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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ask The Matriarch: I'm dreaming of ... Christmas

Only 50+ days until Christmas - today's question is about how to have family traditions when Christmas falls on the weekend and family lives at a distance. A pastor's dilemma.

I've been at this a while, but my family and I have yet to come up with a satisfactory solution: how to celebrate Christmas. Not the church part. Our extended family lives about 5-6 hours away. In a year when Christmas falls conveniently, like on a Monday, say, we'll go and spend the week with them and return to preach and lead worship the following Sunday. In years like this, when Christmas falls on a Thursday, well, what do you do? I think I'm craving a family tradition but have been unable to come up with something. Any wisdom?
Dreaming of Christmas

We make Christmas a moveable feast! I always like the idea of the 12 days of Christmas - so when the 25th conflicts with our family celebration - we move it to another day. Being from a Norwegian immigrant family, our tradition was that the table is spread from Christmas Eve to Epiphany on January 6. Here are some other ideas from our Matriarchs and Panel of Experts:

Matriarch earthchick responds:
The only answer I have found is to schedule some vacation time. I always save a few days of vacation to begin the day after Christmas and to continue at least through the Sunday after Christmas. This includes when Christmas Day falls early in the week - I find it hard to celebrate with family if I am still having to plan worship and a sermon for the following Sunday. Our family all lives 800 miles away, so the only way to have any time with them is to take vacation - but I would probably do it even if they were only a few hours away. I know of some churches that close the offices for the week between Christmas and New Year's, and give the whole staff those days off. This doesn't address the issue of Sunday worship, but I do think it's a very humane way of treating staff who have put in many hours during Advent and don't usually have the freedom to travel until Christmas Eve services are over.

Jacque came upon a solution after years of struggle:
I have struggled with this for my entire ministry. There have been times that we did the Christmas Eve Service and then hit the road to travel to my Mom's home (5-12 hours, depending on the location of the church I was serving). Or we drove it all on Christmas Day which was not very satisfying. Or we just did not see each other at Christmas.

However in just the last 3 years, our family has found a wonderful solution! It started with the realization that we ALL like to spend Christmas Day at our own homes. For my sister with young children, home is best. For my Mom, staying at home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, makes it possible for her to participate in her own church services. For my husband and myself, it makes Christmas Eve and Christmas Day more peaceful if we are able to focus on Church services and our community here. THEN on the day after Christmas, we all travel to our cabin in the Arkansas Ozarks. Mom comes from Memphis. My sister and family come from Kansas City. We come from St. Louis. We fire up the woodstove, and have several days of playing games, reading, working puzzles, talking, exchanging gifts, fixing simple meals -- no huge Christmas spread -- just our favorite things. Last year as we all arrived around the dusk the day after Christmas, the snow was just beginning to fall. The kids had a great time in it while we hung stockings on the mantle and put up a small tree.

We've decided that the day after Christmas is our solution. I get someone else to preach the Sunday after Christmas and the congregation doesn't mind. They're all ready to relax, too.


NJ Soprano for Jesus writes:
Years ago, when the kids started to get married, we said to them, "Look, here's the deal: You can be anywhere you want/need to be for Christmas, but EVERYONE comes home for 'Little Christmas' aka 'The Epiphany' on (the Sunday nearest) January 6th."

Now that there are grandbabies, it works even better. We get to say to the kids, "Stay home. Be with your babies on Christmas morning. Come and be with us after the madness and the pressure on (the Sunday nearest) January 6th" The bonus is that we don't have to shop for them until AFTER the Christmas rush and get things at 50 - 75% off the pre-Christmas mark up.

The additional benefit is that our kids are deeply grateful that we don't add to the pull and tug of family holiday insanity - and, in the NE Corridor - the additional threat of driving in bad holiday traffic and in bad weather. It's like the best Christmas present we could give them - But wait! There's more! There's actual presents (albeit ones that have been bought during the after-Christmas sales)!

It's win-win all around.

Wise layperson celebrates for weeks!
We have up to four Christmas celebrations each year.

In mid-December we get together with friends and have our annual holiday party (complete with tree, food, gifts, storytelling, music, and generally goofiness). Some combination of these friends have been getting together every year for coming up on 20 years.

