Christmas is my favorite time of year for a variety of reasons. I love the music, the TV shows and movies, the general feeling of good will, and all that other gooey stuff. However, it may be the family traditions surrounding Christmas that make it so … Christmasy. If you look at them from an objective perspective, most traditions are meaningless. But the meaning WE attach to them is all that really matters, right? It’s fun to do the same thing year after year as if the order of the cosmos somehow depends on it.
The Johnsons participate in many of the predictable American traditions that y’all probably do: Christmas Eve church service, Elf on a Shelf, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” reading “Twas the Night Before Christmas” at bedtime, opening packages Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve (or vice versa), and so on.
But we also do our own weird stuff, so without further adieu, here are my Top 10 Christmas Traditions. I’d love to read about yours in the comment sections, please. In fact, I insist. That’ll be your Christmas gift to me.
10. The 6:30 Wake-Up Rule. My parents used to require us to wait until it was light outside before we got up Christmas morning. When I was about 10, I famously convinced my older brother and sister that it was “definitely getting light” at around 3:45 a.m one Christmas. I guess it didn’t occur to any of us Einsteins to look at a clock. Due to the Wrath of Dad I incurred that morning, I would later institute an easy-to-understand TIME rule for my own kids: 6:30 a.m., no sooner. Watches are synchronized the night before as if for a top-secret military operation. Although these days, my teenagers would prefer to sleep in, our 9-year-old, Pete, still gets us all up EXACTLY at 6:30. He’s probably been laying there staring at the clock since 2 a.m. No joke.
9. Listening to the True Value Hardware Christmas CD. Many years ago, my wife, Holly, picked up a promotional Christmas CD at the True Value Hardware store in my small hometown of West Jefferson, N.C., back when they still did stuff like that. We still have the CD and it is hands-down the greatest compilation CD of Christmas music ever, featuring the likes of Frank Sinatra, Kenny Rogers, Dean Martin, John Denver and The Muppets, Eartha Kitt, and other musical luminaries. Who needs MCA, Capital Records, or Warner Bros. when you’ve got True Value Hardware, right? (The problem now is, we’ve got to find a CD player.)
8. Gifts from pets and other animals. Somehow, the various cats, fiddler crabs, geckos, stuffed animals, and even area wildlife keep getting credit for giving Christmas gifts to human family members. It’s right there on the tag so it must be so.
“To Dad, From Mr. Crabs,” it might say.
I’m very skeptical that Mr. Crabs managed to escape his terrarium long enough to order me a Titans sweatshirt from Amazon, but I guess it’s possible. (He clearly got a hold of Holly’s debit card with his one giant claw.) This year, my son, Sam, is receiving a package from “The Deer in the Yard Outside,” who can, amazingly, write very flowery script with their hooves. I honestly didn’t know they had any kind of relationship with Sam whatsoever, but I guess I’m out of the loop. Even Sticker Dog, Pete’s longtime favorite stuffed animal (that we only recently noticed is actually a lion), gives a gift each year.
7. The attempt and ultimate failure of launching other new Christmas traditions. As a parent, you’re always aware that the clock is ticking on your kids remaining kids. Because of this, Holly and I have tried to launch several traditions in an attempt to create fun memories for the kids (and us) and things the kids can eventually pass down to their kids. Some, as evidenced by the rest of this list, have stuck. Many haven’t.
- We tried riding around town after church on Christmas Eve, listening to music and looking at lights, each Johnson with their own bowl of popcorn. This lasted about three years before fizzling out, which I’m still mad about.
- We’ve lived in several different houses since having children, so we’ve never been clear on where Santa would leave the stockings and at what point during the Christmas morning routine we would explore them. Each Christmas brings a brisk debate about this and there’s never a consensus on what we did last year. I guess this actually IS a tradition in some warped way.
- We’ve never been able to settle on which church to attend for Christmas Eve services, and which service to go to, due to our nomadic attendance of multiple churches. I’m sure this makes God roll His eyes and shake His head.
- We’ve tried to institute a “The Christmas Story” watching tradition, but we can never devote two solid hours to this task, so everybody watches bits and pieces of it on their own during its 24-hour run on TBS. Does anyone actually watch it all the way through, start to finish?
