As I write, it’s the feast of St Nicholas. Many of my friends are sharing photos of their kids delightedly pulling chocolate coins, oranges, little toys, and other treats out of their shoes, all to mark this special morning.
At our house, it’s a special morning if you don’t find something in your shoe — a piece of fruit if you’re lucky, a dead mouse if you’re not. This is because we have small, irrational children and an ambitious cat living in the house. You don’t puts your shoes away, you takes your chances.
When I first became aware that many nice Catholic families observe this sweet tradition of treats in the shoes, I felt that pang of guilt and resentment familiar to so many mothers of young children: “Oh, I should be doing this!” plus “Argh, I can’t believe there’s yet another thing I’m supposed to be doing!”
But I pretty quickly realised I really just don’t have to do it. We can sit this one out, I’ll talk to the kids about St Nicholas when they get home from school, but they’ll just have to be satisfied with the chocolate they got in their Advent calendar and the brownies I made for the birthday girl to bring in to her class, the poor tykes.
I don’t have anything against St Nicholas or his feast day traditions. I think it’s a neat little thing to do, but I never heard of it until a few years ago. It definitely wasn’t part of my childhood. My parents were raised as secular Jews who went on a long religious and cultural odyssey that spanned continents and involved kind of a lot of drugs, before they found Jesus.
Eventually, when I was about four, they landed in the Catholic Church, and there they stopped. They raised us Catholic, using the catechism and the lives of the saints and so on. But when it came to cultural practices to mark the liturgical year, they were at sea. Of course they had no Catholic family traditions to pass along, so when they tried to establish some kind of family faith life with their own kids, they had to wing it.
We ended up with some basics that most American Catholics, no matter what their ethnic bent, enjoy (giving presents, donating to charity, singing Christmas carols around a lighted tree), and some things that I associate strongly with Christmas, but which are really only specific to my family of origin (eating manicotti and the red and black candies my father would seek out at a specialty store; listening to a particular album of medieval music; sometimes lighting Hanukkah candles and eating latkes).
In my own family, we have picked up a number of traditions that work for us. Before Advent, we set aside a day to drag out all our craft supplies and make a fresh batch of Jesse Tree ornaments, to be hung every night with a reading from Scripture. We light the advent wreath every night and sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
We put up house lights during advent, but don’t decorate the tree until Christmas Eve (both to preserve the advent season as a time of waiting, and to preserve the ornaments from people and creatures who get smashy). We aim for Midnight Mass. We have various treats we like to bake. We sponsor a family or bring a load of food to the soup kitchen. We get Chinese take-out for Christmas dinner. And best of all, on Christmas morning while the bacon is frying, we sit around in our pajamas and each take a turn opening a small, wrapped box from my ten-year-old while loudly chanting, “CAKE OR PIE? CAKE OR PIE? CAKE OR PIE?????”
It’s . . . look, it’s a thing we do. I don’t think I can explain.
We’ve also tried and quickly shed some traditions that might work well for other families, but spell disaster for us. I’ve tried various esoteric practices involving veiled candles, bits of straw, paper chains, acts of service, gift lotteries, medieval anagrams, and every other kind of overachieving cultural what-have-you that caught my eye while I was desperate to make everything Meaningful For The Children.
I remember one year worrying so hard about materialism that I told the kids that one of their presents would be the opportunity to choose a gift for a poor child, and donate it. It wasn’t a bad idea . . . for the older kids. The younger kids, predictably, misunderstood horribly, and it was bloody awful. I only hope they’re so young, they don’t remember the year Mama apparently told them they could pick a toy for themselves and then forced them to dump it into a box and walk away *for no reason at all.* AT CHRISTMAS.
So. We don’t do that anymore. Through the decades, here is what I have learned about Christmas family traditions:
1. It’s normal to flounder a bit while you settle on the traditions that are both meaningful and sustainable for your particular family, especially if the parents grew up with different traditions. Floundering isn’t bad. Everyone flounders. These things take time.
2. It’s normal for there to be some ebb and flow at different seasons of family life. Some years, you will have the peace and energy and focus to do lots of lovely things; but sometimes daily life will offer enough drama and ritual on its own, and adding in a plethora of extras will be the opposite of enriching. It will just exhausting and depleting, and it will make Christmas unpleasant for everyone.
3. Nobody does everything.
The internet has given us the impression that, in order to have a full and rich liturgical life, you have to do every last thing that everyone does.
We forget that what we’re seeing is the cultivated best contributed by a huge crowd of people. All sane people pick and choose. Nobody does everything!
4. Finally, really the only mistake you can make is to have Christmas without Jesus. There are countless ways to make sure Jesus is at the center of your Christmas. Christmas in my house looks different from Christmas in my parents’ house, and chances are it looks different from Christmas in your house. Just make sure Jesus is there! And then relax, and let the power of that bright little baby do its thing.
And for goodness’ sake, put your shoes away. Or at least remember to shake them out before you stick your foot in there.