[Editor's Note: This month at the Patheos Book Club, we're featuring a new book on the Mormon view of God called The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life, by Dr. Terryl and Fiona Givens. As Christmas approaches, we invited the Givens family to share some of their favorite holiday family memories with us at Patheos...]
Christmas has become a jarring mélange of the sacred and the secular, the sublime and the commercial, the piercingly poignant and the boisterously banal. So in our family, we have tried to capitalize on the healthy energies and the best of the social dimensions, while emphasizing the themes of grace, giving, and redemption. We chose Christmas traditions that would anchor our children in the best that life offers: gratitude for the gift of the Christ child, and relationships infused with love and laughter. We asked our children what they most treasured about Christmases past, and their joint compilation follows:
The first Sunday after Thanksgiving, the family would gather in the living room. Mum would rinse the cranberries and pop the corn, and Dad would thread a dozen needles. Then we’d begin the yearly ritual of making our Christmas chain, with Manheim Steamroller, Winter Solstice and assorted carols playing in the background. For the next three hours or so (our big tree required a lot of chain) we children would reminisce about our favorite Christmases past. Ten kernels of corn and two cranberries, ten kernels and two cranberries, section-by-section and memory-by-memory, the afternoon proceeded. Christmases past blurred into other holidays, other happy times as we munched on delicacies mummy procured only for this one day in the year. Some grumbled at pricked fingers, or too-crumbly popcorn. Dad would struggle to keep up, threading new needles, tying the six-foot sections together. But no one ever complained in earnest. We all knew it was a time without parallel, the best day of the Christmas season. Hour after hour, sitting knee to knee, all of us– laughing, reminiscing, and singing along with the carols. It was usually two Sundays following that the Christmas season commenced in earnest: the family attended the annual Candlelight Service of Lessons and Carols at Dad’s university. Worshipping in the interdenominational setting reminded us that as Latter-day Saints, we also belonged to a larger Christian tradition we valued.
We never protested the commercialism of Christmas in our home. After all, it was the one time of the year when people were focused on someone other than themselves. We relished going out with our parents to find that particular gift for our siblings. The setting up of the crèche was accompanied by the reading from Luke of the nativity. Adjacent to the manger scene my mother placed a basket and cotton balls. We were instructed that when we did something kind for someone else, we could place a cotton ball in the wicker manger to make the Christ child’s resting place a little more comfortable. But two conditions attached. The act of service had to be anonymous, or it didn’t count. And the placing of the cotton in the basket had to be in secret too. For at least the month of December, acts of service and kindness multiplied. The mound of soft cotton silently and secretly grew. Giggles and conspiratorial smiles as often as not gave away the angel-culprits. But the taste of happy giving was real enough.
Christmas Eve itself followed an unvarying ritual. The girls and youngsters would help Mum make the Christmas cookies, which everyone decorated. As night descended, we all gathered around Mum and Dad who had made a list of widows and single parents in our congregation. Then we piled into the family car, and headed out for a few hours of caroling. Not being gifted with angelic voices the experience was more of an affliction to those we visited, although they never let on and frequently helped us out by adding their voices to ours. Conquered at last by the cold and/or drizzle, we would return home for hot chocolate followed by our favourite version of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Not everyone would be awake for the glorious morning of Scrooge’s rebirth. But even those of us who drifted off to sleep early knew that upon awaking before daybreak the next morning, our world, too, would appear wonderfully new.
No other morning could match the sparkle and delight of Christmas morning, when even the oldest children, and Mum and Dad themselves, awoke to find filled stockings by their bedsides. After we had each shared the treasures of our Christmas stockings—and only then—were we allowed downstairs to see what further surprises were in store. The Christmas tree, devoid of gifts the night before was now crowded with packages of marvelous shape and color. Starting with the youngest each of us children would open one present at a time. No one proceeded to the next present until each recipient had thoroughly enjoyed the moment of opening their particular treasure. Christmas present opening was unhurried and there were so many of us that it was almost 11 by the time we finished, famished and ready for the Christmas breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausages, hash browns, sweet breads and English muffins.
No meal of the year would be like Christmas dinner. The annual opening of the traditional English Christmas crackers was followed by the feast: Mum’s roast beef, broccoli stuffing casserole, glazed carrots and Yorkshire pudding all accompanied by lashings of Bisto gravy. Dad would invariably proclaim the meal to be “a triumph, my dear, another triumph” to which we all responded “and God bless us every one!” But the day was not yet over. To ward off the inevitable after-Christmas blues our parents always kept one present back, which they hid under our pillows to be discovered and opened at the end of the day. This gift was always a book, carefully selected by our parents, to furnish our minds and provide the night preceding Boxing Day with adventures suited to our individual personalities.
For more about the new book The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens, visit the Patheos Book Club here.