As wonderful as family Christmas traditions are, I have to admit that I have stressed over them too many times. This year I am relaxing into our family traditions. I am welcoming them into my life and embracing them for what they are: a way to transmit to my children what Christmas means to me. In years past I have stressed over getting the traditions done. I’ve resisted them and thought “Oh no, here comes Christmas, again!”
You might ask, “Why the perspective change?” I have some ideas. Maybe sending my first missionary out did it. Maybe it was facing a potentially life-threatening condition with a younger son. Maybe it is my oldest daughter nearing her 18th birthday or my youngest daughter approaching her 4th. Maybe it was the result of a lot of personal introspection or maybe it was God who helped me to see what really matters. Whatever it was, I am changed this year.
One of our family traditions is that in December we take a break from our normal school schedule. We maintain a remnant of “school” but for the most part we embrace the season with Christmas projects and activities like making gingerbread houses, hanging lights on our home, secretive gift making and giving, caroling, and watching our favorite Christmas movies. During December our family becomes an even more tight knit team working together to create the experience of Christmas.
Another tradition we have is to read Christmas stories as a family. We snuggle around our wood burning stove and lighted Christmas tree and munch on a fun snack while the stories are read a loud. This is one of my favorites. I want to invite you into our family room to enjoy the glow of our hearth and a good Christmas story. It’s a personal story, but one I think you’ll like.
The year my mother passed away, it was my turn to give to my youngest brother, Darrin. Of our eight siblings he was the only one not married. In the two years since an honorable return from his mission, he had made choices that alienated him from our family and church. He told us a few months after our mother’s death. Always a close family, this and the death of our mother tried our relationships and tugged at our very core. Some of my siblings wanted nothing to do with him. He was disconnecting from us and we were struggling with how to love and accept him in spite of his choices.
For this reason I wanted my gift to really mean something and I labored over what to give him. I called him and asked what he might like. We chatted casually for a few minutes and he gave me the title of some books he wanted and the idea of a gift card. I wasn’t convinced these held the meaning I was looking for, but purchased them anyway. I had no clue what else to give him. I was at a loss for ideas, but I knew there was something else. So I simply asked Heavenly Father, “Please help me to know what to give Darrin. I want him to feel our love for him. I want the gift to touch his heart. Please help me.”
Weeks passed and the day of our family Christmas party arrived. I still hadn’t had any other ideas for Darrin’s gift. That afternoon I was in my kitchen making our traditional family Christmas cookies—two kinds—called half moon and punch bowl. These cookies come from my Grandmother Linnebach. She was orphaned as a young woman and went to work in a wealthy home to support herself. The woman she worked for taught my Grandmother to make these fancy cookies. After my Grandmother married she made them part of her family’s Christmas traditions. My mother, Gwen, and her sisters grew up with them. They each married and continued to make these cookies in their own homes. Every year I not only enjoyed them on Christmas eve at my Grandmother’s home, but I also worked along side my mother making these special cookies. Together we made trays and trays of them and they were always on the goodie plates we gave to our neighbors. These two kinds of cookies were part of my childhood Christmases—a small but important part of the meaning and experience of Christmas I learned from my mother and grandmother.
So I was in my kitchen that afternoon making these traditional cookies with my little children. We were a mess of flour and powdered sugar and sticky hands. Amidst the confusion I suddenly knew what I needed to give my brother. I could see it clearly…a gift basket with the books, the gift card and a tin each of half moon cookies and punch bowl cookies. Finally, I was excited and at peace about his gift.
That evening Darrin didn’t show up at our family Christmas party. He called my Dad to say he was sick and that he wouldn’t be coming. After so much anticipation, I felt disappointed. As it came time to go home, I knew I needed to take my gift to his apartment. This was a stretch for me. My husband was sick that evening and hadn’t come either. So I had traveled the hour to the party alone with my six children then ages 12 and under. To take the gift to Darrin’s apartment, I would have to travel another hour out of my way, in the dark and cold of a snowy December night with 6 tired children. I would have to find an address I had never been to before and I would have to take my children into my brother’s apartment and I was uncertain what that would be like. Still I knew I needed to do it.
I managed to navigate the unknown dark streets and house numbers as well as a crying toddler and found his apartment. I knocked on his door, a child in one arm, and two clinging to my legs. My oldest son held the basket. Darrin’s partner opened the door and kindly invited us in. We clumsily made our way to the small front room and sat down to wait. The room was cheerfully decorated with a beautiful Christmas tree and other small items. I noticed the tree and remembered. Darrin, the baby of our family, had been the last one to leave home. He loved Christmas as much as my mother did. For five years it was the two of them who had decorated the house for the holidays. Together they carefully placed nativity sets, and mother made Santas, Christmas villages, the lights and garlands and the Christmas tree. It was Darrin and my mother who had rolled and shaped the half moon and punch bowl cookies and greeted the rest of us when we came home for Christmas Day. My mother and baby brother.
Just then Darrin came into the room. He greeted each of us with a hug and we talked for a time. I mentioned his tree and his eyes lit up. Then I gave him the gift basket. He opened first the books and then the gift card. He was appreciative of both. Then he opened the tin of half moon cookies. For the longest moment he just sat there looking at the cookies. Finally, he looked up at me. He really looked into my eyes and with tears running down his cheeks said, “Thank you.” He felt it. Through the simple tradition of a cookie, even if just for a few moments, he was drawn once again into the love and meaning of our family and Christmas. He was touched.
This Christmas you can be sure the Baker Family will be making half moon and punch bowl cookies and I will tell my children stories about their Great-grandma Linnebach and Grandma Cottle. We’ll be relaxing into Christmas with a variety of projects and family traditions. This year I’m joyfully embracing them for what they are: a way to transmit to my children what Christmas means to me. This year it’s not about doing the traditions but about living them. You can be sure a package will reach my missionary son in Oklahoma and in that package he will find a tin each of half moon and punch bowl cookies. I am certain they will convey the love and meaning I so want them to.
Family traditions are worth the effort year in and year out. They are how children learn the meaning of Christmas, of home and family, and of life. They have the power to communicate love and testimony over the years, across the miles, and even through the veil of death. Traditions, even as simple as a half moon cookie, can communicate what words cannot. The Lord can show us how to give gifts of meaning that touch hearts, ease the pain of grief, and connect us in love. May we let Him show us how, this Christmas time and always.