Tag Archives: tradition

Jesus Comes Anyway: On Creating (and Letting Go of) Meaningful Christmas Traditions

The problem with me is very simple: I want to do everything.

I am a Pinterest junkie with a tendency toward perfectionism wound so deeply into my DNA that I don’t even realize that I’m being straight-up crazy until things have gone way. too. far. And it all seems to come to a head at Christmastime.

Take the other night, for example.

elf on the shelfLet me preface this by saying that for the last two Christmases, I have successfully avoided the Elf on the Shelf craze.

For those of you who remain blissfully ignorant of this new phenomenon, it’s this: for the low price of $29.95, you can own your very own “scout elf” who appears in your house every morning during the Christmas season and then disappears at night to report to Santa about the goings-on in your home, thusly helping him to manage his Naughty and Nice lists.

Because I have my own baggage with trying to stay on God’s “Nice” list, this tradition-in-a-box never appealed to me. Until I saw this new spin on it.

In this alternative version, your elf is not a scout elf so much as a kindness elf, appearing every morning with ideas to help you focus on kindness, love, and goodwill as your family prepares for Christmas. Your elf has made a hysterical mess of the flour and chocolate chips when you wake up…but she’s holding a note, “Let’s make some cookies for our neighbors today!”

Suddenly, I found myself seized with the desire to be a (kindness)-elf-on-the-shelf family. “We have to do this,” I told my husband. And then I dragged him through the aisles of JoAnn Fabrics on our date night so that I could buy the rag-doll form that the DIY elf tutorial on Pinterest said I needed.. “The boys will love it.”

I could tell you about the felt explosion on my kitchen table. I could tell you about tearing apart the guest room looking for googly eyes. I could tell you that forming elf hair out of sculpty clay is not nearly as simple as the Pinterest tutorial would leave you to believe.

I started my DIY elf project at 8:30 at night, and at midnight, I was still working, jamming wire into his poor, ragdoll limbs, trying to make him pliable enough to get into elfish mischief around our house every morning in December.

Let’s just say, he does not look like the tutorial.

diy elf on the shelf fail
Nailed it.

“What is that?” Dane asked when he woke up the next morning. “A winter clown?”

“No sweetie. It’s one of Santa’s helpers,” I explained. “Every night, he’ll go see Santa at the North Pole and bring us back an idea for being kind to others this Christmas.”

“But Mom,” he said, looking at me with a kind of pity. “He’s pretend.

“He’s magic,” I corrected him.

“No, Mom. He can’t walk. How can he get to Santa?”


“Oh,” he said, losing interest. “Can I color now?”

I’ve decided that we will probably not be an elf-on-the-shelf-family this year after all. Which is a relief because my DIY elf kind of creeps me out.


Our kids are four and two years old. We’re in the early years of making Christmas memories, and we’re feeling our way toward our own traditions. We’re incorporating some of the things that we grew up with, letting others slip away. I feel the pressure of creating a scaffolding for Christmas memories to hang on.

I want it to be magical. I want this time of year to be holy and wondrous for my kids. I want the lights and the candles and the songs to communicate something true and powerful to them about God who they are just beginning to encounter.

And sometimes I forget the truth: Christmas does not depend on me.

I don’t need to teach these kids anticipation. Listen to them ask, every day, if it’s Christmas yet. They’re looking at the Christmas tree, and Liam keeps saying, WOW, and I don’t have to teach them wonder. It’s at the surface of their hearts, bubbling over into every beautiful thing.

They are climbing up into the sleigh with Santa Claus at our local Culvers’ tonight, telling him what they want for Christmas – asking for good gifts and believing that they will come. In so many ways, they understand so much more about the miracle of Christmas than I have in a long time.

And an elf isn’t going to change that. The advent envelopes with the carefully crafted Jesse Tree ornaments that I spent days putting together may be a sweet and treasured memory…but in the end, even these spiritual lessons are not the point.

The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus comes anyway…no matter how much or how little I prepare for his arrival. And really, this is what I want my kids to remember from all of this magic, all of these traditions that we craft successfully or unsuccessfuly for them. Jesus comes anyway, and it’s enough to change everything.

