CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS, PAST AND PRESENT

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Around mid-October each year I usually have the same good intentions, to be one of those super-organized people who gets all their Christmas shopping done by November. However, although I may wake each morning with the same great idea, it never seems to materialize. I remember one year when we were in the midst of moving house and I descended on Toys”R”Us on Christmas Eve, panic-buying whatever caught my eye, and ended up with a bunch of presents I would never normally have even considered. Strangely, the children who are old enough to remember that Christmas recall the day with great fondness!

However, having said all that, I had thought that this year my organization levels had been a touch above average and almost everything had gone ‘swimmingly’ well. To start with I became French and bought champagne back in September, the month synonymous with the annual autumn French wine sales (Foire aux Vins) and a time when French families stock up their wine-cellars at hugely discounted prices. All the presents are wrapped and family parcels have been mailed overseas. The house is decorated and we even made a gingerbread house but there is one small blot on the my otherwise perfect Christmas landscape – an elusive present. It’s something I bought months ago as part of my plan to be super-woman, which is good, but the only problem is I have no idea where it is hidden, which is bad. I have turned cupboards inside out and unearthed things I didn’t even know we had, but there is still no sign of the elusive gift. I’ve even questioned my sanity; did I really buy it or am I just going completely mad? I know I bought it. I did, I did, I did. I think.

Maybe it’s time to take Gigi up on her offer. She has a favourite phrase at the moment, which for some reason she seems to think is extremely funny, and she says in her best Downton Abbey voice (as only a nine year old can….), “Would you like a glass of Bubbly?” As champagne has been all over the news recently with the fact that two or three glasses a day can help prevent dementia in later life, I may well take her up on her offer quite soon.

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Wasting so much time searching for the elusive gift has for some reason made me think of Christmas when I was a child. For me it began when Grandparents arrived and school finished. We always had a party on Christmas Eve; the Christmas tree always went in the same place, and the routine was unchanged year in year out; it always all seemed to run so smoothly!

Last week we set off after school one afternoon to choose our tree. We always do this altogether as a family and it involves a lot of discussion and a fair amount of what is usually good-natured disagreement. Rarely do we reach a unanimous decision in less than fifteen minutes and on more than one occasion there have been both referendums, and voting.

We check each tree carefully, considering the side view and the back view; is it too bushy, too thin, will it stand tall and be centre-stage for the entire holiday season? Everyone seems to want different trees for different reasons, and as we have raised five very strong-minded and independent children opinions are expressed loudly and confidently. This year, like all others, an agreement was hard to come by. Roddy took control and organized a vote, Gigi stood on Hetty’s toes and Millie and Jack eventually got their way. Roddy expressed bemused surprise that we had yet again chosen one of the most expensive trees in the entire department, possibly in the whole of France, but although I hate to admit it, I think they chose a fine specimen!

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Of course, the fun has only just started; next comes the decorating. Boxes are hauled in, and we all look out for our old stone crèche that we bought years ago in Provence – it’s a Christmas favourite with the children. They just love placing all the little figures (Santons as they are called) in place and making the nativity scene come alive. Decorating the house is loud and chaotic, but it’s always fun and as the children get older it does get a little easier and fewer decorations seem to get broken each year on unforgiving hard tiles. Ours is a very personal tree as virtually every decoration tells a story. Many are gifts from a dear friend who lives in Connecticut, as each year she sends the children a decoration and as a result they have always been treasured. Along with these there are also baubles they have hand-painted at school over the years, some even with finger-prints and dates. Each and every one of them has a story to tell. It’s a long slow process, and an evening when Slade repetitively belts out “I wish it could be Christmas everyday” and everyone gets a little bit silly! By the end of it there are always a mass of decorations on the bottom and at the front, and the tree is typically left a little bald and devoid of colour at the back and top. But when the house is quiet again and the youngest are tucked up in bed I usually go around tweaking a little here and there!

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Starting the decorating slightly earlier this year has certainly had it’s advantages, and although the tree may drop a few more needles before the New Year it has definitely made for a more relaxed time. Yesterday I also cut a huge trug-load of magnolia branches which sat in the hallway all afternoon whilst I decided what to do with them! In the end I tied them in bundles up the staircase and Millie wrapped the bottom of the balusters in lights. We were both surprisingly pleased with the effect.

