Ever since the kids were little, Christmas was the big thing. We have never been a Christian family, so we have never done the church services and associated Christian observances; Christmas for us was about Santa, the magic guy in red and white who had the power to give presents to every child in the world all in one night. It had always been for the children; to see their smiling happy faces when they woke to discover Santa had been.
Every year without fail, I was the one staying up till 3 am on Christmas Eve wrapping the last few presents, stuffing oranges into stockings and tip-toeing into bedrooms to place the stockings at the end of beds; freezing at every squeak of a door hinge or rustling from a sleeping form; then taking a bite from both Santa’s mince pie and Rudolph’s carrot, and drinking the milk (after all Santa couldn’t drink and drive, not if everyone gave him sherry, what fit state would he be in then). For over 10 years this went on, still with the traditional orange in the stocking, just the presents changing according to their increasing age.
It didn’t change, even when my eldest pulled me to one side one year and said that he no longer believed in Father Christmas; that he knew I did all the present leaving, after all “Santa couldn’t possibly deliver all those parcels in one night, that’s impossible, even with a Delorean”. He kept the secret going for his younger brother too; he never shattered the pretence.
Then three years ago that all changed. It all ground to a sudden halt. The illusion was finally shattered when my youngest, at the age of 10 suddenly spoke up and said he also did not believe in Father Christmas; he’d known for some time it was me all along; but he didn’t want to upset me by telling me that he knew! (Oh bless him; he was trying to stop me from getting heartbroken!).
It was a sad moment; my children were no longer little children. It was with wistful thoughts that I realised that was it, there would be no more. What were we to do now?
We don’t think about what will happen when our children no longer believe. Do we just carry on with the pretence? Seems a little silly playing Santa, when they know it’s you. But what do you do? Obviously being too young for grandchildren, and with no little ones in the house, what next? This is our family’s moment of ‘Oh no what do we do now?!’
So no more Santa; without that Christmas seemed a little pointless and hollow. It would seem a little forlorn now, the yearly ritual of Santa-pretend gone, and not having a religious meaning to fall back on, left it all rather adrift.
The only consolation I could smile about was at the thought that I’d no longer spend Christmas Day being dog-tired; there’d be no more beavering away into the small hours, crawling into bed when the birds are starting to wake, falling to blissful sleep, only to be woken by excited whooping, shouting and the sound of maniacal paper ripping a few short hours later. I would miss it, but I was glad I would no longer be a Christmas Day Zombie.
Starting our own Traditions
It was not until a few weeks later that it suddenly occurred to me, that we didn’t have to mourn the passing of Santa into nothingness, we could start our own traditions. So we all sat down and had a brain storm.
Having always been interested in old traditions, we had always celebrated the Winter Solstice, (some four days before Christmas Day), by enjoying a “Christmas” dinner on the solstice. Yes a double whammy of feasting delight! The Winter Solstice is after all the longest night, and hence forth the days will steadily begin their slow lengthening to their fullest at the Summer Solstice, a countdown until summer.
So out of this, our new family Christmas tradition was born. Now our Christmas is spread over 5 festive days beginning on the Solstice and ending Christmas Day, (Boxing Day is a well earned rest day and New Year’s we’ve never really bothered with, beyond occasionally watching Big Ben strike midnight then going straight to bed!).
Just Five Presents
I had never held with withholding big presents until Christmas, for example if a bike was needed and could be afforded it was brought during the year, rather than buying it and hiding it till Christmas Day.
So instead of a present frenzy which is utterly spent within an half an hour all on one day, we now buy 5 presents, yes just 5, for each member of the family, (so each member gets five presents each, one from each family member, not including the usual pressie horde from grandparents, aunts, uncles and assorted relatives).
The rules were simple, spend no more than £20 per present and buy five presents for each person. These presents can be anything, they can be the latest DVD or video game, or they can be a funky pair of socks, or a homemade book or ornament. Some must be at least useful in some way to the recipient.
If presents are brought before December, they’re wrapped and put in the present box (a box which is stashed away from easy sight). The tree usually goes up 2 weeks into December now (no more mid November Christmas tree decorating) and then put under the tree, it certainly makes a better sight than a lonely looking Christmas tree with no presents underneath it.
Celebrating the Solstice
Present unwrapping begins on the Winter Solstice; it is oddly satisfying listening to the hustle and bustle of everybody else rushing around doing their pre-Christmas shopping while we’re sitting enjoying a roast dinner with all the trimmings, crackers and party hats.
At the start of Winter Solstice each person is allowed to open one “family” present each day; though it normally ends up being at least three if other presents have arrived from relatives and friends. Repeating this each day until the finale on Christmas Day when the final climatic present unwrapping bonanza occurs.
Boxing Day onwards is a time of rest, and a time when other family members visit, usually bringing more presents.
So what does Christmas mean for us now?
When the kids grew beyond believing in Santa it left a little void, as it marked the passing of my children into the beginnings of young adult hood. A paradoxical mix of sadness and joy. We have turned that around and given it revived meaning for our family. It always was about family for us, we just did not realise it. Spending time with those we love and enjoying their company, giving silly presents and eating till our tummies are fit to burst is Christmas for us. Now that we get to do this twice in five days is an added bonus!
It has worked surprisingly well so far, and we’ll be doing our fourth year this Christmas.
So what would I suggest for families who feel lost after their children stop believing in Father Christmas and are left wondering what next? Call a family meeting and talk about it. Discuss what everyone thinks and come up with a new consensus about what Christmas means to your family, and then work out a plan of action from there. Why not start your own family traditions?
Amanda Williams is a stay at home mum and home educator of two teenage boys. They live in leafy Surrey with their cat, dog and gerbil.