On Christmas Day, the members of one Orem, Utah, family greet each other with, “He is born!” The one greeted responds with, “He is born indeed!”
In Salt Lake City, Utah, one family “adopts” somebody—a recent widow, a foreign student, or an unfortunate derelict—during the week of Christmas. That person lives as one of the family, receiving food, gifts, and, most importantly, a generous portion of love.
In Bakersfield, California, another family eats a simple supper of bread, fish, and grape juice on Christmas Eve as a reminder of the Savior’s humble beginnings.
In Latter-day Saint homes throughout the world, the celebration of special Christmas traditions reinforces the true meaning of Christmas, while at the same time bringing added warmth, fun, and unity to many families. Judging from the letters we have received in response to a request for information on Christmas traditions (Ensign, March 1977, p. 85), traditions—some generations old, some only recently established—are flourishing!
A favorite way of remembering the Christchild during this special season is a retelling or reenactment of the Christmas story on Christmas Eve. In many homes, a nativity pageant is presented with young bathrobed shepherds and sheet-enfolded angels. The family of Carolynn Allred takes things a step further by presenting their Christmas play at the home of several friends at an appointed hour. One father illustrates his reading of the scriptural account of the birth of Christ with pictures checked out from the meetinghouse library. Another enterprising family made their own slide presentation: family members were photographed acting out scenes from the Christmas story, and the slides were then used with a tape-recorded soundtrack comprised of scriptures read to the accompaniment of Christmas music.
Several Latter-day Saint families have found rather unique ways of fostering a spirit of good will and good cheer in their homes. Sister Marie Hopkins of Simpsonville, South Carolina, writes that her family sets up their nativity scene two weeks before Christmas—“all except for the manger with the Baby Jesus. Beside the stable we put a box of straw, and each time someone does a sweet deed for another family member—a ‘gift of love’—the doer places one piece of straw where the Baby Jesus will lie. By Christmas Eve, the soft cushion of ‘love’ is ready.”
Sister Maureen Gordon told us about Nutmeg Jim, a little elf who leaves small gifts and love notes and does good deeds in their home during the pre-Christmas weeks. She noted that other little elves invariably join him during the month! A few families mentioned a similar custom of drawing the name of a family member for whom they will be a “pixie” during the holiday season.
Sister Sandra Allen of Salt Lake City keeps a secret record of each of her children’s positive actions of love and concern shown for other family members during December. Then during a Christmas Eve program, a few of the deeds are read aloud to the family.
Several families mentioned a practice adapted from the family home evening manual: each family member decides on a spiritual gift or virtue that he will develop throughout the year as a “gift” to the Lord. These “gifts” are recorded on slips of paper that are placed in a special box or stocking; the next year the slips are read and an accounting of the degree of success is given.
Sister Becky Johns of Salt Lake City brings the spirit of Christmas to her home by reading a special Christmas story to her children at bedtime—a different story for each night from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
Decorating the home seems to play a big part in the Christmas celebration of many families—and what a variety of ideas there are! Trimming the tree is a highlight for many. Several families wrote of the practice of cutting their own tree; the Bureau of Land Management has designated certain forested areas throughout the United States for that purpose. The Scarborough family of Elberton, Georgia, uses a potted pine tree each year and then plants the tree in their yard after Christmas is over. The family of Sister Louise Hall of Salt Lake City creates a “sugar plum tree” out of a manzanita branch decorated with simple gifts from which the grandchildren can choose one to keep.
For many families, the tree ornaments themselves have special significance. Several families mentioned some variation of the “add a decoration every year” tradition: usually, each child makes or buys a new decoration every year and labels it with his name and the date. When the child leaves home to establish his own family, the decorations go with him as a special reminder of Christmases past—and as a guarantee that he will never face the prospect of an empty tree! One family decorates the tree with small silver bells, one for each member of the family—child, aunt, uncle, parent, and grandparents—with the name and birthdate of the person engraved on it. Sister Dorothy Keddington of Salt Lake City tells of a similar tradition: “For years we have been collecting choice unusual ornaments for our tree. Each member of our family is represented by some appropriate object that reminds us of his special talent, hobby, personality trait, or a special occasion. Each year as we trim the tree we are reminded of our family, friends, and relatives, and many choice memories.” Several families who have traveled extensively wrote that they have purchased an ornament for their tree from each place they have visited. Other families traditionally use only handmade ornaments on their tree.
