever. We fell so much in love with him that every year we strive to find the ugliest Christmas tree.
Sometimes we succeed in our “ugly” Christmas tree hunt, and sometimes we go the more traditional route. Either way, we make up our own traditions and have fun with it.
Once we get home, we set up the tree and cover it with lights. Because it’s the Advent season, we forgo the ornaments in preparation for the coming of Christ. Still, we can sit back and enjoy the glow of the lights on the tree and anticipate the birth of our Lord.
3. Jesse Tree, Advent Wreath, and Saint Nicholas’ Feast Day
At the beginning of Advent, we start two devotions–the Jesse Tree and the Advent Wreath. Trent made a beautiful simple Advent wreath using our old Christmas tree stumps (this year we have to find new candles, hence why the picture has only one), and we light it while reading the Jesse Tree prayers.
When Trent and I were married for a handful of years, we started creating our own Jesse Tree ornaments. We painted them on round wooden circles and added a hook to hang them from the tree. We decided to use our Christmas tree as our Jesse Tree, so we’d bring it home from the Christmas tree farm, add lights, and then use it to hold our Jesse Tree symbols.
I’ll be honest–we aren’t the best at doing our Advent devotions every day. Life gets crazy around here for sure. But, we do pick it up at some point and catch up on missed readings. We always love hearing the stories, learning the history again, and leaning in with anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.
And of course, on December 6th, the kiddos put their shoes out, and St. Nick comes to fill them with goodies. We always share the story of the real Santa Clause, Saint Nicholas and His heart for God.
4. Christmas Decorating – Creche, “Piano” Scene, and Stockings
When decorating our home, the first scene to go up is our creche. It’s not quite as elaborate and beautiful as my parent’s homemade one, but it’s still a scene we keep front and center as the Christmas season is all about the birth of our Lord.
We also have our little town scene, or what I like to call our “piano scene” (even though it’s not on a piano); my mom always had her scene sitting on the back of our piano, and that’s what we called it growing up. About six years ago, Trent started finding and purchasing little houses from the “Dickens” Christmas village. We’ve enjoyed setting up the scene, along with a church built by his Grandpa.
Finally, we have our pallet wood, stocking holder. One year, Trent put two pallets together so that we would have an easy place to hang our stockings. We decorated them, added some lights and greenery, and then one year around 1 am on Christmas morning, a tired elf burned this message onto the top of the wood: “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
I love getting up early once we’ve decorated the house and sitting there in the quiet. With the lights from all of our decorated areas, the focus staying on the creche, I sit there and just pray. Coffee in hand, I ask Jesus to yet again come and be born in our hearts in a new and special way this Christmas season.
5. Christmas Cookies
I sure do like those Christmas cookies, sugar. I sure do like those Christmas cookies, babe.”George strait
Those lyrics sung by George Strait are an official part of our Hillaert family cookie baking tradition. We pick out our family favs and spend an entire day or two just baking cookies and Christmas treats.
Some of our ultimate favs are “Northwestern Pecan Treats,” “Russian Tea Cakes,” “Joe Froggers,” and the traditional cut out Christmas cookies.
Being completely transparent, I often struggle knowing the amount of mess and sugar highs that will take place in the process of baking with little ones. But as we all gather to roll the dough, cut out the cookies, and then ice them as a family, I also know the joy that it brings the kids (and me) and the memories they still talk about from years past.
Baking and decorating sugar cookies is a family event. Everyone participates. And I have to admit, it is fun to see how creative everyone gets with the cookies.
6. Going to See the Christmas Lights
So this is a tradition we used to do every year and we are recommitting to again in 2020. Every year we used to go out to these amazing communities to drive around and just gaze at the Christmas lights.
This year during a Little With Great Love Advent panel, Tammi McCarthy shared her family’s tradition of going out to see the lights on St. Lucy’s feast day, which is significant as Saint Lucy is the patron saint of light.
I LOVED this tradition so much that we’ve decided this will be a new Hillaert family tradition. On December 13th, every year, we’ll share the story of St. Lucy with the kiddos, grab some hot cider or hot chocolate, hop in the car and go for a drive to enjoy the beauty of the lights at night during the Christmas season.
7. Making Christmas Ornaments
I LOVE homemade Christmas ornaments. Growing up, some of the best ornaments we placed on the tree were ones my mom made or us kiddos made over the years.
A handful of years ago, we started a new tradition of having an ornament-making day during the Christmas season. It’s always so fun to see the kiddo’s creations, and Trent and I love seeing what new version of the Holy Family we can create in an ornament.
It’s fun to sit at the table all together, laughing, concentrating, creating, and making memories that will truly last a lifetime. It’s honestly the gift that keeps on giving–because every Christmas Eve when we decorate the tree, each memory comes to life again as we laugh and smile while hanging these ornaments of Christmas’ past on the tree.
8. Building the Gingerbread House
I have to say that this is one of our most fun and creative traditions. Our gingerbread house creating started out small and somewhat normal-looking, but over the years has evolved into huge ornate creations.
