The seasons of our lives have brought different circumstances, activities, and traditions surrounding Christmas, but an unwavering constant throughout the years has been the presence of joy. What an awesome way to close out each year that is wrought with its own earthly toil and challenges.
Celebrating the birth of Jesus instills a heavenly calm in the air and an extra measure of peace in our hearts. Cheerful, melodic, and comforting Christmas songs fill the air, wallpapering the holiday season with happiness and joy. No matter the changing locations and circumstances, the Christmas spirit prevails.
Growing up, Christmastime brought advent calendars to count down the days, driving around town on snow-dusted roads to admire holiday lighting displays, and thoughtfully prioritizing wish lists. The youngest days included expectantly watching for Santa Claus to roll into town on a fire truck Thanksgiving night, followed by a fleeting, unnerved-by-the-gravity-of-the-moment visit to his quaint, red-shingled house located outside the local pharmacy—about 3,400 miles south of the North Pole.
It meant baking almost every type of Christmas cookie imaginable—Toll House, oatmeal, pinwheels, snickerdoodles, peanut butter, sugar cut-outs, peanut butter cups, snowballs, and other more froufrou varieties—and then packing them away in their own dedicated Christmas tins for daily consumption until the annual New Year caloric-consciousness kicked back in.
It meant making a place for the plywood platform crafted by my father, displaying a snow-covered village with lit buildings, and operating miniature trains. It meant wishing for a well-timed snowfall to provide a Hallmark-worthy, picturesque, and peaceful white Christmas Day.
Christmas always involved lots and lots of decorations. Lights trimmed the exterior of the house while the interior was adorned with collections of angels, Santas, snowmen, Dickens characters, pillows in shades of red and green, holiday throws, and wreaths. Festive dishes and glassware came out of storage to replace the more pedestrian, less joyful everyday stuff. Even paintings were switched out to seasonally-themed artwork.
Think Griswald with elegance. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day—our family was clearly all-in with the joy of Christmas season!
The traditions and festivities find root in my mother, who continues to be the “Chief Correspondent of Christmas Joy.” Some of this holiday spirit was planted by my grandparents’ gift-giving generosity, but my mother has groomed that seedling into an expansive, fully-blooming arbor. The rest of us quickly caught that spirit and have happily joined in.
Long-time childhood custom called for a trip to a local farm shortly after Thanksgiving to pick out the perfect fresh-cut Christmas tree, followed by a group effort in decorative collaboration. Beth and I adopted this tradition in our newly-formed household for many years until our cats’ proclivity to briefly consume needles and subsequently deposit them in sundry locations finally persuaded us that an artificial tree might be a better option.
Well stocked with many accumulated Christmas-themed gifts, our home has never lacked for festive décor. Shortly after Thanksgiving, Beth and Tara began the interior transformation by artfully arranging our own less extensive collection of holiday decorations.
The season has usually involved dedicating time to help brighten the days of others less fortunate. As a youth, this meant braving the cold and snow to spread a little holiday cheer with our youth group, parking ourselves on various doorsteps to sing Christmas carols, and then thawing our hands, feet, and noses afterward with hot chocolate, cookies, and pent-up energy back at the church.
The Christmas season has meant volunteering time and donating to efforts such as Toys for Tots, Christmas Angels, and Operation Christmas Child. It has also involved buying and delivering gifts and meals to help families in need celebrate Christmas. Although always greatly appreciated by the recipients, it has been my experience that these times of serving have perhaps offered greater joy to those giving than those receiving. It truly is better to give than to receive.
Speaking of gifts, did I mention my enthusiasm for finding the “perfect” gifts for family and friends? As detailed elsewhere, I truly love giving, but for many years, this translated into an obsessive month-long quest. Fortunately, I have learned to strike a balance through the years.
Tara’s own little tradition unknowingly and humbly provided some of the most perfect gifts. At an early age, she began crafting special gifts for our extended family. Paper, Popsicle sticks, pom-poms, glitter, glue, markers, paint, photos, clay, and whatever her creative mind specified were used to make holiday decorations, calendars, greeting cards, t-shirts, coffee table books, and more. Little did she know that these would become some of the most cherished gifts of the season.
The building anticipation for Christmas morning and the surprises that might await has carried through the years, albeit with a shift in point of view. The childhood excitement of receiving gradually transitioned more into the joy of giving. Although we all can fully enjoy Christmas, rejoicing through the unfettered eyes of children is extra special.
For decades, my parents’ tradition was to host an open house immediately following our church’s Christmas Eve candlelight service. This apparently also became a tradition for many other families in our small town, as the event was pretty much standing-room-only even on the snowiest days. The fun began as we worked diligently for days preparing a diverse, plentiful “spread” for this large gathering and then continued as we socialized at the party with an undeniable spirit of joy and anticipation in the air.
The Christmas Eve service itself was always a highlight of the season—perhaps the year. An undeniable feeling of comfort and peace filled the church, lit only with handheld candles as the congregation sang “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “Silent Night.” Although we left this behind when we moved away, our new church provided its own special moments. One year, a spontaneous standing ovation erupted after the worship team performed a tremendously moving rendition of “My Deliverer.” The song created such a buzz that the congregation was treated to an encore performance the following year, once again drawing a standing ovation.
The Christmas season has always been about enjoying time with family and friends. In my youth, grandparents coming to visit or a road trip to see them added to the excitement of the season. Holiday lunches, drop-ins, and parties continue to dot the calendar in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
After moving to Charlotte when our daughter was five, a new tradition began for our small nuclear family. Leaving both extended families behind in Pennsylvania put planes, trains, automobiles, and sleighs into the holiday mix for us—well, at least it felt like we had every mode of transportation covered. This was not always without adventure when you consider our travel to a northern climate prone to snow and the more contemporary “wintry mix.”
Because we wanted to attend our own church’s Christmas Eve service and experience Christmas morning at home, the itinerary called for an early rise and then making a late-morning break for the airport. Some years, flight schedules remained on time but other years, not so much. One memorable moment was landing in Philadelphia early but then waiting 90 minutes for the airport to find someone amongst its skeleton crew who could operate the Jetway to “deplane” us. Typically, though, dogged determination allowed us to arrive at my parents’ home in time for dinner, eighteen inches of fresh-fallen snow or not.
As most married couples know, coordinating activities on both sides of the family is not always easy. We have been fortunate that Beth’s family tradition has been to gather the day after Christmas, enabling us to spend time and celebrate with everyone. Many years, we have also been fortunate to work in celebration with our closest friends on Christmas Eve before embarking on our Christmas Day journey, spreading out the “Christmas Day” celebration to a full three days.
Over the past few years, we have pushed up the trek north to the night before Christmas, which makes for a less frantic and more peaceful Christmas Day. It has also put us around the table for a decadent Christmas morning brunch rather than a quick bite of fresh-baked buns and a sprint to catch a flight—adding more culinary delight to the day, along with some girth to our waistlines.
For our family, like many others, the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is a time to rejoice and recharge. It is a time to reflect on our blessings and draw closer to our family and friends. It is a time to show our love and appreciation to others.
Joy is widely associated with Christmas, particularly because it is the ultimate source of this euphoric state. Our family has clearly fully embraced it, celebrating this most sacred and world-altering day with abundance. My parents instilled the joy of the Christmas season into our family from our earliest memories. And, although we rejoice on this important day and throughout the holiday season each year, the reason for celebration offers a joy that endures for eternity.
This is an excerpt from Joy All Around Us
In-Text Image Illustrated by Tara Suess
Featured Image by Bruno Martins