The Trouble with Traditions


The trouble with traditions is they change. Who knew? People grow. Families change. What once seemed like it would always be that way, isn't. One time. And then it isn't the next time. And then, you know. It's never going to be the same again.

The thing about a Christmas wedding? Those little changes come in big waves all through advent. And a mother knows it's all going to be very different, very soon. I've grown quite fond of stockings hung at the top of the stairs. The nine of them fill the space just perfectly and when I see them, I see a physical reminder of how abundantly blessed we are. Every time a baby was born, we added another stocking, with no small amount of glee. When Michael proposed to Kristin, I got her a stocking. I guess I just figured we were still adding to the family. I didn't consider logistics.

Logistics. How will this work, going forward? This December 6th tradition of stockings? Not so well. People won't be here on December 6th. One or more will be away at school, in the thick of exams, for the next forever many years. Too, they will move out altogether, with spouses and jobs and the impossibility to just be here in the morning on December 6th. Perhaps they will have their own children for whom to fill stockings.

The best traditions, it seems, must be open to change. And so, without further pondering on this particular reality this year, I hang the stockings–all nine together–one last time. I take a good picture (or at least I try). And I leave for you a memory of when we were still adding, whereupon me-at-40 and me-at-33 remind me-today of what it's all about.

First, from 2006:
It was an almost forgotten advent tradition. The phone call to Land's End. I used to be a major catalog shopper, back before I was a major internet shopper. One year, I called Land's End and ordered three monogrammed stockings. Two years later, new baby at my breast, I called again. And then again. And again, every two years, until there were seven. Last year, I hung those stockings and thought with a twinge of sadness how perfectly they fit in the spot we'd chosen–no room for another. A month later, I was pregnant! So, this year, I ordered a stocking online for Karoline. But I ordered the one with the snowmen and not the angel. The girls learned of this mistake and protested loudly. Apparently, the family tradition is that the girls all have stockings with angels. I didn't know that two stockings made a tradition. Seemed like a nice tradition, though. So, it turned out that I had to make a phone call after all. And the very kind lady on the phone said, "A baby at Christmas! How lovely!" I kid you not–after a year of blogging loveliness permeating this pregnancy, she said "lovely." Lovely. And the whole conversation reminded me of this column, written in 1999:

It was the weekend following Thanksgiving. My husband was traveling. I had nearly finished my Christmas shopping. And I had spent a couple of hours on the phone, bouncing back and forth between various members of my extended family; the first of several rounds of Christmas coordination calls. I was trying again to plan our Christmas celebrations, taking into account the visitation schedules of siblings and step-siblings. I was determined to have the perfect Christmas this year: everyone together to celebrate (except those who wouldn’t be civil to each other) and a revival of some fond traditions of childhood Christmases (without stepping on the toes of people who have found new spiritualities). In my mind, all these criteria could be met. This could be perfect. I hung up after round one, my head and neck tense, my soul weary. It didn’t feel remotely like Christmas and I had serious doubts that it would this year. I had one more call to make before I would call it a day. I needed to order a stocking for Stephen’s first Christmas.
All my children have monogrammed needlepoint stockings and he would too. I called the catalog company and placed my order. "And I want to have it monogrammed," I said. "What should it say?" inquired the calm voice on the other end. "Stephen," I replied, tears springing unexpectedly to my eyes. "A baby at Christmas," she said. "That’s what it’s all about isn’t it?" In this space over the course of this year, I have reflected often upon how Stephen has shown me that God is bigger. He is bigger than any plan I have and He is bigger than worry or anxiety. I am a planner and God has shown me this year that only His plans are the perfect ones. Thoughts of Stephen at Christmas brought thoughts of another Christmas baby.

I am quite sure that Christ’s birth wasn’t exactly the perfect Christmas Mary planned. I cannot even imagine a donkey ride nine months pregnant, in the throes of early labor. Caves full of animals stink. Hay makes me sneeze; I wonder if at least one person gathered on that night wasn’t wheezing. And in the tired, hazy, sweet hours after childbirth, when most women want to rest and just gaze at the fruit of their labor, the holiest woman of all was visited by smelly, dirty strange men and their sheep! The Blessed Mother was truly the ultimate gracious hostess. Exactly who is coming for Christmas? The Son of God.

