For every successful holiday tradition, there’s an attempted tradition that never quite made it off the ground. It might be a recipe you hoped would be passed down through the generations but instead remains largely untouched at the holiday dinner table. Or perhaps it’s an ornament you anticipated would become a focal point of the décor but barely makes it out of its box, much less onto the tree.
In my family, our most memorable failed tradition is The Book. And yes, it merits the capitals.
Mom purchased The Book when Oldest Younger Brother was in upper elementary school and I was in high school. It was designed to be read during Advent, the period of time leading up to Christmas. For each day of Advent, there was a reading that corresponded to a Bible passage and a related family participation element, like a reflection question that every member of the family was encouraged to weigh in on. Each day also featured a Christmas carol, complete with music notes and the lyrics for every verse.
To ensure maximum family participation (this was before the arrival of Youngest Brother and Younger Sister), Mom would read from The Book every night after dinner while everyone was still seated at the dining room table. We were forbidden to leave until all aspects of the nightly celebration had been completed.
This wouldn’t have been an issue if the process had taken, say, five to ten minutes. Unfortunately, the combination of the reading, the family participation element and the Christmas carol took about half an hour. At least, that’s what I recall. Mom believes it took less time, and Dad believes it took longer.
To further include the family in our newfound “tradition,” Mom would ask for volunteers to read. I think there may have been some volunteering initially, but after a few nights, she had to start making personal requests because of how long the readings were.
As Oldest Younger Brother recalls it, even though each reading was a single page, the font was very small and the type was densely packed, so that what was crammed on to a single page could easily have fit on two pages or more if properly spaced. (Mom disagrees with that, too. I didn’t bother to ask Dad.) For my part, I remember my mouth starting to cramp up halfway through the reading process. By pre-teen/teenage standards, it was a torturous ordeal.
After the reading was complete and the family had grudgingly participated in the family participation element, Mom would play the Christmas carol on her flute and we would all sing along. It sounds picturesque and Rockwellian when described thus, but Mom had last played the flute in high school. As such, we sang as many verses of each carol as necessary for her performance to be flawless.
And if for some reason we missed a night, Mom would try to add it to the next night, so that we would do two readings, two family participation elements and two carols. I believe that was tolerated once, and then we simply had to forgo any missed nights due to dinner time encroaching upon bedtime.
Though The Book was introduced prior to the births of Youngest Brother and Younger Sister, this attempt at tradition did continue into their infancy/toddlerhood. Like most little ones, sitting quietly at the dinner table for an additional 30 minutes wasn’t a reliable part of their skill set – though they did enjoy listening to the flute – and Dad was only too happy to whisk them away from the table when they started to get antsy.
None of us took issue with the content of The Book – Christmas has always been a very important time of year for my family, especially in terms of the spiritual aspect of the holiday. It was simply the sheer amount of time that this “tradition” required on a nightly basis.
Over the course of several seasons, The Book’s appearances gradually became fewer and farther between until they stopped completely. This was partly due to Youngest Brother and Younger Sister learning how to walk and being less inclined to sit for extended periods of time and partly due to us “forgetting” to take it out of the box when we brought the Christmas items out of storage.
Mom, however, still wanted to have some sort of way for us to mark Advent together as a family. Taking into consideration our attention spans as well as our increasingly busy schedules, she invested in a reusable Advent calendar. It’s a three-dimensional tabletop display featuring a snowman and a Christmas tree. Each day, you select an ornament to plug into one of the holes in the plastic tree. The ornaments then light up and a jolly electronic voice proclaims that there are so many days left until Christmas.
Though it lacks the spiritual and musical elements of The Book, it does still have a family participation element in that we take turns choosing which ornament to plug into the tree. If we happen to miss a day, catching up takes a minute or two rather than another half hour. I would also venture to say that having a less stressful way of marking Advent enables us to focus more fully on the reason we count down the days to Christmas, which is that we are anticipating the birth of Jesus Christ.
Not every holiday tradition sticks. Some fail to become meaningful, others are too time-consuming or complicated to sustain. That, however, makes those traditions that do become a regular and enjoyable part of our celebrations even more significant.
And if you’re looking to try a new tradition this Advent season, I have A Book I’d be happy to give you – I’m sorry, I mean, “lend” you. (Mom is reading over my shoulder again.)
– Teresa Santoski
Originally published Dec. 3, 2015