6. My Christmas Eve visit to Walgreen’s for Holly’s stocking stuff. Sure, I could get her stocking stuff at any number of places, order through Amazon, whatever, but for some reason, it’s just not Christmas unless I visit Walgreen’s, often on Christmas Eve afternoon. There’s something undeniably pleasant about carrying around one of those red plastic baskets and trying not to let the lipstick I painstakingly selected fall out the grated bottom. Eventually, I solved this by getting her Penny Press Puzzle Book and People Magazine and putting them in first, thereby creating a solid bottom to keep the cosmetics from falling through. Then, in go the rest of the goodies: fluffy socks, fingernail clippers, hair bows, mixed nuts, and candy that I like more than she does.
5. Me being ticked off about the Christmas tree. Some of you may know that I grew up on a North Carolina Christmas tree farm. Not only did we grow the trees, but from the time I was a baby, we also sold them on lots in the Raleigh, N.C., area. It was a shock when, 26 years ago, I moved to Nashville to become a famous songwriter (didn’t happen) and had to start BUYING Christmas trees every year. It was just too far to drive back to N.C. to get one from my dad’s farm. Each year since, I torment whatever young salesman or woman has the unfortunate luck to have to help me on whatever stupid, poorly managed tree lot I end up at. The trees are sub-standard, cut way too soon, tied onto the roof of the minivan incorrectly, and grossly overpriced, and I, being a superior Christmas tree intellectual, let everyone know it. Un. Bee. LIEVABLE!
4. Orange rolls Christmas morning. Again, and as most traditions go, I can’t remember how this got started. After the initial frenzy and euphoria over the kids discovering what Santa (the unwrapped presents) brought at exactly 6:30 and 45 seconds a.m., I head to the kitchen, make coffee, and warm up the oven for orange rolls. Now, there’s a zillion different choices we could make for what to eat first Christmas morning, but this particular tradition is non-negotiable and must be followed carefully, lest the entire holiday implode. It must be orange rolls. After that, all bets are off and we are free to consume whatever crapola we choose.
3. Folk-artsy Snowman Chalkboard Countdown Sign. This one happened by accident. One year, we found this (pictured above) folk-artsy snowman holding a “how many days ’til Christmas” chalkboard at some crafty store, and without mentioning it to the kids, I began the countdown in curly, festive lettering. The next morning, either Sam or Ava spotted the sign and said, “Look! Santa snuck in last night and wrote the numbers on the Frosty chalkboard!” Holly and I just looked at each other. Crap! I had inadvertently launched a tradition that would have me sneaking around late at night with a damp paper towel and a dull piece of chalk for the next millennium.
2. Holly’s anal approach to gifts and gift opening. In these days, a family of five is a pretty big family. Things get confusing, especially when you’ve got Parent Brain, so some organization is required. All that said, my wife takes it a bit too far. She creates a legit, color-coded Excel spreadsheet within which she keeps a listing of potential and actual gifts per person, who is giving what, whether the gift has been purchased or not, wrapped or not, projected price versus actual, and on and on. I’m not sure John Nash (look him up) could decipher this document. On Christmas morning itself, Holly divides wrapped packages into five piles that go at the feet of each giftee so that presents will be opened in the correct order, the most impressive gift being saved for last. When each gift is opened, the discarded wrap must be immediately deposited into a trash bag to avoid having the Christmas Tree Area becoming a disaster zone. Afterwards, Holly rewards herself with approximately three solid days of intense devotion to her new puzzle book and nobody had better disturb this, buddy.
And my No. 1 Christmas Tradition…
1. Rudolph’s Inexplicable Christmas Eve Pajama Delivery. At some point when our older kids were little, Rudolph (I don’t need to finish the rest of his name) strangely began making Christmas Eve deliveries of pajamas during our evening church services. To this day, when we arrive home from church Christmas Eve, wrapped boxes containing stylish new PJs have been magically placed where the kids can find them, which causes great excitement and makes for good photo ops. I’m not really sure how this all happened, though. Nowhere in the TV show does Burl Ives mention Rudolph making solo pajama deliveries only to the Johnson household on the busiest night of the year. Frankly, I’m surprised Santa allows him run out to do this at all, in light of the fact that Kringle comes off as such an unfeeling cotton-headed ninny muggins in that TV show. Shouldn’t Rudolph be carbing up, stretching out, and going over GPS coordinates with the rest of the team right about then? You would think, but he nonetheless doesn’t miss a delivery and the Johnsons enjoy new pajamas for yet another year. Merry Christmas and to all a good night!
Bonus: Check out the Christmas song I wrote and recorded in 1993, “My Family Christmas Tree.” It was released to country radio that year and shot straight to No. 258 on the charts.
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