I read over 80 papers that my students wrote on their family Holiday traditions. They were delightful stories of families gathered around mouth-watering meals of various ethnicities. In 80+ ways, families had drawn their children into highly-anticipated yearly experiences that brought their children joy. The kids’ descriptions, handwritten in pencil on thin royal blue lines, summoned their best writing skills to date.
I probed, suggesting various obvious and popular holiday activities. A tree? Food? Presents? Travel? Nope. None of these happened. “We don’t get a tree, all decorating is for the employee party at our house, we get whatever we ask for with no surprises, we stay home.” Misery. You get everything you ask for? Some kids would think that was a positive thing, I thought. I soon found out that these eloquent exposes contained few mentions of material gifts.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out what the issue was: neglect. All that this young man wanted was the tenderness that accompanied the traditions that the students who may have been more humbly situated, economically, received. My miserable young friend’s essay contained no affection, no delight, no family camaraderie.
Did these parents know that more than half of these kids claimed that they anticipated these treats all year?
Using previously-unused adjectives, the aromas and tastes of these meals were described, these young authors assuming that their teacher would read about their privileged provision, and would be overcome with envy. I would have been, so tantalizing each sounded, had I not had my own family’s menu to look forward to. These heartwarming essays exuded appreciation that many parents didn't know existed.
These compositions still swim in my head. I learned a life lesson from these heart-felt offerings that sought to share the joys of family. I learned how very little it took to overflow a child’s heart with belonging.
The holidays snuck up on us again. My youngest saw the date and asked to start the Christmas countdown. I was shaken out of a college-search stupor, brought on by my what happens next for my Senior in High School. Those traditions are coming, regardless of the other tasks at hand. I thought of Christmas lights, fudge, apple pies, making soap as gifts, and possible holiday travel. In a moment I could have been overwhelmed.
I learned how very little it took to overflow a child’s heart with belonging.
Each year, fewer decorations seem to leave the storage bins. We still make the gingerbread houses, but the process is simpler (yes, we “cheat” with prefabricated houses pulled out of a box, whole). We choose a few more traditions and do them well. The kids are getting older and firmly resist the elimination of any tradition that is a personal must for them. Their favorites overlap (which is a good thing with a large family). Each will have the opportunity to protect any tradition of which they offer to take ownership , for all of our benefit.
There is a religious spirit that insists on continuing traditions for tradition’s sake. This spirit can steal our enjoyment of what God meant celebrations to be. We must beware that empty traditions not steal from the season and the purpose for it. In Mark 7:8, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for doing just that. He says, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
We must beware that empty traditions not steal from the season and the purpose for it.
During the holidays, less can be more. We mustn’t weary ourselves with things that don’t matter. Our blood pressures shouldn’t be sacrificed to pinterest ideals. Unless you are choosing to enter a gingerbread house or baking contest, it’s not a contest. Ask your family what they value most, then focus on that.
Our culture and its marketers will try to seduce you into more. They will seek to convince you and your family that things that didn’t exist in previous years are essential this year. Try not to buy it. Instead, do the opposite of the Pharisees. Instead, hold onto the commands of God and let go of human traditions. Focus on infusing His love into your family’s holidays. Take it from dozens of students; good food is great, but it’s being together that matters. They are proof that happy holidays have very little to do with impressive traditions. It really is all about love and belonging.