I think that I am the perfect hostess called to juggle the needs and wants of competing interests. I think I have to find the perfect gift for everyone on my list and wrap it in the perfect paper. I think we need to stick to the traditional twelve course Italian feast or I will disappoint my late grandmother. (Truth be told, my grandmother would have been so thrilled with all my children, she wouldn’t have cared about food at all.) I think I have to have a perfectly decorated house that smells of Christmas, despite my asthmatic children. Advent isn’t supposed to be a marathon of materialism and merrymaking. Christmas isn’t also known as "the feast of cooking, cleaning, and shopping."
Christmas is a time to be Christ to one another. It is permission in a largely secular society to witness to the wonders of the Lord. In reality, the only thing perfect about Christmas is the Christ Child who longs to find shelter in our hearts.

I am not Martha Stewart. I am an innkeeper. I am preparing a place in my home and in my soul for the Savior of the World. I need to be so grounded in prayer that Christ’s peace overflows from me to those in my home. Let the visitors come. Let them come whenever they want and stay as long as they want. I will make the house warm and the food filling, but above all, I will make certain that the Holy Infant is here. He will be the reason for our celebration. If He can cause the lion to lie down with the lamb, He can handle Christmas at my house. Despite all the other things on my list, I must make time for earnest, fervent prayer, because I know that I can’t do this under my own strength. I must invite the Baby. The only perfection here this year will be the Baby. Because a Baby at Christmas is what it’s all about.



  1. says

    This is a LOVELY post! :)
    Our extended family is getting bigger and a little spread out- we are trying to keep traditions alive, mostly with encouraging communication between the cousins- this year, we are doing cousin cards instead of a cousin gift exchange so that each cousin gives a card to every cousin- it should be cute!

  2. says

    We will ALL be home at my parents for Christmas this year. 6 siblings, 4 spouses, 9 grandchildren (and 1 on the way!).
    We ALL have hand-knit stockings… made by my mom. She called me the other day. “Don’t forget to bring your stockings!” I told her I had thought of that already. How in the world she will fit 21 stockings on the stairs is beyond me. But she will.
    I know my mom will say you have MUCH to look forward to. She and my dad are over the moon that we will be together for the actual Christmas Day celebration…. presents and stockings and all. It will be quite a Christmas to remember. :)

  3. Kris Z. says

    My mom & Dad still hang our original 5 stockings up every St. Nicholas Eve. When we got married, the stockings were filled a little fuller, so we could share with our spouses. The grandbabies each got their own new stocking at Grandma’s house. Everyone gets their treats when they come home to visit. Our original 5 stockings are hung by the fireplace & the now 20 grandchildren stockings are hung in the long foyer hallway. The grandkids are always excited to call & find out if their stockings are filled! (They always are!)

  4. LavaidaVandelia says

    At our parents’ home, too, our childhood stockings are filled. And each of the grandchildren have a stocking just for them.
    Either we make it “home for Christmas” and enjoy our stockings there (along with wondering what is in the siblings stockings!) or the stockings are brought to us when grandmother (my father is now deceased) comes for her Christmas visit.
    It is a lovely (that word again) tradition that has expanded to fit our family while taking into account our grown-up lives.

  5. jg says

    As the oldest in my family, not too much older than your Michael, I am now married and have three kids (so far). We open gifts at our house with our little family of five, then head to my parent’s house in our jammies for breakfast and more gift opening with my parents, siblings, and their spouses. I agree with those above who’ve said it’s adding not subtracting! I worried a lot about how Christmas was going to “work” being that I was the first child to leave home, get married, have kids and “mess up” the normal traditions. We’ve made it work! And, it’s great! My mom fills stockings for my husband, me (of course!) ;) and our kids. We do a big Christmas eve celebration and mass with my husband’s side of the family too. We all do live close, but I think the idea of hanging and filling the stockings no matter where your children live is a great one. They’ll most likely be home at some point over the holidays, and as a “kid” it’s nice to know you’re still remembered as part of the original family. I would be devestated (at age 30) if my mom forgot to fill my stocking :) I’d feel kicked out. Merry Christmas! You just wait til those grandbabies start coming….my parents are over the moon. And, finding the perfect wooden dolly cradle for my 18 month old daughter has my mom all excited all over again.

