Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas

We've been celebrating the twelve days of Christmas in some sense ever since we became parents.  Early on, it just didn't make sense to try to open all the gifts in one sitting with a toddler.  Little Nell wanted to enjoy something for a while.  And then a nap needed to happen.  And all this in between a special Christmas breakfast and then church and then, of course, Christmas dinner.  So we sort of accidentally fell into the idea of spreading the gifts out across the days following Christmas, and then we liturgically embraced it with intentionality, and we've been doing it ever since.

It also happens to work really well for our family given that Nathan works many, many extra hours in the month of December.  We really aren't that family that goes and cuts a tree in the snowy woods of New Hampshire on a weekend together, or strings popcorn and cranberry garlands together by candlelight, or drinks cocoa while Daddy reads the Christmas story.  But after Christmas, he usually gets some time off of work, and it's the perfect time for all that Advent anticipation to turn into Christmas celebration -- as a family.

It's really the way it's supposed to be, if one observes Advent, that to observe Christmas properly one ought to celebrate the twelve days of Christmas leading up to Epiphany.  Somehow in our culture everything has gotten a bit backwards and people celebrate Christmas from Thanksgiving (or, more honestly it would seem, Halloween) through December 25, and then everything fizzles out and everyone sits around in a post-Christmas slump of torn wrapping paper and wonders what to do with themselves until school starts again.

I try to be very intentional about Advent with my kids, and then we sure enjoy spreading out the Christmas cheer over the following days.  This year I'm trying to be particularly intentional about it, with a list of ideas going in my traveler's notebook {the delightful version of a day planner / journal / catch-all that I use} for ways we can properly celebrate Christmastide.

And before you begin thinking that celebrating twelve days of Christmas is the last thing you could possibly want to do because you're already exhausted and strung out from just the one day, wait! -- this is actually a much less stressful version of Christmas.  I promise.  It doesn't all hinge on one day. It's truly much more enjoyable this way!

A few people have asked me how we do this, so I'll share some ideas here:

Christmas Day

We open stockings first thing on Christmas morning, which is the way I grew up doing it.  But the kids don't get to go downstairs in the mornings until Nathan and I are ready to go down, too.  So when they wake up they wait for us to be awake, too, and sometimes once I'm up I'll tell them they can go tickle Daddy to wake him up, too.  Then they can come downstairs, but I always go down ahead of them and take a picture of the kids on the stairs, if for no other reason than because my parents always did this with us, and I love continuing that tradition!

This year the big girls were already wearing one of their gifts! I had decided it would be fun to give them the little hooded cowls I knitted for them first thing in the morning, when they woke and came into our bedroom.  They were quite pleased with them.  {And one of the things I'll be doing during the twelve days of Christmas is actually finishing them, since I ran out of time to add the little bear ears!}
Then, after opening stockings, the kids can play with their stocking treasures while I start making whatever breakfast things I haven't already made the night before.


An important part of our Christmas traditions are plenty of feasting.  We have special things that we only have at Christmas: cranberry coffee cake and a pecan ring, along with bacon and eggs and fruit and of course, coffee for me.


After breakfast, we go to church on Christmas day.  Always.  We have done this for the past six or seven years, I think.  And it's one of my favorite church services!  For our family, because my husband works at a church in Boston, Christmas Day is one of the rare days when we get to attend church as a family and sit together.  So, if the fact that it's Christmas Day weren't already enough, our kids really enjoy getting to have Daddy come with us, too.  This year we got quite a bit of snow on Christmas morning and only about four families braved the falling snow and un-cleared roads to come to church, but of course, you know those families really wanted to be there, and there was something extra lovely about that small crew of folks singing carols joyfully together.  The organist didn't make it in the snow storm, so Nathan of course stepped in and pulled out all the stops in his usual fashion.