Our last gingerbread “house” was a gingerbread church complete with stain-glassed windows, a bell tower, and a nativity scene that included the three wise men traveling their direction.
Even though the gingerbread house did turn out pretty fantastical, it was the togetherness, the creativity, and the fun that we all put in as a family that ended up making the best memories in the end.
It was messy, we ended up in a sugar coma from all the candy we ate during the process, and it was 100% worth it!
9. Christmas Caroling at the Retirement Home
Growing up, my parents often took us to the retirement home to visit the elderly. They reminded us of how often the elderly are alone and sometimes forgotten, so we went to give them love and plenty of smiles.
I’m not really sure when this tradition started for my family, but many years ago, we decided to start taking our kiddos Christmas caroling at the nursing home on Christmas Eve.
When they were very little, I remember telling them we were going to see all of the grandmas and grandpas. I was worried they’d be afraid of the very different environment and singing to strangers, but to my surprise, they weren’t. They sang with their beautiful strong voices, and when we were done caroling, they went around to each person, gave them a hug, looked into their eyes, and said, “Merry Christmas.”
It never ceases to amaze me how the resident’s eyes light up and soak it in. They love seeing the children, and the children love seeing them. It’s truly a gift for both parties. Soaking it all in, my heart is often completely overwhelmed.
10. Christmas Eve Mass and Decorating the Tree
Immediately following Christmas caroling at the retirement home, we head to Christmas Eve Vigil Mass. We’re usually dressed up in our Christmas outfits, the girls wearing their new dresses, and the guys with their coordinating dress shirts.
We love being able to start our Christmas celebration by ringing in the Christmas season with the celebration of Mass, the prophecies from the Old Testament, the story of the birth of Christ, and finally in receiving the Eucharist.
After Mass, we drive home, make hot chocolate and coffee (so Santa’s helpers can stay awake, of course) and get ready to ring in the season by decorating the tree.
One by one, we pull out the Christmas ornaments, and each family member takes turns putting them on the tree. There’s always so much laughter as we pull out old ornaments and recall memories with different ones.
11. New Pajamas, Stockings, and Bed Time
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…”
Once the tree is decorated, and the living room is cleaned up, we sit down and the kiddos open two gifts: their new pajamas (from mom and dad) and their gift from their Secret Santa. It’s always such a delight to see the excitement in their eyes as they open up their gifts. It’s even more delightful to see the kiddos present their gifts to the person they chose for secret Santa and wait in excitement as the gifts are opened.
Once gift-giving for the evening is complete, the kiddos go put on their new pajamas, pose for the traditional pajama pic, and settle in for the traditional reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” When the book has been read, we all hang our stockings on the pallet-wood wall and then head off to bed.
12. Christmas Morning and Christmas Dinner
Trent and I always wake up early on Christmas morning, make hot coffee, and then sit in the beautiful living room. Lights from the newly decorated tree, the “piano” scene, the stockings, the creche. We soak it all in. Praying, sitting in gratitude, and also enjoying the quiet, which we know will soon be completely overcome with excited voices.
Once the kiddos wake up, we get a round of coffee for our groggy teenagers, and then we’ll all sit down, read the Gospel story of the birth of Christ, and then take turns opening gifts.
When all the gifts have been opened and everyone is sitting back enjoying the morning, Trent and I will make our traditional Christmas breakfast. We’ll get the sausage patties and croissants from Costco and make sausage, egg, and cheese croissants for breakfast in order to counteract all of the Christmas morning candy intake.
For Christmas dinner, a handful of years ago, we decided to follow the Charles Dickens tradition of having a Christmas goose. We have ham on Easter, turkey on Thanksgiving and so we decided that Christmas needed its own tradition and the goose won out.
We found a wonderful goose and wild rice stuffing recipe and serve it with roasted potatoes and roasted brussel sprouts. FAN-TAS-TIC! And such a great memory for our kiddos.
It’s taken years for us to build up these traditions, but one thing we’ve caught on to is this… the children love it. They love to have those memories that fill the sentences that start with, “Remember when….?”
As parents, it’s our job to provide these “Remember when…” moments. These memories that they can carry on as traditions of Christmas with their own families and that will continue to draw them back home year after year after year.
And for those of you reading this who might not have children or families, there’s still much to be gained by creating traditions and “Remember when” moments in your own heart or with others that God places in your life.
In the end, I believe it’s love we really remember. The love of God, the love from our families. It’s love that creates the warm fuzzies in our heart when we start thinking back and smile, because we just can’t help it.
Whether it’s the love of family created by the togetherness or the love of God felt in our hearts as we celebrate the Advent and Christmas season, it’s Love that we celebrate on Christmas Day and love that draws us back in year after year after year.
This Christmas, I pray that Christ is reborn in your heart in a special way and that LOVE is born in your heart in a new way.
Jesu ufam tobie.