John will be turning three in just two short months. He is preparing to celebrate his third Christmas ever, and his first as a big brother. Andrew and I will be celebrating our fourth as a married couple. Felicity will be celebrating her first Christmas ever. This Christmas is significant for many reasons, but one of the most exciting is that this is the first Christmas that John really understands. It might already be his third Christmas, but this is the first year that he gets it. He gets the Christmas lights and the tree; he gets Santa Claus, and reindeer, and presents; he gets Jesus Christ and the manger and the Christmas star. For the first time in his short life, he gets it all.
This has been a year for both new and old traditions. After getting home from Thanksgiving, John helped me decorate the house for Christmas, including putting ornaments on our Christmas tree. On the first Sunday of Advent, we sat around our Advent wreath as we prayed as a family and lit the first purple candle. Every night of December, John opens the next door on his Countdown to Christmas calendar, and after he goes to sleep for the night, Holly the Christmas elf appears somewhere new in our apartment. On the morning of December 6th, the feast day of St. Nicholas, John found Kit Kats in his shoe (they were wrapped in plastic, don’t worry). While Felicity has napped in the car, John and I have driven around to look at Christmas lights before going home for dinner. This Christmas Eve, after attending Mass at our local parish, we will return to our own home and our own beds, where we will anxiously await the arrival of Santa Claus. We will open presents beneath our own tree on Christmas morning before beginning our holiday travels, first to my family in New Jersey, and then to Andrew’s family in Massachusetts.
I grew up with some of these traditions. My mom decorated our house for Christmas over Thanksgiving weekend (seriously, why would I wait?!). I have very fond memories of driving around and admiring people’s Christmas displays. My mom still provides John’s Countdown to Christmas calendar every year, though this is the first year that he expects it every day. She also stuffed our shoes with chocolate, and I seem to recall a bill of some sort, every year on St. Nicholas’s feast day. And of course, my family has attended the Christmas Eve afternoon Mass at St. Leo’s Catholic Church every year for as long as I can remember, though in recent years, we have not always been in attendance, and we will be attending Christmas Eve Mass at our own parish here in Virginia from now on.
Some of our traditions are new. Obviously, the Elf on the Shelf is a fairly recent add-on to the myriads of Christmas traditions upheld by families across the country. If I’m going to be completely honest, even though I’ve put out our Advent wreath every year, this is the first time we’re lighting it as a family. The most significant tradition that we’ll be establishing this year has to do with Christmas morning though. This is the first year that we’ll be home for Christmas morning, and the first year that John is really looking forward to Santa Claus. There was never any doubt that we would introduce our children to the tradition of Santa. I have every intention of leaving out cookies and milk for Santa before putting John and Felicity to bed that night. I have every intention of keeping the tradition of Santa Claus alive and well in our family, but with a slight modification.
Growing up, I remember creeping down the stairs early on Christmas morning and seeing piles and piles of Christmas gifts scattered around our family tree. I remember negotiating with our parents as they fought for a few more minutes of shut-eye and we fought to begin opening presents. The yearly compromise was always the same: we could go through our stockings while we waited for our parents to wake up. Once they joined us in the living room, we were free to begin tearing open every single gift that had our name on it. I remember there being a lot of gifts, and I remember that every single one of them came from Santa Claus.
I was already in my mid-twenties before I realized that it was odd that all of our Christmas gifts came from Santa. And I mean all of them. I distinctly remember believing that Santa left me presents beneath my parents’ tree, as well as at both of my grandparents’ houses and possibly one or two other places. Christmas was never about getting gifts from family; it was all about Santa. And the Christmas angels- I have a definite recollection of believing that Christmas angels brought gifts to my grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve while we eagerly waited upstairs in my aunts’ living room (they lived in a two-family home). I’m not sure how the child version of me tied together Santa and the Christmas angels, but she did. I guess I thought they worked together or something. Clearly, I never really gave it all much thought. I just believed that it was all true.
We’re going to do the same with our kids and our tree. Family and friends might give our children gifts, and we will take responsibility for the presents in our stockings, but the gifts that John and Felicity find beneath our tree will come directly from the North Pole. Nothing compares to the magic of walking into your living room and seeing piles of meticulously wrapped gifts beneath your Christmas tree. Fortunately, I still have a few years to perfect my wrapping skills. They can definitely be improved, but I don’t think John or Felicity really cares about the precision of my corners and creases this year.
But that brings me to that last tradition that Andrew and I will be introducing this Christmas. There will be gifts beneath our tree for the first time this year, and if you were to count them, you’d find exactly twelve- three for each of us. I have loved this tradition since the first time that I heard about it. Each child receives three gifts, a reference to the three gifts- gold, frankincense, and myrrh- presented by the wise men to Jesus Christ at his birth. I love the symbolism of the tradition- if Jesus received three gifts to celebrate his birthday, it seems only appropriate that my children should also receive three gifts as well. Of course, Jesus received his gifts from magi; John and Felicity will receive theirs from Santa Claus.
It’s also a great tradition for a few other reasons. With gifts limited to just three (plus a stocking), the emphasis is not so much on gifts as it is on the meaning behind the gifts. My kids don’t need to receive a ton of gifts to make it a good Christmas. As fun as it is to open gifts on Christmas morning, the holiday is ultimately not about the presents under the tree. It’s about family. It’s about love. It’s about food (specifically traditional Hungarian Christmas cookies). It’s about Jesus Christ. And don’t worry- even though three gifts doesn’t sound like a lot, waking up to find twelve gifts under the tree is still enough to light up any child’s face.
And of course there’s the final reason for the three-gift limit- cost. It’s great knowing that I have a limit. I can only place three gifts under the tree. Everything else goes in their stockings. If it doesn’t fit in the stocking, it can be saved for their birthday or another holiday. Or I just don’t buy it. I’ve cut down on my Christmas spending just by knowing that I’ve maxed out my gifts for my kids this year. But that’s just an added perk.
This Christmas is all about traditions, both old and new. I have loved opening up John’s Countdown to Christmas calendar with him every day (and sharing his chocolate- it’s just too big for a little toddler mouth). I have loved seeing his excitement when he finds Holly the Christmas elf once again. I have loved driving through dark streets, admiring our neighbors’ Christmas light displays. I have loved every minute of this season leading up to Christmas, both the commercial one and the liturgical one. And the best part? It’s not even Christmas yet!
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!