Some parents deplore it, but I must admit that I enjoy the little greedfest which heralds the start of the Christmas season in our house. For weeks before the big day, the kids call from in front of the TV to show me Barbie this or Power Rangers that. Of course, Mom and Dad pooh-pooh that sort of stuff, but Santa is a big softie who tends to indulge children just a little. I don’t find this the least incompatible with the real meaning of Christmas, unless one is slavishly consumeristic. Santa’s excesses, like everyone else’s, are driven by the joy of Christ’s birth and the need to celebrate in a big way. So for me, the wicked, thrilling, greedy weeks before Christmas are as much a part of the season as baking cookies.

For each family, there are different elements of the Christmas season which define the holiday. There are specific decorations, gatherings and menus which must be observed for us to feel right. The various rituals, although shared in many ways with all of Christianity, are also personal and reflect the individuality of our families.

Most children in our part of the world hang up a Christmas stocking, but in each household, those stockings will have certain requirements, such as an apple or orange, or a special kind of candy. In our family, the kids expect to find a mini box of cereal, of all things. What started out as a weird idea evolved into a favourite find on Christmas morning.

There are traditions which are totally unique to a particular family. They spring from distant memories of ethnic customs or from more practical sources, as does our Edith, the Pyjamas Fairy. Edith arrived when I was a young child, although she was not named nor really defined until years later. Every Christmas Eve, she slips into the bedrooms of all the children and leaves them brand new pyjamas.

She still comes to my kids, who spy to try and catch her in the act. So far, she’s proven she’s magic, for she’s never been caught. Once her gifts have been discovered, the kids are suddenly eager to get ready for bed. This little custom really sets the wheels in motion for the Big Night. Our four little believers are beside themselves with excitement and anticipation, and come the morning, they are quite presentable for the requisite photos.

While the excitement of Christmas Present is itself a tradition, some of the best elements of this special holiday are the links with the past. On a small slip of paper, handwritten in pencil, is my grandmother’s recipe for shortbread cookies. It’s a recipe I’ve never found anywhere else, and if I had any sense I’d transcribe it on a recipe card. But I love to see it, to handle the yellowed paper, year after year. If I bake nothing else, I always make sure to make at least one batch of these cookies. Not just because they’re delicious, and they are, but because for uncountable years, they have been a part of our family Christmas.

Through the favourite customs and traditions which characterize each family’s Christmas, we gain a sense of what family really is. The multi-generational connection which is not limited by mortality. Those who have died remain present in the sounds and smells and tastes which return year after year. The pathetic-looking Santas and elves and manger figurines which have survived for decades against all odds are beautiful because we remember when they were new and special. They are a link to Christmases past.

Yet rarely are things stagnant. Most years there’s something new hanging on the tree or glittering in the window. Those will become little bits of nostalgia in years to come. The constancy of Christmas comforts while allowing for growth and change.

Couples starting out bring bits of custom and tradition into their new marriage like a kind of DNA. A little from this side, a little from that…and a new family tradition is born from the old. Before they realize it, they’re ten years married, preparing their children for Christmases Future.