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Going back to my childhood Christmases, I remember how we always went to church on Christmas morning, how the turkey went in the oven overnight, and when we went for a ride on Christmas morning how our ponies would be festooned with tinsel around their necks. There was something wonderful about trotting along the village lanes when everywhere was quiet and still, and the people who we did see were always smiling, wishing us a very happy Christmas as we did likewise.

Presents were always unwrapped after lunch, part and parcel of being a farmer’s daughter. Everyone on the farm had the day off so it was typically just my Father who fed horses and cattle, milked the house cow and checked on stock. For this reason Christmas morning was always busy and presents were opened in the afternoon when everyone could sit down and take time to enjoy their gifts. By early evening it was time to go out and once again tend to animals on the farm, after which we would then come in for Christmas cake and settle in front of the fire. A game of cards always took place, and at some stage there would be a break in play for a supper (as if we could really eat any more!) of ham, salad, and trifle for dessert!

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Over the years we have kept some of our family traditions, and started other new ones of our own. We still unwrap gifts after lunch, everyone has grown to prefer it this way. I’m not sure we know another family with the same routine, but it seems to work well and now that the children are a little older and have a little more patience, they love it too. The morning is all about gifts left by Santa in their stockings and it gives them time to really enjoy these whilst the adults are cooking the big meal, and phoning family and friends. One of the new traditions is something  that seems to have been started a few years ago by Izzi, the eldest of the tribe. The children all quietly creep into her room at 7am on the dot, and they sit on her bed with their bulging stockings, opening Santa’s offerings in turn, around and around. When all the goodies have been unwrapped they load them all back into their stockings and then come and wake us up and start the whole process all over again. This means there are seven of us in one bed, which this year will be a complete battle-scene with two dogs! The best part of this arrangement is we do get to have a lie-in on Christmas morning.

It’s strange how the tradition of hanging a Christmas stocking can have so many variations. In fact the entire Santa/Father Christmas tradition varies quite dramatically from country to country. Here in France, for the most part Santa leaves presents for the children under the Christmas tree. Alas, we are not French and we stick to our British tradition of leaving a stocking at the foot of the bed. French friends visiting last weekend were amazed to see presents under our tree, “Santa has been already?” they asked incredulously; it took some explaining for them to understand that those were presents we give each other and we traditionally put them under the tree! To our surprise, these differences seem of little consequence to children, and both ours and their French friends seem to have an unspoken acknowledgment that Santa Claus brings French children their big main presents, and English children just receive small “stocking fillers”!

French children often get left twigs, while English children seem to always receive an orange or a mandarin. As a child, my stocking was a pillow-case and I would wake at some time during the night and by twiddling my toes I would know if Santa had been. Now it is slightly different as when Gigi was a baby I decided we should make Christmas stockings that the children would treasure forever. Nine years later they are still going strong and once again this year they are ready and waiting to be filled!

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Just one more day of school until the holidays and our little people are counting down the days and hours, wishing it was Christmas today, not next week, to which I always have the same reply, “I don’t, I’m not ready!”. But I’m getting there!

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I would love to know if you have any special traditions you keep going and wherever you are in the world; how do you celebrate Christmas and what are your family’s Santa traditions?

36 thoughts on “CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS, PAST AND PRESENT

  • Since my four children are grown and have their own families, Christmas is a much quieter affair. Now we only see some of them at Christmas (two live some distance away) and usually for only part of the day as they try to split their time between us and their spouse’s family. I try not to put any pressure on them about these arrangements. So difficult for young families to be pulled from pillar to post on Christmas, especially when very young children are involved. However, one tradition we instituted as they reached adulthood and were scheduled to be with us, was to have a themed dinner based on various Christmas traditions of other countries. For example, the year we had a French themed Christmas, buche de noel was part of the meal, and of course, for the British dinner tradtional Christmas crackers graced the table (silly hats and all) along with roast beef and yorkshire pudding (with the US Thanksgiving in November it usually means no one wants to see turkey again at Christmas). It has been fun to discover the cultural variations and to incorporate them into the festivities.

    One thing I did as my children were growing up was to buy each of them a special ornament each year, often based on their interests at the time, so that when they moved into their own homes, I was able to give them their own ornament collection of at least 20 or more to decorate their own Chrismas trees.

