"It's not Christmas without..."

Baby’s first Christmas, 2010, was Nana and Granddad’s one trip to Wisconsin to visit us before their health declined. It was on this trip that Nana taught me to make her caramel cake and bestowed upon me the little cast-iron skillet to brown the sugar in, which I still use every day.

Baby’s first Christmas, 2010, was Nana and Granddad’s one trip to Wisconsin to visit us before their health declined. It was on this trip that Nana taught me to make her caramel cake and bestowed upon me the little cast-iron skillet to brown the sugar in, which I still use every day.

“It’s not Christmas without…” How would you finish this sentence?

Growing up in Georgia, I would have said it’s not Christmas without a walk through the woods to the Christmas tree farm to pick out the perfect tree with my parents, sister, aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandparents. My Granddad, who lived next door, would drive his pickup truck around to meet us, and the freshly-chopped trees for all three of our houses would be loaded on and driven back to our cul-de-sac, while us kids rode in the truck bed, taking in the fresh tree smell in the chilly air. We’d bring our tree in and adorn it while sipping eggnog, eating cookies, and listening to Christmas music.

I of course wanted to replicate this experience when Jon and I had our first home. Hundreds of miles away from my childhood tree farm, we purchased from a few other farms over the years.

“Look, Mom! I made a tree!”

“Look, Mom! I made a tree!”

But, either because the quality can’t compare to the trees I grew up with, or because I have a tendency to drive every plant under my care into an early death despite my best efforts, we ran into failure after failure. The cats would drink the water. The needles would shower onto the floor. The worst came in 2016: our tree was 100% dead weeks before Christmas. Actually, this happened right around the time that Nana passed away, and added to the feeling that something about Christmas had changed in a deep, irreversible way.

It wouldn’t have been so bad except for the fact that we had to drag our dead tree to the curb about two weeks before Christmas. It already was no secret to our neighbors that we’re terrible at landscaping and yard work, but showcasing our tree failure for the neighborhood to see was a new low for us.

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Once Christmas passed that year, I found a high-quality artificial tree on Craigslist. And I started to feel like a failure.

Until I rebuked the voice inside me that said “It’s not Christmas without a REAL tree” (and the accompanying feelings of shame). And you know what? I’ve learned that the nostalgia of picking out a fragrant, living tree is something I can enjoy as a fond memory, without having to have it remain a tradition for me. In fact, letting go of this joyful but not-central tradition has been a good exercise in centering me on Christ’s coming at Christmas. And the kids? Well, for them, the tree tradition includes the collaborative activity of finding which branches go into which holes. They actually love it, no pine-fresh scent required.

Childhood Christmas for me also included an element that is common for many of us: sugar. Every Thanksgiving weekend, my sister, cousins and I would go next door to Nana’s house to bake a slew of cut-out cookies. Each of us would have 25, and Nana would write numbers on them, wrap them individually, and staple them to our ribbons that hung in her house. We’d go next door each day to get our cookie to count down to Christmas day. At her house on Christmas Eve, she often served my dad’s all-time favorite dessert - her famous caramel cake - which she taught me to make before she died.

We’d go to my other grandma’s house Christmas day, and eat her favorite date nut bread. I still have the card where she lovingly hand-wrote the recipe for me. After marriage, as Jon and I discovered the joy of cooking thanks to Alton Brown, we started making Alton’s fruitcake and eggnog every year. Now that we have kids, we’ve introduced a new tradition of making a Happy Birthday to Jesus cake, which is often Nana’s caramel cake, especially if dad is coming up to visit from Georgia. And some of my best girlfriends and I get together every year to bake cookies and assemble plates to hand out to others.

Wow, the list of sugar has added up. But there’s a wrinkle this year: Jon and I are on a keto diet, which means virtually zero sugar. Whoops.

So, is it still Christmas without sugar?

I’m finding that not only is it a good challenge diet-wise to detach sugar from Christmas; it’s also an opportunity to grow in service. I still baked my famous apple pie for Thanksgiving, but it was 100% for our kids and guests, not for myself. I still plan to bake a caramel cake for Jesus’ birthday, which will delight my dad and remind him of his mother. When I assembled plates of cookies with my friends, I knew none would be for me, and focused only on the joy of serving others - which, this year, would be my kids’ teachers.

Lovely treats, not for me. A good challenge to focus on love and service, not feelings of deprivation.

Lovely treats, not for me. A good challenge to focus on love and service, not feelings of deprivation.

Perhaps it’s okay to let traditions change and evolve. Perhaps they’re still valuable even if they’re part of our Christmases past only. Perhaps allowing this to change doesn’t diminish our experience of Christmas, but rather adds beauty to it while centering us on what Christmas is really about.

Traditions add texture and beauty to our celebrations, but if we hold them loosely, we can find joy in the memories, openness to new ways to celebrate, and a renewed focus on Christ’s advent as the central celebration.

Have your traditions evolved too? Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, what has changed over time? What has been left in the past, or evolved, or taken on new meaning?

Here’s to Christmases past, present, and future. Blessings to you as you balance the old and the new trimmings of the holiday, and the purpose at the center of it.