Other household decorations flourish, too. Sister Myrle Dayhuff reports that her family makes gingerbread boys decorated to resemble the people they give them to—for instance, a “doctor” gingerbread boy for the family M.D. Several families mentioned treasured nativity scenes they set up to especially help them remember the Savior: one, a family heirloom of handcarved wood; another, a set of ceramic figurines made one year with the help of the whole family during each family home evening between Thanksgiving and Christmas; a third was modeled out of clay by a fourth grader as an elected school project. One family always accompanies the setting up of the nativity scene by singing carols and reading scriptures regarding Christ’s birth—both the prophecies of his coming and the account of the event itself.
One enterprising family, the Robert F. Claytons of Salt Lake City, print their own Christmas wrapping paper, using large sheets of colored and white butcher paper decorated with cookie cutters and potato and orange cutouts dipped in acrylic oil paints. Other families mentioned creative projects such as a Christmas ABC book, paper chains, “stained glass” windows (tissue paper collage), and handcrafted signs and symbols.
The Ted Warner family of Provo, Utah, continues a tradition they discovered while they lived in the Southwest: they light their entire yard with luminarias. These are made by filling the bottom of a #12 sack one inch deep with dirt or sand. The tops of the sacks are folded back with a “cuff” to keep them open, and a small votive candle is placed in the sand. The making of two or three hundred of these luminarias is a real family project. On Christmas Eve they are lighted, and they burn all night with a soft glow. Tradition says that they light the pathway for the Christchild.
Several families use the first home evening in December to plan for and organize the many activities of the Christmas season. The Stan Jackson family of McAllen, Texas, use it to plan their “Christmas Cottage Meeting”: “The first home evening in December we make a list of all the possible nonmember friends we have that we might invite for a cottage meeting. Out of this list we choose eight families to carol to. Before caroling on the second Monday, we kneel in prayer and ask Heavenly Father to inspire us while we carol as to which two or three families we should invite to the cottage meeting. On the third Monday, we have our very special Christmas cottage meeting.”
Other families have different ways of spreading goodwill and serving during the holiday season. Sister Patricia Arnett of Mesa, Arizona, wrote that her family raids the pantry, filling a large box with all their favorite foods. The box is gift wrapped and delivered to the Relief Society president to be taken to a needy family. The members of the Don B. Center family each select one or two of their favorite possessions—not cast offs—to be given to the Salvation Army. (Their toddler gave away his favorite teddy bear and truck!) Sister Jeanne Nibley of Salt Lake City reports the following tradition: “We choose two families, and each night for twelve nights before Christmas we ring their doorbells and leave “one homemade wreath,” “two Christmas elves,” “three oatmeal cookies,” etc. We all pile in the car each night to deliver these things, and we feel the real spirit of Christmas as we ring the doorbell and run more than we do on Christmas morning!” Sister Louise Hall wrote of another rather unique goodwill tradition: “We create felt ‘awards’ for people or businesses who have made a special effort to decorate or spread good cheer, and leave them anonymously. One year we selected a service station where the people were especially cheerful and a radio station that played the most Christmas music.”
Christmas Eve is a time for special family activities for most Latter-day Saints. Some reserve the evening for a special home evening with just their own immediate family; others gather aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents—the Charles Morrison family of Rupert, Idaho, had four generations together last year! One family whose married children still live in close proximity has a progressive dinner so that each family can see the decorated homes of the others.
Several families have programs that showcase the talents and creativity of family members. In one case the children write and produce their own play, complete with costuming and original music! Other families spend the evening playing favorite family games or performing favorite musical selections. The family of Sister Martha Vickers of Salt Lake City has a party with a special twist: each guest brings a gift for a child marked with the appropriate age and sex; these gifts are then given to needy children.
