For the years I’ve lived away, Christmas always began when I made my annual pilgrimage home. That bus, train, or flight to rejoin Mum and Dad from wherever I was that year meant the beginning of rest and quiet, the opportunity to sleep in longer and live at a slower pace, even if only for a week.

My family is quite small, but even we — my parents, my brother and I— approach our Christmas dinner with a kind of serious joy that no other meal receives. Crackers are pulled, silly jokes read aloud, and of course, bright paper hats are compulsory. One time my flight arrived into Gatwick on Christmas Eve. But even that year, like every year, I made it home for Christmas dinner.

This year however, will be my first away from home. Far, far away in fact, for I am spending this Christmas in New Zealand with my girlfriend and her family. As I grow older and move into new seasons of life, I am acutely aware of how Christmas traditions change depending on whom you’re with and where you are.

In keeping with tradition

Our traditions tell us about ourselves. They’re a kind of microcosm. What we do on occasions like Christmas often represents that which we value the most. For example though gift-giving is a good thing, if we value money and material goods above all else it can become distorted by losing its personal element. A gift can turn loveless and obligatory, even competitive. If giving more and more gifts starts to feel arbitrary, maybe it would be better for us to prioritise giving ourselves, giving our loving presence to one other.

It is better to value one’s family the highest. There is something so beautiful about harmonious get-togethers of relatives across the generations; grandmothers, uncles, nieces, brothers and mothers, all sat around the table laughing. Nonetheless, this kind of unity is often sadly lacking, and sometimes Christmas-time is a particularly sore reminder of that. Notice, all the same, how communal are so many of our traditions; perhaps an indication that we are, at some deeper level, made to be together and not alone.

Those of us who practice Christmas as a Christian festival have, or ought to have, slightly different values. We celebrate the giving to the world of God’s Son, Jesus, and our own gift-giving is an image that reflects this, the greatest gift. Likewise, our family gatherings reflect the way in which Jesus, God incarnate, invites us to belong in His divine family with perfect acceptance and love. Gift-giving and family gatherings remain important, but they receive a greater significance.

Custom made

As we grow older, becoming increasingly independent and responsible for ourselves, we are now the ones who must choose our own traditions. And those choices represent our values and our priorities. We can, of course, continue on with traditions we received from our parents. These will be especially precious. But we can also invent new ones. I personally look forward to joining with and learning from my girlfriend’s family.

As Christmas approaches, look back on your past experiences. Which are the traditions you want to carry on this year? Which don’t you, perhaps because they no longer have meaning? And which could you yourself inaugurate; ones which you, your children, and maybe your grandchildren will come to cherish? Finally, if you call yourself a Christian, how might the story of Jesus’ coming to the world, the Christmas tradition, shape your own traditions?

To read more from Alex, you can visit his blog The Coffeehouse Cleric