  6. says

    As relatively new Catholics, with younger children, we are still instituting our Christmas traditions. I have wondered, as we’ve started some new ones this year, “How long will we be able to keep this up? When will the kids outgrow this and think its lame?” I’ve forged ahead, though, and our Advent has been much more joyful and spiritual as a result of our new traditions. I hope that I can be consistent and create the beautiful traditions and memories with my family that you have with yours.

  7. says

    Talk about traditions changing… try moving to a 99% non-Christian country! :o) I tried to keep as many of my growing-up traditions as possible over here, but once we had kids I gave in to the lovely mixture of old and new. I grinned when I saw your stocking photo. Land’s End has been my friend for 18+ years living in Japan, and we have the same stockings hanging in our house – well, fewer, and with different names, of course, but a few of the very same designs are here, too. So thankful!
    Honestly, I can’t even begin to think about the changes your talking about yet, because it already makes me teary. My kids will probably be moving a half a world away from us when they fly the nest… kind like I did, I guess. I am praying about how to do that gracefully already, and my oldest is just about to be 15! Lovely post, as always, Elizabeth. You always make me think… and get on my knees!

  8. Suzanne says

    Thank you for reposting your old writing. Good stuff, there.
    “I was trying again to plan our Christmas celebrations, taking into account the visitation schedules of siblings and step-siblings. I was determined to have the perfect Christmas this year: everyone together to celebrate (except those who wouldn’t be civil to each other) and a revival of some fond traditions of childhood Christmases (without stepping on the toes of people who have found new spiritualities). ”
    This quote made the words of wisdom that followed so meaningful for me. I feel like I’m trying so hard to create a Christmas for my kids that is perfect, trying to gloss over the reality of what our extended family looks (and acts) like. And when reality butts up against my vision of what should be, I get irritated with the family that doesn’t fit my perfect Christmas plan. (The divorced, the atheist, the liberal feminist,etc.) But as you so wisely point out, it is not for us to create an image of perfection, but rather to get ready to welcome Jesus. And I’m certain he would tell me to love these people, not be irritated by them. To love them so well, they might see His love shining through me. Fervent prayer, that His love permeate my every action this Christmas.

  9. Lauri says

    I am struggling with my perfect Christmas plan this year. My oldest daughter lives in Hawaii with her husband and our first grandchild. They won’t be coming this year. I miss her. Her stocking is hung up and the gifts have been sent………but it’s not the same. And my oldest son has a wacky work schedule, so he might not be able to be here either. And my next oldest daughter also works and has a strange schedule. Not to mention Daddy…….ah……shift work! Should I keep our routines and traditions the same and have them miss them? Or try to rework so we can maybe be together? And how does it look for the 7 children at home? I am praying for grace, patience and joy. That His love would shine through me despite my being disappointed.

  10. says

    That sounds just like the Christmas I dream of hosting in 20 years. Wow!!! Have a fantastic time and let me know if your mom has any good logistical pointers. ;) God bless!

  11. Mamalion says

    Oh, oh, oh, just had to share our Lands’ End stocking story- my Nana had had stockings made for all her grandchildren when we were born, so we all have the same style of stockings at various houses. When my 2 girls were born, Nana ordered stockings for them, carrying on the tradition. We got 2 of the same stockings. Next year, we added a brother, and Nana ordered him one too. The year after that, we added another brother, and I called Lands’ End, and asked if there was any chance at all that we could find the same stocking that the first brother had. They went clear back to their supplier, and were able to get me one more stocking that matched. Then the last 2 came along, and they have matching stockings too.
    And we have the same issue- traditions are changing. We are adding significant others to the mix now- not stocking-worthy, but certainly knitted hat worthy, kids are away at college, kids are growing. Our tree tradition has been that they all go cut it Thanksgiving weekend. Well the weekend flew by this year, and no tree. This is the latest EVER that we’ve waited to get a tree, but oldest DD will be home from college this week, and they couldn’t possibly go cut a tree without her. Not sure what will happen when she’s not coming home any more.
    I keep reminding myself that this is good- our job as a parent is to work ourselves out of a job (to some extent). But it does still hurt when those fledglings fly, even if it’s what we’ve been working toward all their lives, and they are being successful, happy, well-adjusted kids that love the Lord. God is calling one of mine to the mission field. That is the hardest thing ever- we raised her to be mission-minded. But I didn’t realize the sacrifice my heart would have to make. And the fact that I very well may be visiting grandchildren in Africa or South America.

