Thursday 21 September 2017

'Tis the season to be with family

The holidays can be a peaceful time or a stressful one, depending on your perspective; but bringing your brood close can be easier with annual traditions

Christmas is around the corner. This may be the time you have prepared for with excitement, or it may be a time you have been dreading.

Perhaps you have memories of great Christmases from your childhood and are striving hard to recreate them for your children. It is likely you have a script for how it should go.

I'd guess you have Christmas traditions that get repeated each year. There is a real comfort to having traditions. Some of the best ones involve other people and help to build a sense of togetherness.

These kinds of traditions tend not to come at great expense, which is a good thing.

There may be a much-reduced commercialisation attached to this Christmas for each of us. Even if we are not splurging, we can feel under pressure to meet our own expectations of what the holiday should be like. Our sense, then, of Christmas being "as it should be", or not, can have a big impact on our enjoyment of the season.

For example, if we can't quite regenerate the magic of our own remembered Christmases we can end up disappointed on our own behalf or on behalf of our children.

It is not like children need much to go 'wrong' to leave them disappointed. They too may have their experiences of Christmases past or, thanks to the saturation of advertising, they may have specific expectations of what this Christmas will bring.

Returning the focus to a season of goodwill and a connectedness with others can mean that your memories, and your children's, will be good because they can always be achieved no matter how much money is available.

I asked folks on Facebook for their thoughts and they had lots of great ideas for things to do. For example, Fiona Taylor says: "Myself and my family go to the pier in Enniscrone and jump in every Christmas morning. Have done it for the 12 years we've lived in Sligo.

"We do it in honour of all our friends who aren't around any more. Then we go home and cook dinner together. "

When we share experiences in this fashion it builds a sense of community. After the (no doubt, breath-taking) cold shock of the water has worn off and during the rest of the day and in the days or weeks afterwards Fiona's family have real common ground that they can talk about and that is meaningful for them.

Another Facebooker, Iseult Ni Dhomhnaill Clark, spoke about how every Christmas Eve her dad read 'The Night Before Christmas' to her and now she does the same with her children.

Reading to children is a meaningful activity at any time. There is something about a spoken story that fires the imagination and builds closeness between speaker and listener. Again there is a strong element of shared experience drawing us together.

Experiences

The continuity that Iseult describes of the same physical book passing down through the generations is also a lovely way of linking the current experiences that she has with her children to her own childhood.

Of course, the gifts that come with Christmas are also part of the experience. How we deal with gift giving and receiving is also determined by our upbringing. While the depth of love is not measurable in the gift itself, the simple act of giving something suggests a generosity and caring.

Enjoying this generosity is all the more reason to savour the time that presents are distributed. Many people have developed traditions about how gifts are given and received. One example that has become really popular is anonymous Kris Kindles, where each person in a group or family gives one gift to one other person in the group. Claudia Kemna-Lee described an alternative approach to the Christmas morning gift grab.

"When it comes to opening the presents we don't just tear into them," she says. "We take turns rolling a die, whoever rolls a six gets to open one of their presents."

Slowing the process down a little, while adding some dramatic tension to the occasion, does mean that each gift gets to take on its own meaning rather than getting lost in a frenzy to keep opening.

This is particularly the case with smaller children because sometimes the actual present inside can seem secondary to the act of ripping off paper. I loved the story that Valerie Farell, another Facebook mum, told about how Santa's gifts seemed to have been switched one year, because her young son claimed ownership of a toy that another son had asked Santa for.

According to Valerie, her youngest son swore that Santa had in fact given it to him and couldn't be persuaded to give it to his brother.

Santa

The next year Valerie got her children to design and draw up nametags so that Santa could label which gifts were for which child. Making and decorating the nametags has now become an annual tradition in her house.

I imagine that not only is there fun and excitement in preparing for Santa's visit but there is also great hilarity at the memory of the great Santa switcheroo all those years ago.

Drawing family together in a physical sense is another typical experience at Christmas. With more young people emigrating, the return home can take on more meaning.

Leaving aside the potential for high drama, sibling rivalry and tears and tantrums over the turkey, there is something lovely about getting a family together.

Fiona Alexander described one very distinct Christmas family get-together that has become tradition in her house.

"My five-year-old loves Christmas Eve because herself and her big brother get to drag a double mattress into my room and sleep on the floor. This year they are hoping to be joined by their 18-month-old sister; she was too small last year."

The novelty of getting to do something 'illicit' on one special day or night in the year is the kind of family experience that children remember fondly. It is this ongoing memory that is at the heart of every tradition.

Really successful family traditions usually bring strong feelings of warmth and comfort with them.

Kids

"One of the things I love about having kids of my own is starting new family traditions," wrote Carol Butler on my Facebook page.

"From the beginning of December my daughter and I make some new Christmas decorations for the tree and date the back of them. This year she learned how to sew felt decorations, so she's really chuffed with herself!

"On Christmas Eve we then make gingerbread cookies together for her grandparents."

I am a disaster when it comes to building family Christmas traditions, but thankfully I have a wife who had the foresight and creativity to make certain events a tradition for our family.

Over the years we have collected various Christmas story books and Christmas carol CDs. They live in the attic and only reappear at the start of December; for one month only.

One particular story, called 'Mary's Little Donkey', is always read, each evening, through the month culminating on Christmas Day.

Traditions provide that little rock that can anchor families in otherwise stormy times.

They don't have to cost.

The best kinds of traditions are the ones that will be remembered with warmth, affection and appreciation.

I hope you have a happy Christmas.

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