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See our guest post at the New America Foundation: Equality and Justice for All Families.


Growing a Holiday Tradition

on November 29th, 2012 at 12:53:10 AM
A Book to Look For: 

by Heidi L. Brennan

We all look forward to the day in early December when the children eagerly clear space on our family room bookshelves and transport our Christmas books from their storage spot on a high cupboard shelf.  Piles of holiday books land on the dining room table and kids begin sorting.  They create personal stacks which include both those books they recognize as their own and those which are favorites from among the general family ones.  Each child settles down to pore over beloved illustrations or text while I rummage through the collection, selecting my favorites to read aloud later in the evening.

A child holds up a beloved illustration to be appreciated by the others, another reads aloud a choice line from a humorous story.  At this point those who are not yet readers beg me to read certain stories, arguing about who gets to be first for a mom read-aloud.  When I ask my older children to help out they are likely to roll their eyes because they are deep into their own favorites.  After all, these books are like dear friends who have been with them off and on in their life journeys.  They may have been read a hundred times, but who has ever had too many conversations with a best friend?

I have learned to schedule this big day when our holiday books come out. All other activities come to a halt as we enjoy our book reunion and mom begins reading. Together we chuckle over cute mice and flying cows.  Pictures and descriptions of different holiday customs inspire us, and our mouths water at the sight of hot cider and cookies. Things grow quiet as we take in the humility of the manger scene, no matter how it is illustrated.  And each child knows to pass a tissue to me when my voice gets, well, husky, as I read a particularly moving passage.

Sixteen years ago, when my oldest child was seven months old, I wondered how to celebrate his first Christmas. I thought about my own favorite childhood memories and talked with other mothers.  I was eager to initiate our own family’s traditions, yet, Charlie was too young to anticipate holidays and to understand the rituals I loved.  Instead he anticipated the sight of me and my husband, and the warm feeling of being held.  I remember realizing that my baby didn’t want anything material, yet I yearned to provide him with some special gifts that expressed my joy for having this child.

Our budget was very limited and my husband and I agreed not to exchange gifts.   I managed a little tree with a few simple decorations and thought about how to spend the small amount I set aside for Charlie’s gifts.  I found three toys that I thought he would enjoy, but focused my search on a Christmas book, even though he was a several months away from becoming interested in turning pages.  One of my favorite traditions as a child had been receiving the gift of a special book.  Many of the books I was given were exquisitely illustrated literary classics.  Faced with choosing a book for Charlie, I discovered there were many wonderful Christmas books, and so I decided that our tradition would focus on holiday theme books. 

Every year since, each child in our family has received at least one special Christmas book. In addition to those that I find, grandmothers, aunts, and friends also send our family wonderful additions to our collection. Our books range from religious and classic stories to celebration traditions, storybooks about Christmas, and others that are simply winter in theme.  We also enjoy differently illustrated renditions of the same story.  

In addition, early in December, we make a trip to our library and borrow new books to try out and also to expand our understanding of celebrations around the world.  Books about Hanukkah help my children understand and appreciate our Jewish friends' celebration and also help them begin to understand the Judaic roots of our faith.

At a hectic time of year, choosing these treasures helps me to focus on our family in a private, quiet way.  First, I consider whether any of the books borrowed from the library resonate with one of the children.  I pore over specialty book catalogs, and then arrange to spend a couple of hours alone in my favorite children’s bookstore. In giving these books to our children, I am giving them to myself to enjoy over and over again.  Discovering new favorites and re-reading old ones has become an instrumental part of my own personal holiday preparation and celebration. 

As important as these books are to all of us, I also realize that perhaps the most important part of this tradition is the process of reading them together. Our shared memories of sitting on the sofa with each other, or even each child’s quiet reflection alone with a special book is the heart of this tradition.  Our family relationships have been nurtured through our shared reading time.  Creating our holiday bookshelf, and taking time together to read our cherished books fulfills one of the essential elements of homemaking – creating emotional, psychological, and spiritual home. 

© 2000 by Heidi Brennan