The Joe C. Wheeler family of Skellytown, Texas, saves a special decorating idea for Christmas Eve: they place candles on tables, bookcases, or any surface in the house that will safely hold one—and then turn off the lights! The magic of a candlelit evening is enjoyed by everyone.
Christmas Day is a time of special spiritual renewal for many families. One Houston, Texas, family reports: “On Christmas morning before we go in to the tree, we gather in Mom’s and Dad’s bedroom and have a testimony meeting in which we talk about the Savior and also about our love for each other as a family. It makes the opening of the presents more a matter of receiving gifts of love than of ‘getting the goodies.’” Another family reports that they try to make Christmas Day a “perfect day.” On Christmas Eve they read the Sermon on the Mount and each secretly writes down a particular virtue they want to strive for; then on Christmas each tries to live a perfect day, with special attention given to their selected virtue. Many other families reported setting the tone for Christmas Day by having a special family prayer before opening the gifts.
The joy of Christmas morning is enlivened by traditions. One family is awakened by the father jingling sleighbells and singing! The almost ritualistic observance of certain ordered activities in many families is well represented by the family of Carolyn Nelson of Salt Lake City. After the family has gathered in mom’s and dad’s room, “they all go together into the kitchen where juice and some bit of good nutrition are eaten. Dad slips into the front room to turn the lights on the tree, light the prelaid fire, and turn on the Christmas music. The children then line up according to age, with the youngest first and the oldest last, and begin a parade. The parents take up the rear carrying any babies. The parading throng sings ‘Jingle Bells’ and must follow the leader on a trip through every room in the house, finally ending in the room with the presents.” Many people wrote that they prefer opening the gifts one at a time so that each family member can share in the joy of the others.
Several families reported that unusual gift ideas were a part of their traditional Christmas. One ambitious clan makes all their gifts except one each, thus cutting down on expense and enabling them to enlarge their circle of giving. Sister Katie Newman of Arcadia, California, said that her children’s favorite gift each year is the individualized coupon book she makes for each child. The books contain about fifteen coupons good for special activities or privileges: for girls, such things as “the use of mother’s make-up,” “lunch out for just the two of us,” or “one ride home from school”; for the boys, such things as “ride bikes, just the two of us,” “all the pickles you can eat in one day,” or “stay up as late as you want one night.”
Memories of such holiday activities are always dear, and some families have found unusual methods of preserving past Christmases. Several families mentioned taking a family Christmas photo each year; another made home movies of activities that varied from tree-picking to present-opening. Sister Mary Zackrison of Salt Lake City reported that her family writes a gazette “in the format of a newspaper. It is usually two pages long and covers highlights of the year. The children help write it and put it together in an assembly line. It becomes a family history over the years.” Other families keep Christmas scrapbooks, which describe special events of that season and have such things as sample cards, copies of the family Christmas program, and family photos. The Charles M. Brown family of Glendale, California, has tape-recorded the family Christmas Eve program throughout the years—a priceless history of the growth and development of family members.
Many other traditions were reported so frequently as to be deemed Latter-day Saint favorites: caroling as a family or group of friends to neighbors or ward members; creating traditional breads, candies, and cookies as gifts; telling beloved stories of the season, either original or time-honored classics; giving traditional gifts, such as a puzzle, homemade pajamas, or a candle; making homemade cards; eating traditional meals for breakfast or dinner on Christmas Day; or attending performances of Handel’s Messiah, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, or Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
The types and kinds of traditions are as numerous as individual families. Your family may want to adapt ideas from others or branch out completely with new ideas of your own. But whatever you decide to do, do it! Now! As one woman wrote: “I wish I had shared more traditions with my children. Maybe we’d be closer as a family now. I thought all the time that we couldn’t afford to do such things, but now I realize that it just takes imagination, enthusiasm, and the right attitude to make a tradition.”