As I write this, my husband is putting up the Christmas tree.  For everyone who stands aghast at the thought of putting up the Christmas tree before Christmas, I agree with you completely.  That’s right.  It’s not Christmas yet.  It’s Advent, a penitential season and time of preparation for the coming of Christ–both His Second Coming and the remembrance and reliving through the liturgical year of His birth as a baby.  Christmas BEGINS on December 25th.  It ends on the feast of the Epiphany, 12 days later, and in our family, we celebrate all 12 days.  It’s fun to be Catholic.  We party a lot. 

To get back to the tree, last year and the year before, we put up our Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and kept it up through the 12 days of Christmas.  We also put outside lights up on Christmas Eve and kept them lit through all 12 days.  No doubt, most of our neighbors thought our calendar was off by a couple weeks. 

This year, my husband decided to use our Christmas tree as a Jesse tree.  For more information about what a Jesse tree is and how to make one, go to http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/activities/view.cfm?id=545.  The children will be coloring the Jesse tree pictures and gluing them to a cardboard backing and hanging them on the tree every Sunday.  The lights are going on the tree today, but they won’t be turned on until Christmas.  On Christmas Eve, we’ll add the Christmas ornaments to the Jesse tree ornaments.

There’s a wonderful book called Three Steps to a Strong Family that I read years ago.  The first step is a system of well-thought-out family laws.  The second step is creating a family economy.  The third step is building strong family traditions.  I think my husband has started a neat new family tradition today.

Speaking of family traditions, somewhere between 5 and 8 years ago, we decided that our immediate family would stop exchanging presents on Christmas Day and instead exchange them on the Feast of the Epiphany.  That has really been wonderful for several reasons.  First, the focus of Advent isn’t on shopping.  It’s on preparing for Christmas on a spiritual and a familial level.  Second, the focus of Christmas Day isn’t getting presents (well, to some extent–more about that in a minute).  Third, and this is from a purely material standpoint, we can buy whatever presents we don’t make from the After-Christmas sales.  Now, this sounds great (to us anyway) in theory, but the fact is that our extended family wanted to stick with their traditions, and we want to be a part of that as well, so in the end, we do spend Christmas Day with my family or his family, and we exchange presents, which also means that we prepare for present-giving during Advent.  After all, treating our families with love and respect is more important than our ideals for gift giving and Christmas.  It will be interesting to see what Christmas traditions our children and their families have in another 20 years.

While we’re on the subject of presents and traditions, my husband’s family has another neat tradition.  In an effort to avoid making Christmas a materialistic panacea, they started the tradition of Chinese auctions for Christmas years ago.  Here’s how it works.  Everybody brings a couple wrapped presents.  They can be from one’s home, from garage sales, handmade items, or other inexpensive items that would be of interest to at least a few of the people there.  Next, everybody there draws a number from a hat.  The person who has the number 1 starts, choosing the first wrapped present.  None of the presents have names on them.  He opens it, and it’s his.  The person with the number 2 goes next.  He has the choice of either choosing and opening another present or taking the present from the person who went before him.  It’s barrels of fun with lots of opportunities for practicing the virtue of detachment.  No one goes to much expense, and spending time together having fun and enjoying each other’s company is placed on a much higher level than what the items are.

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