The earth stands still, and silent and often unaware – and still, she receives her King.


One of the beautiful and accessible things about Advent devotionals and calendars and traditions is that it gives us something to do or to think about or to sit with every day of the waiting. There’s so much I love about that – the way it forces me to quiet down and look for God in each and every day.

But also, the every-single-day nature of many of the popular Advent traditions has a tendency to bog down my inner-perfectionist. I have to be very mindful of giving myself grace in the midst. It’s okay if you miss a reading. An advent-photo-of-the-day. A writing prompt. A Jesse Tree ornament. Skip it. Start again tomorrow.

So I wanted to offer a few traditions and ideas here that are not daily activities…but rather simple things that you could slip in anywhere. Try one or two. See if they work for your family. If not? Let them go.

jesus comes anyway

For the most part, these are free or inexpensive things. I included a few great ones from readers who shared their favorite Christmas traditions. I pulled a lot from my own childhood – my Dad was and continues to be a master of meaningful family moments, and none of it came in a box or cost $29.95, but I remember it all.

So here they are. 20 simple ideas for adding a little magic, creativity or meaning into your Christmas season:

20 simple christmas traditions


It’s the season of Advent.

We do our best to make it special, to be mindful, to create traditions worth hanging onto.

But in the end, Jesus comes anyway. And this is why we wait, hope, rejoice.


This is Part 3 of a Week of Christmas Mindfulness. Monday, we focused on spiritual attentiveness, and yesterday, on how we love and honor family and friends. The series will continue tomorrow with a few ideas for being mindful of strangers and acquaintances. Be sure to stop by then!

Practicing Christmas Mindfulness: Family & Friends

Image by Hunger McGee, CreationSwap
Image by Hunger McGee, CreationSwap

This is the tenth year of our marriage…and the first year that we’re staying home for Christmas.

Every other year, we’ve made space for it all, cramming every version of Christmas we’ve known and loved into one chaotic week of cookies, cards games and cross-country road trips…gift wrap strewn across the whole thing.

Every year — until now — we’ve stumbled into the New Year like some finish line, and we’ve found ourselves breathless and exhausted from the final lap of holiday cheer.

But now, our sons are getting bigger, and it’s time to let our family gel into its own traditions. So we’re staying home this year.

It’s good, and it’s necessary for us right now, but still, every time I hear the song I’ll Be Home for Christmas, I get teary-eyed and nostalgic. I think about the Christmas programs I wrote on the black screen of our old computer and forced my younger brother and sister to perform. I think of lefse rolled flat by my Mom in her Christmas apron and of my Dad in his leather chair.

I think of the living room on Maple Drive and the Christmas cards taped like mosaic tiles to the wall…and it’s hard — the way families grow and change and split and multiply into something new and entirely unique.

It will be the first year we’re not exchanging gifts with my in-laws — giving presents only to the kids. It makes complete, logical sense…and yet, it leaves me in the tension of a new reality.

And the question I find myself asking in all the change is this:

How can I practice mindfulness and extravagant love toward my family and friends this Christmas…especially when the ways that I’ve done it before are no longer available to me? When I can’t do it with presents or even with our presence?

It’s something I’m still struggling with and thinking about…but I think it has to do with the beauty of small things.

A few of thoughtful readers sent their ideas and experiences in choosing to embrace mindfulness towards one another…even in the midst of changing traditions and lives.

Here are three I’d like to highlight.

three gifts

Three gifts

“When my kids were young, we did the traditional three gifts symbolizing the gold, myrrh and frankincense. They received something they wanted that was extravagant in their eyes, something a bit more practical, and something spiritual — a book, new Bible, video.

“The last couple years we have recycled this idea into everyone gets three gifts for everyone else. This may seem overkill, however, it makes us laugh and draws us closer. The three gifts- something someone would really want, a book (from a cheapo place like a thrift store), and a fun Dollar Store, thrift store or homemade gift.

“It makes us think about each person as we hunt for that thrifty find or book. We have more fun with those inexpensive gifts than anything else. We find ourselves laughing a lot and enjoying the gift of being together.”

