We are made for festival and ritual, we human beings. We inherit traditions. We adapt them to our needs. We make up our own. Putting out grass for the reindeer on Christmas Eve is an innovation one year and by the next it has grown in the imaginations of our children to become an indelible part of how we do Christmas at our house.
When I was a child, Father Christmas used to get a can of beer as well as a Christmas mince pie. My staunch and determined eldest daughter declared that he could not drink and drive; in our house, Father Christmas got milk. Each of my daughters has now taken that ritual and made it over for her own children.
I grew up in the Christian tradition. Our father, who had rejected the Anglican faith of his devout mother in favour of scornful agnosticism, did not interfere with our own mother’s quiet determination to take us to church on the great festivals, properly garbed as befitted such an occasion. Christmas to us was matching gloves and hat (a shirt and tie for the boys), the familiar carols joyfully sung, and a treat given at the end of the service.
I learned to love the rhythms of the liturgical year before I counted my years in double figures: Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, Whitsunday and Harvest Festival. I love them yet, and when I became a Catholic in my late twenties, I enthusiastically adopted (and adapted) many new-to-me traditional practices that gave shape to the year.
2017 has been a hard year in our family for many reasons, and Christmas will be bitter-sweet. But I find myself buoyed with memories of delight and hope for 2018 as I sink into the familiar rituals of Advent.
Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas, so this year it was 3rd December. It is a time of preparation: prayer, charitable giving, self-denial — a little Lent. The priest wears purple, the colour of penance, and purple hangs in the church. We sing special hymns that belong to that time of waiting: O Come Divine Messiah, and O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
In our house, we put out the Advent candles on the 1st Sunday of Advent: one candle for each Sunday, and one for Christmas Day. We light them for our dinner meal: one candle for the first week of Advent, two for the second, three for the third, four for the fourth, and all five on Christmas Day. Three of the candles are purple; the one for the third Sunday of Advent is rose, the colour of joy, when our hope and delight can no longer be contained and overflows in the very first prayer of the mass, which begins with the Latin word Gaudete, which means ‘joy’.
We also put up the Jesse Tree on the first Sunday. Another old tradition we have made our own, the Jesse tree refers to Jesus, who was the promised tree that would branch forth from the root of Jesse, the father of King David of the Old Testament. (Yes, the one who fought Goliath.) Each day, we add a symbol to the tree and are reminded of the story behind it, from the star that recalls creation to the mother and child added on Christmas Day. The grandchildren and I collected or made the ornaments on our tree over many years, so each has a personal story as well as a Biblical one, and handling the ornaments I feel close to those who are far away.
And the nativity set will go up this weekend. Just the stable at first, and the animals, with the other pieces in other parts of the house, slowly drawing nearer day by day, until by Christmas Eve the tableau awaits only the baby and the three wise men, who in my house arrive on the 26th instead of the traditional 6th January, because I can wait no longer.
On a more secular note, baking is another traditional activity I inherited from my mother: Christmas cake, gingerbread, Christmas sweet mince pies, shortbread. I usually have a couple of grandchildren to bake with, and they go home laden with treats, wrapped in cellophane to give as presents, along with crafts they’ve made and cherries and plums off our trees, which are laden at this point in the New Zealand summer.
Christmas dinner changes year by year, but has always included a berry salad, since the day I first made it in Dunedin, when my children were all still at school. Christmas is in summer in New Zealand, so we may have a barbecued lamb roast, with luxurious salads and copious relishes and pickles and salads.
I started another tradition three years ago. This will be the fourth year in a row that I’ve published a book on or about the middle of December. The first was my first historical romance, Candle’s Christmas Chair, the story of a viscount who goes to commission an invalid’s chair to give the gift of mobility to his disabled mother, and stays to court the carriage maker’s daughter who designed the chair.
Candle is one of four novellas and two novelettes in this year’s book, If Mistletoe Could Tell Tales. It releases on Friday. The print book is already available and would make a great treat for a lover of historical romances and holiday stories. Pop by my website for the blurb and buy links.
May you and yours enjoy a very merry holiday time, whatever your season, traditions and beliefs. Best wishes from me and mine to you and yours for a prosperous and happy new year.