New England Christmas Traditions

by Kathleen Lubeck

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    December could be just an ordinary month—but happily it’s not. It’s an enchanted month, sprinkled with the pixie dust of fun family times, like brothers arriving home from college, or grandma coming to visit for a few days, or the whole gang crowding into the car to get the family Christmas tree, or aunts and uncles and friends dropping in for a cozy evening of hot chocolate and popcorn around a toasty fire.

    Add the magic of snowflakes delicately kissing your nose on a three-sweater, wooly-hat warm-mittens night. And the tingly suspense of presents made, secrets kept, and trying hard not to explode with happiness and tell everybody what you got them.

    Inhale deeply and fill your head with the sweet aromas rushing through the house—pine bough smells, gingerbread cookie smells.

    Then plop yourself down right under the Christmas tree, look up through the branches at the lights and cookies and popcorn strings and icicles and colored glass bulbs, and just think. Think about the sounds and smells and sights of the season. And how there’s no finer time than when you get together as a family to share the sweet simple truths about the birth and life of our Savior. And how there’s no finer group to celebrate with than your own family.

    Big or little, families do bring a special spirit to the celebration! And part of the feeling of family togetherness comes from family traditions—and from giving to each other.

    We decided to visit two Mormon families in New England to see just how they celebrate Christmas and what traditions they hold dear. It’s fun to take a peek at their festivities—and maybe you’ll get some ideas for your own family.

    Whenever the Weston Edwards family of New Canaan, Connecticut, gets together, it’s guaranteed to be a big occasion. It’s bound to be with 12 children, some of them now married and with their own children. As Robert Edwards, 14, puts it, “When everyone’s home, it’s fun, it’s crowded, and it’s interesting—and Christmas is even more meaningful.”

    Edwards family Christmas traditions have developed over the years, adding an extra sparkle to their Christmas celebration. “The traditions are something our family looks forward to, and each year we try to make them richer or we add to them,” said Carolyn Edwards, 17.

    One favorite tradition is a pioneer Christmas, where they all make the presents they give each other. “The pioneers couldn’t buy anything for Christmas because they were not near many stores and didn’t have much money, so they made all of their presents,” explained Robert. “Some Christmases we do the same thing. You really care about the presents and the people you make them for.”

    Carolyn agreed. “You spend a lot of time working on presents instead of just going to the store to buy them. It takes a lot more thought and time, so they mean more.”

    The 12 children have made aprons, blocks, pictures, shirts, puppets, door plaques for bedrooms, and various other creations that they’ve dreamed up.

    “Giving presents is a different task when you have 12 kids rather than 2 or 3,” added Weston Edwards, Jr., 15. “You think of giving a lot and have to work hard to get all those presents out. Father has tried to show us that it’s the spirit of giving that Christmas is all about instead of the spirit of receiving. And we show our love and sincerity by working on the presents.”

    Advent calendars are also an important part of the Christmas celebration at the Edwards’ house. Each family member makes one, usually on a family night late in November. Friends are often invited over to help.

    “It’s an old tradition in our family,” explained Jeraldine Edwards, mother of the 12 children. “When my husband was a graduate student at Harvard and we were poor, we saw the advent calendars in the store. We had three little children then and couldn’t afford to buy a calendar. So we got construction paper, cut out the windows for the calendar, and let the children cut out the little pictures to paste behind them. As the children grew older, they wanted to make their own, and so it grew to be a tradition.”

    Sunday evenings in December are reserved for family activities with the Edwardses. These evenings are often filled with music, since caroling and fun Christmas songs are a big part of the family tradition. On the last Sunday before Christmas the children put on a Christmas pageant and sometimes invite friends over to watch or participate.

    “The pageant is different each year,” explained Carolyn. “We write a script each year. Mother prepares bags filled with a costume for each role, and we each pick a bag from the boys’ or the girls’ pile. A note is inside the bag telling you which role you’ll play, like Joseph, Mary, donkey, wise man, whatever. We practice a few times and then perform for our parents.”

    Caroling on Christmas Eve is another family tradition. The Edwardses gather with the whole town at the town square, each person holding a candle while a brass band plays carols and the town sings along. And from the center of town the Edwardses make their way to the homes of friends, singing as they go.