By the time we've enjoyed all these things -- stockings, breakfast, and church -- it's a perfect time for kids to have a nap or at least a quiet time.  And then, depending on the year and what our plans are, we either begin making our Christmas dinner or begin to get ready to go visit with friends if we're doing that.  Either way, we make time to open about one gift per person.  I try to make sure whatever gift that is for the kids is the sort of thing that they will enjoy playing with for the rest of the day, and that it's relatively portable if we're going to someone's house for Christmas dinner.

This year we spent Christmas afternoon and evening with some lovely friends in their beautiful home, and passed the day with spiced nuts and chocolates and egg nog and other holiday treats until it was time for dinner.  And that was Christmas Day.

I know - you are probably not wondering how to celebrate Christmas Day because you already do that quite well, no doubt, and you have your own family traditions already well-established.  Good!  But the main thing I want to point out about Christmas Day is that it will be "magical," no matter what you do.  I did not grow up attending church on Christmas Day, and in my family we opened all the gifts on Christmas.  And it was magical.  I loved it.  Consequently, I sometimes have a niggling voice in my head telling me that if we don't do it the way I grew up doing it, which I experienced as being so magical, well, then my kids might miss out on that magic.

But I am learning that that is not true.

Sometimes when people learn that I didn't grow up "doing Santa" in my family, they immediately exclaim with surprise, "But Santa is so magical!  You missed out on all the magic!"  But of course, every one of my childhood Christmases was delightful and magical and we didn't need Santa to make it that way.

In the same way, Nathan and I get to choose and establish traditions for our family, and they don't have to be what we personally experienced as children to be wonderful, and delightful, and magical.  And who is to say that purple isn't every bit as wonderful as red in the early days of December?  And yes, it actually is magical to spread out the gift opening across many days of Christmas!  In fact, my children savor the continuing anticipation, and as a parent, I'm always quite happy that we pretty much manage to avoid the post-Christmas crash and resulting doldrums.

The Other Eleven Days

I'm pretty sure most of what I'm going to say here can be summed up as: take the things most people do before Christmas or on Christmas Day, and do them during the twelve days of Christmas, instead.  Need I say more?  {But you know I will, anyway!}  Here are some of the things I keep in mind to carry us through the twelve days of celebration.  Oh, and it probably goes without saying, but keep your decorations up!

Feasting: During Christmastide, I say "yes" to a lot of things I usually say "no" to.  We have leftover cranberry coffee cake for breakfast for several days following Christmas Day, or cardamom bread with plenty of butter, and clementines that seem extra special simply because they were in our stockings!  We also keep cheeses and salami and other savory treats around and just generally enjoy eating more festively.  (That said, the girls and I have had soup and salad the last two nights, because we also feel better when we don't go completely crazy, of course.)

Christmas cookies: The kids and I bake cookies after Christmas, too.  This year I plan to do cut-out sugar cookies with them and invite some friends over to decorate them.  This is a great example of an activity a lot of people would do in the days leading up to Christmas, but it is okay to do it during Christmastide, instead!  And of course, cookies fall squarely into the above category as well -- treats we usually don't eat a lot of, but it can be fun to enjoy during Christmas time.

Stories: We keep reading from our basket of Christmas books.  And, having done our Jesse Tree readings during Advent, during Christmas I like to read the gospel accounts of the nativity over and over again.  We have quite a few different children's Bible story books to choose from {thanks to my thrift store shopping habits}, so we enjoy reading lots of different versions!

Christmas music: This works especially well if you've been embracing Advent hymns throughout the season leading to Christmas, so you aren't already sick of Christmas music.  We love listening to Christmas music during the twelve days!  My girls are running around the house singing O Come All Ye Faithful, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and all the other good ones.  Daddy puts on all our best records and we listen to everything from Bing Crosby to King's College Choir to The Nutcracker.

