Celebrate Christmas, Traditionally

 Sitting on the floor with the musical nativity on her lap, my granddaughter listens in wonder and tries to sing along with the songs it plays. Tiny shoulders sway as she dances, oddly enough, to the tune of We Three Kings.

I love Christmas and delight in watching my grandchildren learn to love it as well. Probably because of this, my home is full of various nativity sets. Most are child friendly and give me plenty of opportunity to tell the story to young, listening ears.

This story must be passed down, it is WHY we celebrate. But HOW we celebrate is as varied as one family is to the next. Traditions are often why we anticipate Christmas with eager excitement. This is a good thing.

We serve a God who loves tradition. The Bible is full of stories of his people doing special things to help them remember and to celebrate how God worked in their past. Few events in history are as momentous as the Christmas story. 

For generations, traditions have helped mark the celebration of Christmas. Some are typical to a culture, others more to individual families.

My mother is Puerto Rican. As a young woman living on the island, she remembers the time of celebration focused more on Epiphany—aka Three Kings’ Day, the 6th of January, or as the memory testing Christmas song goes, the 12th day of Christmas. 

On the eve of Three Kings’ Day, children would collect piles of grass and fill a box with this food for the camels. When the Kings rode by on their way to visit the newborn king, the camels needed to eat. In appreciation, the Kings would leave gifts in the box—after the hungry camels silently snuck into the children’s rooms, and somehow pulled the boxes from beneath the children’s beds without waking them and consumed the collected “hay”.

As a young person, living in Puerto Rico, I loved the tradition of “parandas”. My father, being a stern American, didn’t appreciate this one too much, so we weren’t allowed to participate as often as we liked—but still, just thinking about parandas makes me smile.

Mirroring the story of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem and finding no place in the inn, this five-week (or more) bit of cultural tradition reigns. It starts well into the night. A group of people get together with a variety of musical instruments, sneak onto the porch of a friend, then blast into song. Once the occupants of the home are awakened, they welcome the merry band of guests into their home as they wish Mary and Joseph had been welcomed. They provide something to eat and drink, everyone sings together, and then as many as can join the group and head to the next friend’s home. 

This goes on through the wee hours of the morning, with the band of singers growing larger and louder as they go. The songs are not always the soft, lilting carols we are accustomed to. With guitars and rhythm instruments, they tend to be lively, witty, and poetic. Impromptu verses sung solo demonstrate delightful humor while the rest of the group echoes the chorus between said verses. 

Puerto Ricans love to laugh, and they love music. This fills them with a healthy dose of both. Parandas are such a loved tradition, it is disappointing if no one awakens your household at least once during the season.

My husband’s family has an odd, fun, family tradition. No one knows for sure how far back it goes, or what inspired it. The aim is to be the first person to holler, “Christmas gift!” as soon as you see another person. The person with the most firsts in “Christmas gifting” the others gets—well, we never really get anything–aside from the joy of hearing another person moan because they forgot or were too slow to speak. Since all the brothers, sisters, and grandchildren (traditionally) got together at my in-laws’ home for a late Christmas breakfast, it became a very competitive and laughter filled affair.

Over the last few years we have added yet another tradition to our family’s celebration. For anyone that knows the Gates clan, you know that we love to play with words. Hence was inspired the Gates Family Pun-off.

After the gifts have been exchanged and the food devoured, each person fills out a strip of paper with a word, puts the strip in a basket, and then proceed. 

Starting with two people (pairs drawn at random, except for younger kids who are matched with their age group) they are given a word from the basket and have to take turns coming up with puns within an allotted time. Back and forth it goes until one of them can’t pun anymore. On to the next pair, and finally winners against winners until we have the final pun-off champion.

As Christmas draws near, I would love to hear about your special ways of celebrating the day. Do you have any cultural or personal Christmas traditions? Please share!

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