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The Magic of Family Traditions

Text by: Marnie Parker

I love the musical, Fiddler on the Roof. The story unfolds as Tevye, the father of five daughters, attempts to maintain his family and religious traditions while outside influences threaten to encroach upon their lives. He must cope with both the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters - each daughter's choice of a husband moves progressively further away from established customs - and with the edict of the Tsar that evicts the Jews from their village.

At one point in the musical, Tevye proclaims, "Traditions, traditions! Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as, as... as a fiddler on the roof."

Nothing defines a family more than how it celebrates together. Family traditions promote stability and are a constant in an ever-changing world. Traditions, whether family, religious, or centered around the holidays, are critical to building the family identity.

As a child, Christmas was magical. I looked forward to the season all year long. The sights, sounds, smells, and atmosphere were a sensory feast. My family didn't have a lot in monetary means, but we were rich in tradition. One of my favorite Christmas traditions included gathering around the piano with my parents and five siblings and singing Christmas carols. My mother's beautiful soprano voice always carried the melody, and helped to balance out my enthusiastic father, who was usually slightly off-tune. We didn't care. We weren't the Osmonds, but we were all together singing praises, and celebrating His birth into this world.

© Kevin Parker Photography

There was always something deliciously sweet to eat and a cup of hot for visitors who found themselves at our home during the month of December. I learned early on the joy that comes from serving those who were less fortunate. This was especially true the year we had extremely low temperatures and record snowfall in Idaho. My mother learned of a widow who was in desperate circumstances and living in a trailer. We made her a quilt, filled her cupboards with canned goods, shoveled her walks, and removed snow from her roof to prevent a collapse. All nine of us crowded around her tiny kitchen table in the dim light and shared stories and experiences of the season. Later I would learn that the food we left her that evening came from our own pantry. I never knew my family was struggling financially - not until the year my family was on the receiving end of another's holiday good will. We graciously accepted the gifts offered and wondered why we were chosen when we already had so much. My parents truly did an extraordinarily amazing job of exemplifying the spirit of the season and where the main focus should be.

When I married my husband, I was excited to blend our previous family customs into the traditions we would enjoy for years to come in the future. My husband's family had take-out Chinese every Christmas Eve. My family, on the other hand, had a formal candle lit sit-down dinner the night before Christmas. Our compromise: Fondue on Christmas Eve, and a more formal venue on Christmas Day. Some of our other combined traditions include:

Meaningful personal ornaments: Throughout the years, we have enjoyed selecting an ornament from our different travel destinations. As children came into our family, we began giving each of our children a meaningful ornament that represented something they did that year, a personality trait or something of particular interest to them. One of our favorite traditions as a family is trimming the tree and reminiscing about past family vacations and interests, as we lovingly unwrap each ornament and place it on the Christmas tree. When our children are adults, they will have a collection of personal and meaningful ornaments to take with them. This year we found beautiful, handmade stained glass ornaments from a small town in England where my husband has ancestry.

Helping a family in need: Identifying a need within the community and reaching out with love and support has taught my children to focus on giving and sharing during the holiday season.

Christmas books: I have been collecting Christmas books for years. The beginning of December, we gather up all of our Christmas books, wrap them and place them under the Christmas tree. My children love to help me do this. They take turns choosing and opening one book each night in December and that is our nightly story. Some of our very favorites include:

The Tale of Three Trees by: Angela Elwell Hunt
The Crippled Lamb by: Max Lucado
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by: Dr. Suess
The Twelve Days of Christmas by: Jan Brett
Snowflake Bentley by: Jacqueline Briggs Martin
The Polar Express by: Chris Van Allsburg
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by: Susan Wojciechowski
The Christmas Pea Coat by: Richard H. Schneider
The Nutcracker by: Susan Jeffers
Away in a Manger by: Thomas Kinkade
Merry Christmas Little Mouse by: Don and Audrey Woods
© Kevin Parker Photography

Caroling and treat deliveries: We love to make delicious sweets for our neighbors and friends and deliver them while singing Christmas carols.

Theatrical rendition and reading of The Nativity Story on Christmas Eve: This has been especially meaningful for our family on the years we've had a baby of our own to represent Baby Jesus. This was another custom I participated in when I was younger and one I knew I wanted to pass down to my own children someday.

Christmas pajamas: Matching Christmas pajamas are opened Christmas Eve and worn to bed that night. Every year we look forward to our pajamas signaling the oncoming slumber leading to Christmas morning.

Cookies for Santa: Sugar cookies for Santa and carrots or reindeer food (glitter mixed with oatmeal) for the reindeer are left outside on the lawn. The reindeer need to keep up their strength and energy, too.

© Felicity Photography

Christmas gifts for Baby Jesus: All month long, family members write acts of love and service that are preformed on slips of paper and put them into a box. On Christmas morning, before any other gifts are opened, the "Gifts to Jesus" are read. I have also heard of other families that make Jesus a birthday cake and sing Happy Birthday to Him.

No peeking Christmas morning: We sleep on one floor of the house on Christmas Eve and all enter Christmas morning together, youngest to oldest.

Homemade cinnamon rolls and wassail: Christmas morning we always have homemade cinnamon rolls and my grandmother's wassail. So sickeningly sweet and absolutely delicious, we look forward to this breakfast all year long.

Celebrating family Christmas traditions invites a shared past children can pass on to future generations. Traditions promote stability and create deep roots. Every family is different and celebrates uniquely, which is all the more reason to establish family traditions and customs by keeping the magic of Christmas alive.


*Spiced Wassail*

2 1/2 c. sugar
4 c. water
2-4 cinnamon sticks
10-15 whole cloves
4 c. orange juice
1 c. lemon juice
2 qts. apple juice

Combine sugar and water, and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, and add spices. Let sit for a few hours or overnight. Drain spices, and add the remaining ingredients. Heat to serve.


Christmas Cinnamon Rolls

2 cups warm water
2 T. sugar
2 T. shortening
1 T. salt
1 pkg. yeast
6 cups flour
Optional Mix-Ins: Nuts or raisins
½ cube of butter, softened


Powdered Sugar
Vanilla Flavoring

Pour water in a small bowl and add shortening, sugar, salt and yeast. Let yeast begin to bubble (about 5 minutes). Add 5 cups of flour and mix. Slowly add small spoonfuls of the 6th cup as needed. Knead together until smooth. Let rise in bowl until doubled in size. Divide dough into two parts. Roll out each ball to about ¼ inches thick. Spread butter over dough balls and sprinkle cinnamon and sugar. If you are adding nuts or raisins, do so now. Roll then cut into 2 in. pieces. Place into a buttered pan and let rise approximately 20 minutes. Bake at 425° for 13 to 20 minutes or until browned. Make frosting by adding ingredients until a thick liquid. Pour over warm rolls and serve.

© Elizabeth Ellenbecker Photography