My wife, Donna, remembers only two things from her childhood Christmases—the year her older brother found Santa's stash in Mom's closet (which got all the kids in trouble), and the music ball. A round blue music box that hung from the doorframe and played tinkling carols, the music ball was a single soft sparkle in a string of otherwise uneventful Christmases. All Donna's family holidays were like that. Her parents had moved from Ohio to Florida when the children were young, and far from adoring grandparents, family traditions faded and holidays were observed quickly and uneventfully. A doll, an orange (it was Florida, after all), and it was time to take down the palm tree.
My family celebrations, by contrast, were the definition of hoopla: huge trees and mounds of presents and late night communion services followed by wee-hour breakfasts at Waffle House. In my young memory, the bread of heaven was served with maple syrup. My Christmases were always a merry tangle of camel caravans and three turbaned Mammaws bearing treasures decked in curling ribbon. With few exceptions, every Christmas was grander than the one before.
Maybe this is why I brought so many holiday expectations to our marriage and my wife brought almost none. Although we compared our childhood holiday traditions early in our courtship, I did not realize how overcoming the differences would test our relationship.
A battle of expectations
Some newly married couples wrestle over money management or in-laws, conflicting politics or mismatched personalities. Not us. Our differences came down to wattage and yardage. We disagreed over how many strings of lights the tree needed and how much garland should festoon the house. Donna's philosophy was "less is more" and mine was "more is more—and more, and more." I wanted Christmas to be as grandiose as I remembered, only more so. She wanted something simple to dismantle and pack away.
This led to a growing dread of the holidays as Donna and I struggled to create our own traditions. For a couple years we tried "the perfect gift" approach. To compensate for the low-key gift-giving of her childhood, Donna had become expert at finding the present that wonderfully matched the personality of the recipient: tickets to a PGA tournament for the golfer, antique earrings for the jewelry collector.
So for Donna, even if the present was small and inexpensive, hearing or saying, "Oh, it's the perfect thing!" was the one expectation she brought to our married-couple Christmases. Choosing presents is not my spiritual calling, but after one lean and regrettable year I joined the game, playing by her rules—but adding a flare of my own: volume giving.
According to my family's regulations, it was the number of boxes that counted and (my mother's twist) the effort behind the wrapping. What's more fun than painstakingly removing the tape from a dozen meticulously crafted packages so we can "save the beautiful paper for next year!"? So the number of gifts under our tree multiplied. Donna and I labored lovingly over the selections and the containers, but such gifting is always marked by doubts: Did she like the bracelet? Was I surprised when I saw the pocket watch? By the time we scrunched and bagged the wrappings, we should have set our celebration curbside with them. It rang hollow. Sometimes, I knew she was disappointed, and, frankly, some years so was I.
Agreeing that neither of us really needed anything, we adopted the "memorable events" approach to tradition for the next few years. I recall that final whirlwind December in which we saw the Radio City Rockettes and Handel's Messiah, two cantatas and a children's musical, dinner-theater Annie, and the big downtown Christmas parade. We hosted two luncheons for our co-workers. We caroled with the youth group at a nursing home, singing Silent Night at deafening decibels for the hearing impaired. We attended three Christmas Eve services—one at our church, one where a friend of mine was preaching, and finally, a midnight service. Afterward we searched for a secluded spot to sip hot chocolate (I secretly hoped for a waffle), but all the pancake houses were shuttered for the night.
Exhausted by the season, we slept through most of Christmas Day. Too tired to cook Christmas dinner, we ordered Chinese, and over lo-mein, the short tradition of grand celebrations sputtered to an end.
A change of scene
Careers, in God's providence, caused us to move far from the families who had made our old traditions worthy of scrapbooking.
In a new home, in a new town, new friends invited us over to watch their kids open presents. We declined, not wanting to horn in on their family time. Others welcomed us for Christmas dinners that only made us long for home cooking. We never felt lonelier than in the few days between the last Christmas cantata and boxing up the tree. Why was it so difficult, at the time of year when everything else is so sweet and tender, for us to connect emotionally? My traditions didn't satisfy us. Her traditions didn't satisfy us. Why couldn't we come up with new and fulfilling holiday observances as a married couple? After all, we're both believers, and we agree Christ should be the center of our lives.
A quiet celebration
Donna and I happened upon our own Christmas tradition almost by accident.
Several years ago, searching through marked-down decorations at an after-Christmas sale, I found an unusual wall hanging. The upper portion was a stable of golf green felt and sticky tape and the lower portion had three rows of small pockets numbered 1 through 24. Each pocket held a small stuffed figure—barnyard animals and shepherds, Wise men and their presents. It was an Advent calendar.
I thought the figure of the Baby Jesus a little odd. Not at all the demure newborn, he was grinning widely with his arms outstretched, definitely happy to be here. Oh, Kid, I thought, if only you knew what was ahead. Still, the calendar would make a nice present for a family with young children, so I bought it. Once home, the package went to the place where all presents bought too early go—the forgetting drawer.
On the second day of the following December, I came home and found the calendar hanging on the wall beside the refrigerator. The donkey was stuck to the stable by his Velcro backside. "I found this in a drawer today," Donna said. "Did you buy it?"
"S'pose so," I mumbled, doing a mental Google search for donkeys. After dinner, we moved a sheep from his comfy pocket to a spot near the manger. We read Isaiah 53:6: "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way . . ." and thanked God for bringing us together as a couple to celebrate our Savior's coming. Then nightly we watched as the tableau unfolded piece by piece, character by character. The Scripture readings came alive and our prayer grew deep—the kind that removed the distance between us the moment we shut our eyes.
We decorated little else that year, inside or out. In December our house often looks like a hot dog stand. The neighbors must have wondered if we'd gone atheist, but no one in our house much cared about strings of lights or the number of presents or the Rockettes.
That Christmas season was all about preparing a place suitable for the Baby. I remember how a preacher described the manger. Not the "barn out back" of our contemporary imaginations, but more likely a croft beneath the bustle of an open upper loft where road-worn travelers laid their blankets and slept on an expansive floor. The downstairs, albeit reserved for the animals, was away from raucous crowds and a better place for a woman to give birth. "No room," he said, "was not so much about inadequate space, but about unsuitable atmosphere. A suitable place must be private and quiet. Is the room you make for Jesus this Christmas suitable for him?"
We found our Christmas tradition in that quiet, private celebration as a couple. The Christmas Eve service was attended by two. It was held in our kitchen beside the refrigerator. The liturgy was brief: the New Testament lesson (Luke 2), in which Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem where Mary gives birth to the Christ child, followed by the ceremonial Velcro-ing of the Baby Jesus into his felt manger bed.
Donna and I stood close together before the one tradition we had observed together that season. The moment was warm and satisfying. The grinning Baby held his arms wide as if to say, "Ta-da! You figured it out." The best traditions are not labor intensive or fraught with expectation. They're not the ones we've created intentionally, but discovered accidentally. The best traditions draw us together to savor the season and each other's company, bringing us to the manger in quiet adoration of Christ.
Eric Reed is managing editor of MP's sister publication Leadership journal.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.