~ Dienna Goscha

Max Wolfe, Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0
Max Wolfe, Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0

The gift of Experience

“One of the most meaningful gifts I’ve been given was tickets to see a David Sedaris reading. Really what was meaningful was my husband bought me something that I probably wouldn’t have spent the money on myself plus he said he would gladly go with me (so I had company) but if I had a friend who would like it more he was happy to not go (because he does not appreciate the hilariousness of David Sedaris like I do).

“I thought that was truly thoughtful and kind. There is no link for this of course, but the sentiment seemed worth sharing.”

~ Jane Halton

thrift store

Choose creativity over expense

“One year when I was single and still living with my family in Australia, we set a cap on how much we could spend – $10.

“Honestly, the most meaningful gifts I’ve given and received were from that year. The following year we made it a 2nd hand Christmas, all our gifts came from the Salvation Army. It was also very meaningful.”

~ Devi Abraham


This is Part 2 of a week-long Christmas Mindfulness Series. Yesterday, I gave 35 ideas for spiritual attentiveness. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about cultivating traditions and magic. Be sure to stop back then!

What new and creative ways are you finding to be mindful toward the gift of your family and friends this Christmas?

Easter Weekend

Easter Weekend – The three days – Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday – that form the climax of the story of Christ.

Good Friday

The service is split into seven parts, and there are candles and readings and costumes and art. I’m equal parts compelled and exhausted.

Last night, we drove the seven hours from Minnesota to my childhood home in the Chicago suburbs. We arrived at 1am and then waited another hour for the kids to spiral back toward sleep.

At church, hours later, the view looks the same as it did in high school, though the faces are mostly unfamiliar. My mind is wild. It lights on the moment – the dancers, the reading – then flits away, seized by some sudden memory.

When the last candle is extinguished and the sanctuary is bathed in darkness, I feel trapped by the quiet. I am wondering about my kids, tapping my toes, needing them like crack cocaine.

It is heavy, all this talk of sacrifice. A Father gives up his Son for love and it feels like despair. It makes me desperate for their dirty cheeks, their snotty, open-mouth kisses.

Holy Saturday

A book I read once on the liturgical year called this the quietest day. The emptiest one. The worst has happened, and God did not stop it, did not even come, and you are left holding nothing in your wide open hands.

I am not quiet today. Instead, I’m laughing with my two best friends from high school. I have a wine glass in one hand and a felt mustache on a stick in the other, and we’re all posing photo-booth style for the camera.

It is Holy Saturday, but also it is her bridal shower, my friend and old accountability partner. She is tall in her designer shoes, radiant in her white pencil dress. Her accent is lightly British after so many years in London, but I still remember what her belly-laugh sounds like at a high school sleepover.

The first time her mom was in the hospital, the three of us went to the high school variety show, I think, to avoid it. And no one can really say how that old car, Penelope the Beast, ended up hitting that tree, but there we were, shaking on the side of the road – our first Saturday of the soul.

There were more, of course. First heartbreaks. Second ones. That long, mid-twenties Emptiness when we met to drink strong margaritas and to feel grace, stronger still.

When she stands to thank us all for coming, her voice catches in a way that reminds me that even in these happy days, there is an element of emptiness. There is the long, cold split of the ocean between one place and another.

When she stands, my mind briefly lights on the disciples all those years ago, and I think, We are scattered still.

Easter Sunday

In high school, we made a party out of it: an all-nighter followed by an early drive to Glencoe Beach. We huddled in sweatshirts at the shore of Lake Michigan to sing, pray, wait for the sun.

But this morning, my first thought is not He has Risen!, but rather they have. The baby monitors are buzzing with their early-morning voices – babbling from the one, a drawn out Mommm! from the other.

I imagined that if I paid attention to these Holy days, Easter itself would come in like a crescendo. A burst of light. I imagined my heart would be wild with the joy of it all. But the day passes, a little tired, a little understated.

My kids are too young to understand it. Dane drops his boiled eggs hard into the dye and they crack straight through. He wants to dig for worms with Papi instead of hunting for eggs anyway, and I want to take a nap.

