For many years now, my book deadline has been January 15. That means I’m always racing to finish my novel during the holidays. With three children and a musician-husband whose busiest season is also Christmas, I decided several years ago to stop trying to produce a perfect “Hallmark” holiday. I sat everyone down and asked which traditions were most important to them, and together we came up with a Christmas celebration that is perfect for our family.
My husband’s family is mostly Dutch (except for his father, who barged into town and added the Austin name). To celebrate his heritage we set a pair of wooden shoes near our front door for St. Nicholas Day. Our kids never believed in Santa Claus since we wanted them to celebrate Christmas as Jesus’s birthday, but they loved those wooden shoes—and the fact that their father marched in them in Holland’s Tulip Time Parade when he was young.
We also bake traditional Dutch Jan Hagel cookies and serve them with egg nog as we decorate our Christmas tree. The background music for this event is a CD that our church choir in Winnipeg, Canada recorded when my husband was their music director. Our tree isn’t magazine-worthy but we decorate it with love and with ornaments the kids made in school, as well as decorations from all the places we’ve lived and traveled.
On Christmas Eve we hang the stockings that my sister Bonnie pieced and quilted for us years ago. She’s in heaven now, but we remember her with love when we see her beautiful handiwork. Our dinner on Christmas Day reflects my German background. Five days ahead of time, I begin marinating a beef roast in vinegar, onions and mixed pickling spices to make Sauerbraten. I also bake ginger snaps, which get crumbled up to thicken the traditional gravy. Served with spätzle and cooked red cabbage, this has become our favorite Christmas meal. Dessert is cake with candles for Jesus’s birthday.
When our children were very small, I purchased an inexpensive nativity scene that they could handle without breaking. Every year they divvy up the shepherds and wise men and other figures and set each piece in place as my husband reads the Christmas story from the Bible. Now that our kids are grown and married, their spouses join in the tradition. I could buy a fancier nativity set but none of us wants to part with that old, well-worn one.
Our traditions have continued to transform as our family has grown and added new members. We now celebrate Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, by lighting menorah candles and placing them in our window. I love eating warm potato latkes like the ones my great-grandmother used to make with sour cream and applesauce. Jesus also celebrated this traditional Jewish holiday (see John 10:22-23), a reminder of God’s provision and the rededication of His temple. For me, it’s a reminder that Jesus came at Christmas to bring light into a very dark world.
Jesus wants me to let my light shine too, but I can’t do that if I’m stressed out from trying to achieve Christmas perfection. The celebration of Christ’s birth should be a time to relax with my family and friends and enjoy God’s gracious gift of His Son. It’s in those moments with my loved ones close, that I feel the holy wonder of Christmas once again—Emmanuel, God with us!
Does your family have special Christmas traditions and foods?