Activities and Events: Speaking of the Nutcracker, we went the day after Christmas this year and I would love to make that a tradition for our family, that going to a special Christmas event like that can happen in the days following Christmas rather than the busy days leading up to it.  {For both my husband (a church musician) and myself (a violinist), the days leading up to Christmas are somewhat busy of necessity despite the fact that I try to create a slow-paced environment in our home during Advent.}

Keep Celebrating: You've probably noticed that there's a little thing called New Year's Eve that happens shortly after Christmas.  This is, in fact, within the twelve days, so why not enjoy the opportunity to eat some good food and get together with friends and make that a part of your general spirit of festivity and celebration during this time?

Puzzles/Games: I'm currently enjoying working on a 1,000 piece Christmas puzzle and the girls love working alongside me.  This is my idea of the perfect kind of Christmas activity.  If you're not a puzzle person, it could be playing with a new Christmas game or toy together, instead - so plan ahead and make a good family game or puzzle one or more of your gifts for one of the days of Christmas.

Arts & Crafts: Along with the girls' usual affinity for drawing and painting and handicrafts, during the days following Christmas we try to work in something special.  For example, this year they received unpainted wooden nutcrackers in their stockings that they get to paint themselves.

Giving Days: I came across this idea from a few different people online and we are doing it with our kids this year.  They each get their own "giving day" where they get to give the majority of whatever gifts they have selected or made for others (if they haven't already been eager to give a particular something before their "Giving Day," which would be okay, too).  They also get to do acts of giving to the family, like helping choose and make breakfast or another meal, and, since my kids are still quite young, I'll encourage them to make or draw something simple to give to family members.  {n.b.: I thought about giving myself a Giving Day as well, but I couldn't quite think of what I would do differently on that day in addition to the things I already do.  And then I realized that every day is a mama's Giving Day, ha!}

Shopping: Now if you've already "shopped til' you dropped" in the days leading up to Christmas, you probably neither want nor need to do this.  But if you happen to be like me, and skipped the malls and the busyness and even the craze of online shopping, well, it can be kind of fun to take the kids on a spin through the after-Christmas sales at Target or someplace!  Let them help choose gift wrap or gift tags for next year, or pick out a special ornament to add to the tree.  We did this last year with some good friends and had a great time.  Some of the holiday foods were also deeply discounted, and this is going to be perfect for you, because you know that Christmas isn't over and you're still celebrating!  So pick up that bag of cheddar popcorn or that tin of peppermint hot cocoa!

Follow the Star: We have one small nativity that I kept set up in its completion throughout Advent down at the kids' eye level.  I wanted them to be able to see and touch the figures and see it all together.  But then we also have a beautiful peg doll nativity set made by my talented friend Erin of My Pretty Peggy.  That nativity we set up in the wooden barn frame my parents made for us several years ago, and while the animals have been waiting in the barn since the beginning of Advent, we didn't add Mary and Joseph until Christmas Eve, and then late that night, I tucked baby Jesus into the manger so he would be there on Christmas morning.  But our wise men still aren't there!  The day after Christmas a star appeared somewhere in our house - a small glittering star I taped to the wall in a corner of our music room.  I sent the girls, with wise men in hand, on a hunt for the star.  When they found it, they got to place the wise men near it.  Each night I move the star, and as they find it, they move the wise men to follow it.  A friend shared this idea with me and I love it!  The girls are having a lot of fun, and it's a good daily reminder of Christmastide and of Epiphany approaching.

Gather with friends: You can invite good friends or new acquaintances or anyone you like to join you in many of these things.  I am hoping to incorporate more time with friends into our twelve days this year -- and hoping to grow closer relationships with others who are living somewhat liturgically, as well.  And note that this kind of gathering doesn't have to be stressful or fancy -- Christmas cookies and hot cocoa might be just the thing!  Or switch it up and have a salad night, ha, if you're all in a sugar coma and longing to eat something fresh and healthful.