We start the long trip home in early evening, and the boys drop off to sleep before the sun is gone. And maybe I missed that moment this morning when the sun came up, but I am watching it disappear, lighting the fields around the interstate.

And suddenly, that seems right. The sun comes up on an empty tomb, but the story doesn’t end there. It circles around, begins again, and you have to learn to live it all anew. You wake to resurrection. You have to learn to live there.

The sun sets over the fields, and the stars come out one by one over Wisconsin. We drive the dark road home, lit quietly from within.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday: The celebration of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem the Sunday before Easter. He arrived on a donkey (to symbolize peace) and was welcomed with celebration and adoration, coats and palm branches laid on the path before him. 

When we drop Dane off at his Sunday School class, there are little circles of green construction paper all over the floor. It takes me a moment to realize that these are meant to be palm branches, and that (of course) today is Palm Sunday.

His teacher holds out her arms, and he leans, cautious, into me. “Come in!” she says. “We’re jumping on the palm branches because we’re so happy Jesus came to town!” I put him down and he whispers, “Leave the door open,” before he walks tentatively in.

I have vague memories of actual palm fronds in my early years, the heaviness of those leaves collected on one long branch. I remember the church sanctuary, ablaze in all the waving green, the lobby littered with fallen leaves.

But this morning, the church bulletin is bordered with red droplets, and it is already time for all that talk of death. I am jarred by it. In one moment, we are greeting each other with smiles and small-talk; in the next, we are watching Mel’s Passion of the Christ.

The DVD is cued up to those last moments on the cross, and Jesus is already bloodied, already battered, one eye swollen shut. He lifts his eyes to heaven and commends his Sprit to God, gone before I’ve even had a chance to hold out my palm branch and welcome him.

The pastor comes up, “Whew!” He says, and it comes out Southern. “What does that do to your heart?” And if I’m honest, I will say Not what it should.

It is Holy Week, a term that I’ve only recently learned to speak. In other incarnations of Christianity, it is an entire week of tradition, liturgy, waiting, sinking into the heaviness of it all. But here, in the evangelical world, we just do the highlights reel.

We used to include Palm Sunday, but now it’s mostly just the Two Big Ones. Good Friday and Easter. Death and Resurrection. Two sides of one coin.

Every year, pastors draw it out in detail, trying to communicate the excruciating pain of it. Crucifixion. Those nails. All those woven thorns. (In youth group one year, a plucky volunteer was even asked to stand, his arms outstretched, holding two folding chairs to demonstrate the exhaustion, the struggle.)

Imagine, they say.

And I try. But there is so much pressure to let this image penetrate my heart to the point of emotion, of understanding. The year The Passion comes out, I watch it all the way through, glad, in a way, for the fact that it pushes me to tears.

But in the broader Christian tradition, Palm Sunday is the beginning of a week that sends us spiraling toward the deepest dark…and then back out of it.

It seems poetic to begin by holding so many cut palm branches, imperceptibly dying in our hands. It is a kind of grace that we are not thrown straight into the dark but rather given space to move into it. To let ourselves be moved.

I don’t know what this looks like, really. In spite of Holy Week, my life moves along the grooved paths of daily routines. Maybe it’s just noticing the uncooked steak, blood red on my cutting board. The leaves shooting from the lilac bushes. The tulips pushing through broken seeds and hard ground.

The sun is falling straight out of the sky at eight o’clock every night. One thing ends, another begins.

And of course, they’re important: those anguished moments on that lonely hill. But we’ll get there soon enough. First there’s a meal. There’s God on the ground, washing our feet. There’s a garden and a prayer and a fearful, faithless kiss.

First there are all these metaphors, all of these images. There are hot, yeast rolls torn open at dinner, and they too have something to speak into all of this.

We pick the kids up after church, and Dane has made a painting for Palm Sunday. His small, green handprints cover the page: one dark and bold, the rest smeared and abstract.

It looks like applause, like palm trees waving.

It looks like the beginning of the best story you’ve ever heard.

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