    • Hi Mary, thanks for your wonderful comment, I love hearing how other people celebrate and I am sure your children really appreciate their ornaments now. I wonder why we have Christmas crackers and even more so why are we so known for the silly hats we have inside them, I shall do some research later today! Our youngest children came home from school on Wednesday, a morning when they have English with an English person and she had taken in crackers, they all came home wearing silly hats, I wonder what all the French families thought!!!

  • No farmers in the recent family but as children we always had to wait until after lunch for our presents too (apart from the ones that Santa left us) and I am pretty sure all of my three sisters carry on the tradition – although ocassionally (like the year I received saucepans …. and there was nearly a divorce!….but we weren’t yet married!) I am persuaded to open one special present that may be useful or be worn during the day. I think it makes the specialness of the day last longer and wouldn’t want it any other way.
    xx Penny

    • Hope to goodness he’s not giving you saucepans this year!!! and finally I have met someone who opens their presents after lunch, that means we definitely have to do Christmas together one year!

  • Oh and the other tradition we and Adrian have is that everyone who stay in the house on Christmas Eve has a stocking and in the stocking is always an ornament or some sort of decoration to hang on the tree before breakfast! Penny

  • Oh how I enjoyed reading that! It brought back so many memories, some of them similar to yours! When we were young, we opened our presents in the morning, but weren’t allowed into the living room until Mum and Dad said we could! We always had a turkey which my Dad used to get up very early to put in the oven. One year, he put it in upside down!! The poor turkey had a somewhat square-shaped breast!!!
    We also had pillowcases put at the end of our beds and I recall one year, one of my 3 younger brothers was given a Bagattelle by Santa – one of those games where you pull back a button and let go and it pings little metal balls around a sort of maze and you needed to get them all to the end! On this occasion, I heard – rattle rattle rattle – giggle giggle giggle. Then pad pad pad as Dad walked across the landing to their room – muffled voice (obviously telling them it was not time to get up yet!) and then his return to his bedroom. This happened several times and it was only 4 am!!
    We always watched the Queen’s speech on Christmas afternoon before watching good old Bruce Forsyth in The Generation Game!!
    When I got married and went to live in South Africa, my parents put a tape recorder under the sofa and recorded them all opening their presents – it was so funny and so poignant when we were so far away in a hot country. I could even hear Brucie in the background!!!
    We kept the traditions the same for my children, but now they have children of their own, little ones, and so new traditions are beginning, but still the same excitement on their little faces!
    I am so pleased to see that you decorate your tree as we do – with little decorations collected over the years! Like yours, all of ours have a story to tell and I love the look of a real tree decorated in red gold and green. Long may our traditions remain – they represent stability, consistency and the joy of family, friends and our good fortune in being able to eat a lovely meal together.
    I’m sorry to go on so long!! But have a wonderful Anglo-French Christmas and I look forward to reading your stories in 2016.

    • Hi Marian, never apologise for a long comment, I absolutely loved reading it and you are so right, in these terribly troubled times there is something very reassuring about keeping the old traditions alive. I still watch the Queen’s speech, we did indeed all stop at 3pm to listen, always. Several times I have suggested we go away for Christmas, that we go to the snow, but I am always met with a resounding NO from all the children, Christmas, they say, should always be at home just as it has been every year, they won’t have it changed at all. We might change house, change country, but so long as we have our traditions and the same decorations they are happy and I know they are right! Have a very very Happy Christmas x

  • Hello Susan. We have just arrived home from France and homesick already. Your post reminded me of a great tradition we had when we lived in the countryside near Ottawa.

    We had a friend that had a Christmas Tree farm that was not too far away. We would invite between 30 and 40 friends to meet at about 10:30am…..the second Saturday in December. We would convoy over. The farm buildings and their home was constructed from old barns sourced from all over Ontario. It was pure magic. The snow falling…everyone searching for their Perfect Tree….the snowball fights…these are all adults….hot apple cider.

    The Perfect Tree chosen…tied to the roof of the car.

    And then back to our home for a huge potluck. Some of these friends met at our home 30 years ago and became close friends. We did this for many years. I’m sorry to say we never took a picture of 20 cars all with Christmas Trees tied to the roof of the car parked along the road outside our house.

    Now we live on the West Coast of Canada and have been here quite a few years. A friend emailed once and said that they had gone to The Tree farm to get their tree…I burst into tears.