Twelfth Night: This year for the first time I am planning to host a Twelfth Night party.  This is not a tradition I grew up with, but I had been pondering the idea of doing one, and then the very day I mentioned the idea to some friends, later that day I found that Leila Lawler, whom I look up to as a sort of beacon of creating a beautiful and meaningful family life, posted this: Restoring the Culture with Twelfth Night Festivities!  {She also has a post about celebrating the twelve days of Christmas, which you should read, too.}  So, I think it is meant to be that we shall do this sort of thing this year.  And Twelfth Night also falls on a Friday this year, which is an excellent time for a party.  I'm thinking we'll chalk the door and have king cakes {with a hidden bean, of course, the finder of which will become king or queen for the night}, and play games, and eat good food and drink wassail and sing carols one last time as we say goodbye to Christmastide and hello to Epiphany.  I'm excited about the idea and am hoping that some friends will want to join us.

Gifts: Of course, there are the gifts.  We have never made a hard and fast prescription for how the gifts ought to unfold, but I can tell you that it is actually not hard to have gifts that spread across twelve days, by the time you have a gift or two from grandparents, and sibling gifts to one another, and perhaps gifts from aunts and uncles as well, and of course, gifts from us, the parents {we usually do about three gifts per child, although it's flexible from year to year}.

This year I thought I wasn't really going to buy anything for the girls, as I had been storing away little treasures I found at thrift stores over the past year, hiding them in my closet.  When December rolled around, I found that I could just "shop" from my closet and I had lovely gifts I knew the girls would use and enjoy and cherish.  But then a few days before Christmas I found myself in Savers {dropping off donations, and then distracted by looking around as tends to happen to me at thrift stores!} and I ended up buying a few more things: a lovely tiny Christmas doll for Nell, wooden buildings and road signs and cars to add to Ree's collection, board books for Molly, and a pair of shoes for Nell and a dress for each girl.  They were all things I might have bought anyway, even if it weren't Christmas, but this is perfectly in keeping with my philosophy -- it's okay to make an ordinary thing such as a practical pair of shoes in perfectly beautiful condition into a special gift.  This is an essential aspect of celebrating the twelve days while keeping things simple and non-stressful!  Just like the simplest of things during Advent can become our special thing for the day with the right introduction and mood, so too can doing a jigsaw puzzle or receiving a new-to-you dress become a special Christmas thing.

{n.b.: you may want to clue in extended family that you're doing things this way, so they aren't surprised if you haven't already opened their gifts on Christmas Day.}

So between gifts, cookies and puzzles and games, a few gatherings with friends, The Nutcracker, good books and music, and a few other little things {I've promised I'll paint their toenails red tomorrow}, we really enjoying spreading Christmas out across the twelve days.

* * *

You know how that Danish word hygge has become quite popular in recent years?

Well, that's the feeling we're going for around here.

In between the naps needing to happen and the diapers needing to be changed and the laundry needing to be done... in between kids having their usual meltdowns over one thing or another and me going a little stir crazy from time to time... something as simple as keeping the Christmas candles burning and the Christmas mugs out within ready reach and the peppermint tea flowing steadily is going to give you that nice, cozy sense that it isn't over, you see.  There's more.  There's more to celebrate now, during Christmastide, and then there's more after that, too.  Because we get to observe each season of the church year, each with its own traditions and special celebrations, and we get to do it all year after year, orbiting around those most central of stories: that God became man, that he dwelled with us, that he sacrificed himself for us, that he wants to draw us to himself now, and that it isn't over.

The wonderful thing about the church calendar is that it is waiting with open arms to give you, whether as a parent or as an individual, the structure that you need to create intentional times and seasons in your life.  And I am finding that, if I do even just a little each year during these seasons to observe the things the church is calling me to observe, well, we will grow together as a family and grow in our knowledge and love of God.  It is so much easier than trying to start from scratch -- What should I read to my children? What verses should I teach them? What things should I do with them?  Do what the church is telling you to do right now.  It is the best of starting points.

No comments:

Post a Comment