Christmas eve we usually have our housemate's extended-blended family over for more food, more people to admire the tree, presents for the kids, stories (the Grinch who Stole Christmas makes an annual appearance in a reading by our housemate's brother, with the kids acting out the various parts while wearing their new pyjamas).

Christmas day is usually just the four of us, but sometimes we have my brother and his family and my husbands brother over for brunch.

Then, sometime in January, we open the last few presents-- if weather permits, my husband's parents might come over the mountains and visit (usually we have a family gathering in October that serves as our Thanksgiving/Christmas/Birthday dinner since all the 'kids' have fall birthdays and any later than that and the weather on the passes becomes too unpredictable).

We set up our Advent candles every year beginning with the First Sunday of Advent I set up my natvity sets (four and counting) and hide the baby Jesus so he can be 'born' on Christmas. We read the relevant prayers each week. I keep them up through the Christmas season so the magi can complete their journey on the 12th day of Christmas.

This year we will be breaking with tradition and visiting my parents in Wyoming (or house sitting their cats, depending on how somethings outside of our control go). Our son asked to have Winter for Christmas-- and while I can't guarantee snow on Christmas day, it is certainly more likely to happen in Wyoming than in Seattle.

Long time rector says her congregations have always expected her to take the Sunday after Christmas off, sounds like a wise tradition:
I always take a week of vacation after Christmas and Easter – in no setting have I had the sense that anyone expected me to be in the pulpit the Sunday following Easter or Christmas – in fact one place saw it at comp time and not even part of my 4 Sundays of vacation! It’s hard not to be with family on Christmas itself but afterward it is always a really relaxing week. I do Christmas morning with my nuclear family and then on the 26th we travel to see extended family and they are kind enough to hold festivities a second time.

PS: keep your questions coming - ATM banks are empty after this question.


  1. ATM banks are empty - hope that's not prophetic!

    many churches seem to have stopped the Dec 25th service (including our Methodist one here!) and I hate that! Going to church on Christmas morning has always been important to me. We don't have a midnight service either - or on 24th unless that's on a Sunday. The argument has been (from our former pastor) that well no-one knows when Jesus really was born so why fuss?

    So I was lovely to read your thought of the 12 days of Christmas and from there find a different perspective :)

    Here in Finland 24th is more important family wise. We always go to our in laws (who are a 20 min walk away) and then we have one 'English style' Christmas meal here at home. I'm not too fussed if that's 25th or not.

    But I must say that this talk of Christmas in OCTOBER is a bit depressing. I'm still trying to work out what I'll do on Sunday for All Saint's Day (a big festival here on November 1st) ...

  2. My side of the family has had "Second Christmas" for years, since I started in ministry. Depending on the timing of Christmas, that might be the 26th, or the 27th...or, like this year, January 3rd. I've always done a Christmas Hymnsing the first Sunday of Christmas, which both gives me a break from preaching (and makes it much easier to find presiding supply if needed), and gives the congregation a chance to sing their favorite hymns, especially if some of those hymns didn't make an appearance on Christmas Eve or Day.

    I found that once the congregation knew I would be on vacation every year for about a week after Christmas, it was no problem at all. And it was great family time for me.

  3. while I lived away we moved Christmas to the 26th. ( This was the year when christmas day fell on Sunday) and so I traveled after church on Sunday and we celebrated the following day.
    I also took the following week off as it seemed to be somewhat calm at church.
    Still was not quite the same, so I am glad to be back closer to the family...
    Prayers for you in your distance and travel.

  4. One of the profiles I received recently listed that, in addition to the month of holidays (to include 5 Sundays) the minister also was entitled to the Sunday after Christmas and the Sunday after Easter off

    Oh and I sent in a query as well, yesterday. Hope it got to you...

  5. we celebrate christmas with my extended family (and the distance portion of it) the second weekend of advent! I'm not quite sure how it got started, but my mom's side of the family is very spread out. so we do it early so that everyone can be there. The nice part is that it is also the christmas canatata weekend at my grandpa's local church, so it's a wonderful way to get together. And it's easier taking a sunday like 2nd Advent off and traveling, then doing it right around christmas


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