    • Hi Ali, I read your wonderful comment to all of the children, it is just as I picture the perfect Christmas, lots of snow and collecting trees and throwing snowballs, I am not at all surprised you cried, I would have done too. Of course it is terribly warm here as you know this year, so no chance of snow at all. I did try emailing you several times so you could go and take photos for me but the email was always returned and then I forgot. Hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a very happy New Year x

    • Hello again. If we are fortunate to be able to return next year…you will get your pictures. We are hoping to spread our wings a bit and maybe your area could be part of that.

      Have a Happy and Merry Christmas.

      Ali

      • Hi Ali, thank you! and I really do hope you include the Charente Maritime next year, let me know if I can help with plans at all and it would be lovely to meet you. Merry Christmas

  • My children are a but older (23,21 and 17) but they are still just as insistent on the decorating. Every year amongst the numerous crates of decorations my nativity scene must be unearthed and placed with the wooden stable , hand made from old fence palings by a wonderful friend, in pride of place. This year a new tradition, after spending Christmas in Paris last year and I will attempt a Buche Noël. Please let it not hit 40 degrees here in Melbourne Australia!

    • Hi Ann-Maree, your nativity scene sounds beautiful and incredibly it reminded me of the one we had at home when I was a child, again made out of an old wooden something, I can’t remember what, maybe an old slatted box. I had totally forgotten all about it until I read your comment. Good luck with the Buche de Noel, I am sure it will be fabulous and enjoy the sunshine and your summer, hope it manages to stay in the 30’s for you! Merry Christmas

  • BEAUTIFUL PHOTOS, and such a satisfying read about your Christmas traditions ! Thank you so much for sharing . Our grown children and theirs all know I love miniatures. For my 69 th birthday recently our son and his wife found a small ” village ” in an antique store in her hometown . Several separate buildings that light up, little figures and trees . Unfortunately the lights didn’t all work, but fortunately I found some on AMAZON .com …..it is spread out on our coffee table. The village is surrounded by a collection of ” Christmas ” books small and large that that started when I was little with a beautifully illustrated book of carols my older brother sent from far away where they lived . Our tree also has ornaments that started with a little set of bells that were on a gift when we got married 44 years ago, and a tiny angel a neighbor boy gave us that first year . Ahhh….memories !!!

    • Hi Jacqueline, the village sounds absolutely beautiful and glad you were able to replace the lights. How fabulous that you still have ornaments from 44 years ago and still treasure the tiny angel. It is so special unwrapping Christmas decorations when so many memories coming flooding back. Wishing both you and your husband a very very Happy Christmas x

  • I suppose we must be more like the French, here in South Carolina. Stockings are filled with fruit, candy and special treats, but the “real” presents from Santa find themselves around th tree. Family gifts are under the tree, but Santa gifts find their way in appointed areas around the room. Christmas morning is a bit of a flurry, followed by a huge brunch and visits from family and friends.

    • Hi Sheran, it sounds as if you follow French traditions precisely! Our neighbour’s son told me yesterday that he has a stocking that he puts at the foot of his bed and he gets fruit and chocolates and that the main presents from Santa are under the tree, he is of course French! Christmas always passes in a flurry of presents and paper and it always goes by way to fast, I wish I could just slow it all down!

  • All through our childhood my parents hung a few ornaments on our tree that we children thought were quite ugly. They appeared year after year looking Increasingly out of place amongst the other glittering baubles. It was only when we were old enough to understand that we were told they were amongst the very few things that survived the bombing of my mother’s family home in Glasgow, Scotland. The house, amongst others on the street, was struck by an buzz bomb aiming for the shipyards during the Clydebank Blitz in 1941. My mother described washing her hair at the kitchen sink and hearing the bomb but not having time to go to the Anderson Shelter in the garden. She survived due to the shelter provided by a solid old kitchen table. Her brother was not so fortunate. Sadly he had been home on leave from submarine duty in the North Atlantic.
    Not surprisingly, during the War there were no commercially-produced Xmas ornaments to be had, so people made them out of anything that came to hand, including items used in making munitions. Everyone tried to make them as shiny as possible since Xmas lights were out of the question due to blackout regulations. They had made the ornaments the Xmas before and packed them away in the attic.
    Amazingly, the local Air Raid Warden found some of them when combing through the rubble and they made their way, circuitously, back to my grandparents who had fortunately evacuated to their cottage in the country prior to the Blitz. My mother was badly burned and buried for 48 hours and she carried shrapnel in her eyes for the remainder of her long life. My parents seldom talked about the war years but they hung those ornaments on our tree throughout our childhood in memory of times past and in joyful celebration of the future. The ornaments survive still, on trees on three continents and their story lives on with future generations.

