Life with Karen Kay - our family traditions

PUBLISHED: 10:07 20 December 2013 | UPDATED: 10:12 20 December 2013

Karen Kay

Karen Kay


It’s the little things that make this time of year so special and comforting, Karen decides, whether it’s the lighting of candles or annual Monopoly marathon

Is there any time of year more laden with ritual than Christmas? Anyone who marks the date in their calendar with familial gatherings and gifts, regardless of their faith, has inevitably accrued traditions large and small over the years.

Stir-up Sunday, the mixing of festive mincemeat for puddings and pies, is a tradition in many households, while other secular customs such as the hanging of stockings, the feasting on turkey, sprouts and chocolate logs, the pulling of crackers and the pantomimes are an integral part of our seasonal celebrations.

For those who immerse themselves in the celebration of the Virgin birth, it starts with Advent and the symbolic lighting of candles on the four Sundays preceding Christmas Day, culminating in Midnight Mass, a service that remembers the nativity and the birth of Jesus. Infant schools across the land perform versions of the nativity – though in this era of multi-culturalism and political correctness, we are just as likely to witness a cacophony of confused five year olds acting out an Alien drama as an interpretation of a Bible story.

In churches in different parts of the world, they may fast, or wear symbolic robes, display wreaths, or hold special musical celebrations. For children, the religious significance of the Advent calendar may or may not be familiar, but it is doubtless part of almost every family’s life in the Western world.

As a small child, I loved the simple, numbered doors that opened each day during December to reveal a colourful scene, but they’ve been usurped by heavily branded, sugar-saturated versions that are a cue for the tone of the rest of the festive season. I’m sure as a sweet-toothed five-year-old, I would have loved the opportunity to enjoy a daily dose of chocolate shaped as some cute cartoon character or animal. However – at the risk of yet another “It wasn’t like that when I was a kid and it never did me any harm” comment – it feels painfully commercial and immoral to induce even more of an excited frenzy in the young than already exists thanks to the deluge of ‘must-have’ TV adverts that bombard them in the weeks before Christmas.

It is the small rituals that have evolved through the pattern of family life that make the festivities so memorable for each of us. It might be the ceremonial making of paper chains around the dining room table, or the youngest member of the family topping the tree with their handmade star. It could be a family gathering together to sign their names in Christmas cards to be despatched to far-flung corners of the Earth, or the leaving of shortbread and whisky on the hearth for Santa. For some, it may be a Christmas breakfast of smoked salmon and champagne that provides consistency throughout the years, or something more quirky – a unique family tribute to those not present, perhaps.

These constants in an ever-changing world provide all of us with something to hold close and share with the next generation. Whether it’s attending Midnight Mass together or a marathon game of Monopoly after the Queen’s Speech, they are as familiar and comforting as the backs of our own hands. And, as the family tree grows, intertwining its branches with those of others, we find these seasonal traditions evolving to create new rituals. The shortbread and whisky becomes gingerbread and port, with a snack for the reindeer. Santa begins leaving a note of thanks. And thus we create new rituals for our children to take forth.

I love the idea that we are nurturing history in our hands, and that shared, special moments become the backbone of this annual holiday. They are precious, and cannot be marketed in a big-budget TV advert, or wrapped under the tree. What are your rituals? How have you adapted your own childhood memories to form the foundations of new ones?

The promise of Christmas

In our family, like so many others, Christmas is riddled with the complex dynamics that come with geographical distance, divorce, and the desire to spend time with a wider circle of relatives as well as immediate family. I always feel blessed to share time with those I love, but find myself yearning for the company of my sister if she can’t be with us, or my parents if we are spending Christmas with my in-laws. And then, I feel guilty, constantly, about those less fortunate souls who have no-one to spend the festive season with. Or those for whom circumstances mean there will be no celebration. Every year, I vow to do my bit for those people: to volunteer, to donate, to do something. Anything. And every year, I find myself immersed in the enormous juggling act that is my own Christmas and fail to fulfil my promise. I am ashamed that my resolution has not come to fruition. Yet.

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