Christmas Traditions Past and Present

Our family is scattered all over the United States and holiday get-togethers are becoming more difficult to maneuver.  The cost of travel alone makes it even more problematic.  I’ve recently been reflecting on Christmases past and how they differ from today. 

When I was a small child, I lived near my maternal grandparents.  Christmas Eve was spent at Granny and Grandpa’s with aunts, uncles, and cousins.  We had a family gift exchange.  It wasn’t much as finances were a consideration.   It was a time of being together and enjoying the lights on Granny and Grandpa’s silver foil tree with a rotating light shining upon it.  The round light box would change from green to yellow and red to blue.  Five-year-old me was fascinated and I’d love to find a similar one today.   We enjoyed a covered-dish meal prepared with love and interacted with the extended family.

As our family grew larger and after suffering the sudden loss of my grandfather and uncle in one year, the Christmas Eve tradition dwindled.  It morphed into creating customs within our immediate family.  Throughout the year, my parents saved all their loose change into a big jar.  When it came time to Christmas tree shop, my siblings and I would count and roll the change and Dad would take us tree shopping.  We weren’t into all the fancy trees-are-for-looks hoopla.  We fell in love with the trees we found.  It didn’t matter if they had a crooked trunk.  It may have had huge bare spots, but Dad let us get the tree we wanted.  To be honest, they were usually the ugliest of trees until we got them home and they were adorned with lights, garland, and those old-time foil icicles.  We had ornaments we called the “Granny ornaments,” which were hand-me-down golden tin bells Granny had given us, and we’d each get to put one on the tree.  Otherwise, it was filled with homemade ornaments with our childish artwork over the years.  The finished tree wouldn’t win decorating contests by today’s standards, but they were so beautiful to us.

On Christmas Eve, we would attend the Christmas program at our small country church, which ended in a nativity pageant including at least one of my siblings.  When we got home, some years Santa would have come while we were at church.  On others, we would open the family exchange and wake up to Santa presents under the tree.  We spent Christmas day playing with our new gifts. 

Sadly, our family experienced a lot of tragedy and loss in my teen years with the deaths of three siblings, and the holidays weren’t as joyous as Christmases past.  Our traditions paused while we healed, and the holiday joy slowly started again in the ensuing years.  We were older, but still put the same ornaments on the tree, had our family exchange on Christmas Eve, and spent Christmas Day with our new gifts.  As we became young adults, I moved a state away after graduating from college, my brother joined the Navy, my sister attended the same local college I did, and my parents went their separate ways.  We still managed to make it home for the holiday until our lives and careers took us even farther away from home. 

 With a new marriage and move to Florida came new traditions.  My mom handed down the “Granny ornaments” to me for my first Christmas tree as a married woman, and I still felt the same joy hanging them on the tree as when I was a child.  I swapped the real tree shopping for an artificial one out of practicality, but I enjoyed bringing it out every year in anticipation of the holiday.   Those early years were quite special, as my Granny and mom would come and stay with us for the holiday, and it was a joy to open our Christmas morning presents with them.  We would prepare the meal together and enjoy our time.  After Granny’s passing a few years later, it was another twist in tradition changes.

The birth of my daughter changed the holiday for me in a wondrous and beautiful way.  The traditions became priceless, and I worked to keep them alive and well.  We would put up the tree and she would get to decorate it every year.  The special moment of hanging the “Granny ornament,” which had dwindled down to only one over the years, was my daughter’s.  It was full of baubles with her little handprints, construction paper artwork she made at school, and paper chains we worked on together as a garland.  As when I was a child, it wasn’t the fanciest of trees, but it was beautiful with all the special things. 

In the days leading to Christmas, I’d buy a roll of butcher paper and gather all the paints, stamps, and sponges, and we would decorate our own wrapping paper to be used for the special Christmas Eve gifts to each other.  The paper would be thick with red, blue, yellow, green, gold, and silver paint with my daughter’s artwork.  On Christmas Eve, we would exchange our gifts in the homemade paper, and my daughter would receive an ornament for her future tree and a pair of pajamas to wear to bed that night. 

On Christmas morning, it was Santa gifts and opening was quick, excited, and joyous.  We even played Santa well past the years of knowing—she knew where the gifts came from, but we still infused the magic into it. 

Now that she is a married woman, I passed down the “Granny ornament” to her.  Since we don’t get to celebrate the holiday together very often, I make an advent calendar for her and her husband.  It includes treats, presents to open on special days, and each day has a relationship question for them to reflect on and talk about at the end of their day.   Christmas Eve pajamas have turned into socks, but there is still a new ornament and ‘Santa’ leaves a nice gift on the 25th.

Christmas traditions change over the years and ebb and flow with family dynamics as they grow and change.   The traditions and time spent mean are precious.  I can recall a few gifts I received as a child—a bike, an Easy Bake Oven, and a Shopping Sheryl doll.  I now realize the financial sacrifice my parents made to provide such generous Christmases for us, especially in those years of such deep grief.  While I’d like to say the gifts were the most special part of the holiday, they weren’t. The memories mean the most.  My dad taking us Christmas tree shopping, my mom handing down the “Granny ornaments”, the country church Christmas pageants are all special moments that give me joy.   So do the growing-up years with my daughter.

Too many people struggle with the holidays, and they aren’t always filled with happy moments.  Some are adjusting to loss, some don’t have happy Christmas memories, and some are simply alone.  I think more people understand the grief, loneliness, and hollow feeling than we can possibly know.  I’ve been there many times and struggle to hold on to joy during the ‘happiest season of the year.’ If you are feeing lonely, need to talk, or are battling the “dark monster,” it’s not weak to ask for help.  We have to reach out and check on someone who needs us.   

It’s my prayer that everyone has at least one holiday tradition memory to hold on to and brings at least a spark of joy.   If you’re feeling the joy of the season, what traditions are most special to you? 


  1. Hi Dawn (and Mike): The traditions certainly do change and for us it is changing once more as my mom passed away in January so this will be the first one without her. We are so lucky that she was able to spend it with us last year, even wore matching holiday jammies with us. I’m sure we will be remembering the time we had with her and starting to make some new memories as well. Merry Christmas to you!

  2. As someone who sells live Christmas tree for a living, it often makes me sad when I see a family argue over what is the prettiest tree or watch a child or spouse pout because the tree isn’t big enough or pretty enough to suit them. 50 years from now is that the holiday memory they want to share with others. I love your memories of making whatever tree you were lucky enough to get your very own beautiful tree! I remember one year my mom got dozens of these little wooden “paint our own” ornaments and they adorned our tree for years to come. They certainly weren’t anything fancy, but they were made with love. I think this “give me” world is ruining Christmas traditions forever. It’s become about the gifts and status (my tree is bigger than your tree) not about the reason for the season. 🙁

  3. Thanks for sharing your holiday memories. Yes, traditions change as families do. Distance too often separates. I appreciate your recognition that the holidays can be both difficult and joyful. Wishing you a blessed CHRISTmas!

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