Year after year, we listen to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and swoon with wonder at his understanding of the human condition. The three ghosts, Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future, come to all of us in some form or another. In the autumn of my life, I am plagued with all three at one time.

My Christmas Past was wonderful. In a family of six brothers and sisters and many cousins, Christmas was always a fun and exciting time, all the parties, get-togethers and presents; we felt blessed beyond measure. When I became the proverbial Santa in my family, it was more of a chore than a blessing, but it was still a wonderful time.

Now I look forward to Christmas in a different way. Christmas Present is always nagging me with the question of: What can I do now, with my family spread all over the country? Pick-up gifts at the store is always an option, and Amazon and Walmart ship anywhere in the nation.

I don’t even have to wrap the gifts. Gift cards are always in style. My grandchildren can choose their own gifts, but what about Christ in Christmas? How can I make him a central figure in all the celebrating? After all, it is His birthday.

When my children were growing up, and even when I was a child, it was always apparent Christ was the most important. There were traditions that fostered remembering the Christ child, but I wish I had fostered more carefully a few other traditions. They would have made Christmas more about Christ and less about giving and receiving.


Service is one of those traditions we incorporated once or twice. Once we went to a rest home and performed a little play I had written. The children delighted in the reactions of the senior citizens who were homebound there. There was such a feeling of love and gratitude. The children talked about the experience for years later. On their own, they have chosen to go and sing at rest homes, but sadly it was only once as a family.

We planned to, but we didn’t plan to hard enough. We did have one saving grace. My husband and his first wife made a tradition of going on Sunday evenings to sing to the widows and shut-ins. The entire month of December was dedicated to Christmas carols. He has a wonderful voice, and his children have developed into delightful singers. Some of the children have carried the tradition into their own homes.

Of course, singing isn’t the only type of service that can be a tradition. We have put together care packages, sent toys to the less fortunate and remodeled rooms for gifts. We drew names and made gifts, but it would have been nice if some of those gifts had been service to each other. Polishing shoes, making beds, picking up things and doing each other’s chores would have engendered a feeling of charity often missing in the Christmas season.

We spent days baking and making Christmas goodies for our friends and neighbors. Fudge, divinity, caramels and Christmas breads. Hours and hours were spent on the Christmas dinner. We cooked turkey, ham, potatoes and hot rolls. Salads and yams were plenty. Belle’s dinner in the animated Beauty and the Beast could not hold a candle to the feasts we prepared. We spread the table with linen, fine china, silverware and crystal goblets.

Of course we said grace, and thanked the Lord for our bounty and for the season, but I wonder what it would have been like to invite people from the homeless shelter or the safe house. We did invite less affluent relatives ones or twice, but I wonder what it would have been like to spend some time researching to find who could use and share in our abundance.

Oh, we did give to charitable organizations, but I am afraid our children never saw the checks we made out and mailed. They needed to be in the loop and the discussion about how they could help in Jesus’ ministry. There is need everywhere. Back then, we didn’t have GoFundMe on Facebook. We weren’t aware of so many national disasters and opportunities to help.

Maybe our eyes were not open to the possibilities because we were focused on making the best Christmas ever. The sad irony is: The best Christmases ever were found when we did something out of the ordinary to bless someone else’s life.

There were times when we went shopping for a needy family, wrapped gifts and took them to the door. It was a sweet experience for the children to leave the gifts and run away so we could remain anonymous. It happened once or twice – but not often enough to call it a tradition.

There was a family who lived near us who made their entire Christmas a giving spree. They didn’t buy Christmas gifts for each other; they chose families to focus on. They would bring each child in the family a gift. How do I know? We were one of the families they chose.

We had six children living at home at the time. I don’t know if they considered us to be a needy family or just someone they cared about, but it was wonderful to be the recipient of such generosity. I talked to other people in the community, and they had received the same treatment. It wasn’t just one Christmas of generosity. It went on for years. They had made it a tradition.

We placed a high priority on decorating the house for Christmas. We had lights twinkling and sparkling everywhere. We had candles, snowmen, Santa Claus and reindeer. We had a nativity scene in a prominent place surrounded with candles and garland. Of course, the tree was magnificent with shining globes, bells and little bears. (That was my favorite.)

The garland wound around the lights in perfect precision to catch and scatter the light. We certainly celebrated the season, but I wonder how much we really celebrated Christ’s birthday. We talked endlessly about what gifts we would give to each other, and the excitement was high anticipating what Christmas morning would be like, but I don’t think we spent much time deciding what gifts we would give to the Savior.

It would have been good to start reading the four Gospels as a family to learn and bask more deeply into the Savior’s ministry and His gifts to us. Oh, we did read the Christmas story on Christmas Eve, but I’m afraid the minds were on the gifts piled under the tree.

This morning, I thought of a tradition I wish I had created when I was raising my children. The Christmas tree is the central focus of the festivities at our house. It has all the gifts stacked under the glowing lights. What if, instead of dreaming about the gifts under the tree, we read the life of Jesus in the 24 days before Christmas. We could choose a story each evening and create a homemade ornament that would symbolize an aspect of Jesus’ life.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” One could easily make a loaf of bread out of salt-dough, bake it and paint it. Jesus fed the five thousand. A salt-dough fish would make a nice ornament. Jesus gave his life on the cross. A salt-dough cross could become a special ornament to remind us of the great gift of the resurrection.

The parables could be made into symbolic ornaments by choosing one aspect of the story. The parable of the Wheat and the Tares could be made with several grains of wheat and dried weeds. The parable of the Lost Coin could be shown with a coin on a string. It would be a creative and instructive family time. For a while, during the season, the focus would be in the right place.

We will always have Charles Dickens’ ghosts to plague us about our own Christmas experiences. The past is gone, and the present is the only time we can make the future a wonderful place. Family traditions are the key to making that happen.  end mark

Yevet Crandell Tenney is a Christian columnist who loves American values and traditions. She writes about faith, family and freedom.