    And there are other traditions, like writing Santa a wish list on Christmas Eve and sending it up in smoke through the fireplace. Or telling stories that go with each doll of the family’s antique doll collection. Or the children lining up at the head of the stairs on Christmas morning, waiting for their father to give the okay to come downstairs, and singing “Jingle Bells” as they go. Father Edwards then hands out each present one by one, and everyone watches while it’s opened. (With 12 kids, present opening by this method takes several hours.) Then the person receiving the gift goes to the giver and gives him or her a kiss on the cheek.

    The Robert Webber family of Chappaqua, New York, just like the Edwardses of Connecticut, have lots of fun family traditions at Christmas. And all five children in the family look forward to the season just as enthusiastically as the Edwards family children.

    “We have lots of fun traditions,” said Nancy Webber, 14. “We always decorate the tree on my brother’s birthday (December 12th), dad grows a beard, grandma comes and stays with us, we get a silver dollar in our stockings, and we put together puzzles on Christmas day. Oh yes, and we always have a fire in the fireplace.”

    Cookie making is another Webber family tradition. “Sometimes my mom will make the dough, sometimes my brothers,” said Nancy. “We all help and always make sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies. One person rolls out the dough, another cuts the cookies, and we all frost them after they bake. We really use our imaginations frosting them and have a fun time.”

    Getting up early Christmas morning is a tradition that’s a favorite. “Our earliest was 4:30 A.M., but because my father says Santa’s helpers need their sleep, we’ve moved the time back 15 minutes each year,” said John Webber, 16. “This year we’re at 6:15. We’re not allowed to use alarm clocks, though, so if we oversleep, that’s our parents’ luck. When we do wake up, we put on a record of alarm clocks going off so our parents will wake up. Then all of us kids go to the top of the stairs in the children’s hallway and wait until our parents and grandmother come down from the upper staircase. Dad takes a picture of us, then we run into the living room where we each have a particular spot for our presents. We make special cards for our spot, and each year we add more decoration to the cards.”

    Guests are invited over for a big Christmas dinner at the Webber’s house—usually local missionaries and mother’s helpers who live in the ward boundaries. Christmas cards are always hanging along the inside of the front room windows (helps with insulation too, said dad), and many of the Christmas decorations have been made by the family.

    “We always have candy canes strung up across the fireplace, too, and count down the days till Christmas by taking down a candy cane each day,” added Nancy. “On Christmas Eve, after we take down the last candy cane, we hang up our stockings.”

    The Webbers have a Christmas Eve program, too, a musical night when grandma plays the piano and everyone sings “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (complete with drawings that one of the sons made several years ago). Each family member performs a musical number, and the Christmas story is read from the Bible.

    How did the Webber family traditions get started?

    “A lot of our traditions just happened,” said Bob Webber, the dad. “The kids say that a particular activity is fun, so we do it again the next year. That’s how our traditions have been built. The exciting part of the holiday now is what the kids get for each other. It’s great to see the excitement they share as they watch each other open the presents they have given. It’s much more fun than thinking what they’re getting.

    “We think it’s important to make Christmas a special time with the family. We want to create laughter and giggles and fun and an understanding of giving, especially an understanding of the gift that Heavenly Father gave us in his Son. And the gift-giving and celebrating, all that makes it a special time of the year. It all helps us to remember what it’s all about.”

    Santa’s Snacks

    Santa should not go hungry when he’s making his rounds on Christmas Eve. That’s what the George Watkins family of Pelham, New York, believes, so they traditionally leave a plate of elf-tempting goodies by the fireplace for Santa. They are named in his honor—“Santa Snacks.” Should you want to share these tasty tidbits with visiting elves or friends, Sharon Watkins, 15, showed us how to make them.

    Santa Snacks

    1/2 c. butter, melted

    1 c. graham cracker crumbs

    1 c. coconut flakes

    1 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips

    1 c. chopped nuts

    15 oz. sweetened condensed milk (1 can)

    Combine melted butter, crackers, and coconut in ungreased 9-by-13-inch pan. Press mixture down lightly. Cover with a layer of chocolate chips. Sprinkle a layer of nuts on top. Drizzle milk over the mixture. Bake at 350° F. for 25 to 30 minutes. Cool thoroughly before cutting.

    Photos by Kathleen Lubeck

    Illustrated by Phyllis Luch