    • Hi, what an incredible story, that brought tears to my eyes, thank you so much for sharing it. I can just imagine the ornaments that mean so much now, but that, when you were a child, seemed ugly and boring compared to all the glitz of modern baubles. Your Mother must have been quite an amazing lady. Are you still in Scotland? If so I hope you weren’t affected by all the recent floods. Wishing you a very Happy Christmas

      • Toronto is home now, where so far we are enjoying an unseasonably (for us) green and warm Xmas with nary a snowflake in sight. The rest of the old ornaments adorn trees in Australia and South Africa. Warm wishes to everyone for a Happy Xmas and a Guid New Year wherever you may be!

      • Hi again! One side of my family came from Bute and they too emigrated to Canada, British Columbia, in the early 1900’s! It is unseasonably warm here too, way above average, in fact today promises to be 17C! Have a very Happy Christmas and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2016

  • I need more information on the CHAMPAGNE!!I wonder if PROSECCO counts?!!
    WE open the night of the 24th!Santa comes and does the stockings………..so Christmas morning we do those with coffee and PANATONE………Christmas night another BIG MEAL!!!I’m always cooking!
    MERRY CHRISTMAS as WE say over here…………I wonder why you say HAPPY and we say MERRY?Anyone know?
    Looks like you have a few gifts under the tree and will be READY for SANTA!!!
    I am hoping my GRAND PIGGY arrives CHRISTMAS DAY!!!
    XX

    • I am sure it counts, it is after all the Italian version of champagne! Now as to why we say Happy and you say Merry. We do say Merry too and in fact Charles Dickens talked of a Merry Christmas in a Christmas Carol in 1843. It appears that Merry was the ancient English form of Christmas greeting but sometime in the mid 20th Century Happy became more popular and that popularity has grown ever since. After twenty minutes on google over coffee this morning, that is about the best explanation I can come up with so far!!! I am dropping the hint to Roddy that I want a pig for Christmas, somehow I doubt he will fall for it. Post lost of photos please and very Happy Christmas! xxx

  • Hi Susan, first of all I have to say that I love the snowflakes drifting gently across my screen with your blog. I think they are the only ones we shall be seeing in mild but windy Brittany this year!
    Thank-you so much for your wonderful blog and lovely photos that you have been sharing with us all year.
    Re:Traditions. We have been so pleased that our daughter & family appear to be carrying on most of ours from many years past. They have their Christmas stockings first thing (all together in our daughter & husband’s bed) and then their presents from under the tree after lunch; unless, of course there happens to be something particularly large like a bicycle – tricky to wrap!! She told us that when she was a teenager trying to ‘sort out’ life these familiar ‘tried & trusted’ family traditions meant a lot to her.
    This is the time of year that is hard for us sometimes though, being away from them all, especially having three grandchildren of 8, 5 & 2. Such a magical time for children. My husband has just had a shoulder replacement operation so sadly no traveling this Christmas! Skype will be fully employed however!!
    We send you our warmest wishes for a Merry Christmas & Happy, Healthy New Year 2016

    • Hi Petrina, thank you so much for your lovely comment. Where would we be without skype, it certainly makes the miles seems a little closer and is so much better than just a phonecall. I so agree with you about Christmas traditions, they are very comforting in this muddled troubled world. I hope your husband’s shoulder heals quickly and I hope you have a very very Happy Christmas and a wonderful healthy and happy 2016. Susan x

  • When I was little, growing up in South Carolina, we were told that Santa Claus never comes to a house where children are awake, so of course we couldn’t wait to go to sleep on Christmas Eve. Then, we weren’t allowed to get out of bed until we were sure Santa had come. The only way to know that was if we had soot on our faces from Santa’s kiss! We had to wait on everyone to get up before we could into the living room together to see what Santa had left by the hearth… It was a joyous time, and there was always a Nativity scene laid out under the tree to remind us of the true gift of Christmas!

    • Hi Julie, I love the soot on the face, how inventive and what fun. I too was told that Santa wouldn’t come unless we were asleep and indeed I tell my children the same thing! I love the idea of the Nativity scene under the tree, ours is such a favourite with the children, although it sits on the sideboard. Wishing you a very Happy Christmas and a very happy and healthy 2016. Susan x

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