One of the best things about Thanksgiving this year was my recent foray into Instagram. For several days my feed was filled with happy pictures of friends celebrating the holiday in all kinds of ways. There were large, formal tables set with china and linen. Paper plates piled high and balanced on knees. Fried turkey, ham, rolls, kale salad, fried plantains, and at least twenty different kinds of pies. Giant parties held in church cultural halls and smaller groups of two or three. Some friends sidestepped the traditional dinner and took vacations; some went camping, hiking, or played at the beach. There were pictures of triumphs at early morning 5Ks and family football games, and a few cooking fails. A few friends had more somber holidays, as bigger life events like unexpected funerals and beloved family members on hospice care overshadowed their week. No matter what was happening, I felt overwhelmed by the love and joy experienced by family and friends as they spent the holiday in whatever way they could. Everyone’s celebration was a little different, but every celebration was steeped in gratitude for what they had.
I thought about this again last week when a friend mentioned that she was working on paring down her Christmas celebration to only those things that “spark joy” for her. Christmas tends to be a holiday that comes with a lot of traditional trappings and high expectations, and often those traditions tend towards excess and obligation. As I thought about all the different ways my friends found happiness at Thanksgiving, I hoped they could do the same for Christmas. I also pondered some of the things that are important to me for Christmas and bring me joy:
Baking treats—I’m the third generation in my family to keep up the tradition of delivering plates of cookies to friends and neighbors. While my mother was growing up, my grandmother spent every December baking goodies and making candies, which would then be delivered to neighbors—with a special focus on the poor, invalid, and lonely. For as long as I can remember, my own family spent the day on Christmas Eve baking and decorating cookies to take to friends, dropping them off with a quick carol at their doorstep. I still do that with my kids; we usually only make enough for 3-4 friends, and these are imperfect, kid-decorated cookies made with love.
Christmas music—As a kid I spent most of November anticipating the moment when it was acceptable to break out the Reader’s Digest Christmas Book for the piano. Now I have kids who play saxophone, guitar, clarinet, and piano, so our house is filled with music. Plus I collect Christmas albums, and according to iTunes I now own about 400 hours worth of Christmas music, so we have plenty to listen to for inspiration.
Christmas cards and letters—I started sending a Christmas letter 16 years ago when I started my family; it was in part a way to connect with family and friends, and partly a way to document the year for family history. Since then I’ve kept up the tradition most years, and I also love receiving cards and letters from other people. They usually stay on my wall through January and are the last part of my decorations that I put away every year.
These are some of the Christmas traditions that spark joy for me and that I’m willing to spend time and money on. Other things, like wrapping presents and decorating my house, don’t, and so I just don’t spend much time (if any) on them. I have friends, however, who hate baking and are indifferent about Christmas carols, but they have other traditions that they love. Christmas should be a time of love and joy for you and your family, so don’t be afraid to choose what will make your celebration truly meaningful.
What Christmas traditions spark joy for you? What obligations can you live without? How do you prioritize the most meaningful ways to celebrate?