  12. Elizabeth says

    What a sweet post:). My mother made our stockings (7) and they still hang on the mantel, waiting for us when we come home for Christmas. there are three of us married now, and 11 grandchildren– with 4 more on the way! ;) After we got married and started having children, my mom bought engraved little golden hearts which she hangs by a ribbon sewn onto the cuff of each stocking. They hav the names of the spouses and grandchildren in each family. It’s a lovely little tradition and our children Love that they each have their own little heart– and their grandparents’ hearts for sure!:)

  13. MJ says

    Your posts always make me smile, even when they are bittersweet. I admire the thought and care and love you put into traditions.
    I’m the oldest of nine children; we are a generation ahead of your 9. As all of us were born within 9 years (no twins), my mother relied on traditions to make our family work. As we all grew up and married and had children of our own, some of our cherished Christmas traditions had to change.
    I think that what I can guarantee is that your new traditions, which also will be planned with love and joy, will be just as wonderful as the ones they replace. We found that the first year of a new tradition is a bit hard, but next thing you know, you have a new tradition.
    When my first sister got married, my mother decided that we needed a plan. She announced that in odd years, everyone would come home for Christmas and in even years, we’d come home for Thanksgiving. In the “off” years, people can do what they please — go to Mom and Dad’s, go to in-laws’ homes, travel, or stay at their own homes. We’ve used this plan for 32 years. Our original family of 11 has grown to 46 and almost everyone is there for the “on” celebration each year. It has worked out well for us and for all of our spouses’ families. In fact, I think that the in-laws like it best of all, because they don’t have to compete with our big and fun clan.
    PS We all insisted that the 9 stockings hang at the mantel until one year, my mother decided she was done with stockings. She wrapped each one and gave it to the appropriate person. I cherish mine in my own home now.

  14. Mimi P says

    This post has hit such a soft spot in my heart this year since I’m struggling with a hodge podge of family that celebrates or doesn’t celebrate any family traditions because of divorce. Since we have a little bundle of joy only 2 weeks old this year, our own family traditions will make up in my heart what it lacks from my childhood. My parents don’t do family traditions anymore and that is so very difficult but I try very hard for my own children to have a Christmas that they look forward to every year.
    Oh and by the way, just a side note: we don’t have a fireplace or mantle( we are in S. Fla, what do you expect?) so we hang our stockings with Command Hooks in our living room. For those of you that want to hang a bunch of stockings down a hallway or such, those hooks are awesome and I store the hooks in the stockings each year so they don’t get lost!

  15. Mrs. B. says

    Dear Elizabeth, truly a lovely if bittersweet post, as others have remarked.
    I know you don’t need any reminder, but be thankful for the blessing of your full, unbroken home. Yes, the traditions will have to be tweaked and some might even disappear, but your family has so much love, so much love! At least, you will always be able to welcome your grown children back for Christmas, no matter where their lives will lead them – this is in itself such a blessing! I always joke with my husband that we cannot possibly “downsize” to a smaller house even on the (sad) day when we become empty-nesters: how in the world would we be able to welcome everyone back at Christmas, Easter, etc in a smaller place?? This for us is a painful issue: my family is impossibly far, and he comes from a broken home with re-married parents: be thankful for the pain and awkwardness that your children will never know. Be happy for all the love they will always know and share! Merry Christmas!

  16. Michelle says

    Yes, yes! Traditions change. Thank you for allowing your new DIL the freedom to create her own traditions without imposing yours on her. I think a beautiful result to being open to life and realizing that we don’t “own” our children is that one day it is easier, still a bit painful, but easier to release them to the life God has in mind for them. Many parents that contracept view themselves as having ownership of their children in a way. Instead of seeing a new family born when a child marries they see their same family with another child added on with the new spouse. This attitude is so harmful to families and so harmful to the precious union of the newly wedded.

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