As Christmas draws closer, I can’t help but think of the many holiday traditions my family has generally followed over the years. Some are strange, some are widely shared, but they’re all unique markers of how we spend our time together marking the birth of Christ.

Perhaps the most fleeting tradition was when my brother and I were younger, and our parents would affix bells to our bedroom doors on Christmas Eve. It was an early-warning system for Santa to scramble back up the chimney, or at least alert my parents that someone was trying to sneak a peek into their stockings or get a glimpse of any new presents under the tree.

Another staple of Christmas was always finding the right red cedar in some forgotten corner of a pasture, where it had escaped fire just long enough to be cut down, hauled home and adorned with ornaments. In addition to adding a festive fragrance, it was always the center of attention on Christmas morning with a bounty of gifts beneath its branches.

Of course, the tree hunt itself was a tradition prone to the occasional hiccup, like the time we got stuck before finding the perfect tree. I was young enough I don’t remember all the particulars of exactly how we got stuck, I just know the winch on my father’s Toyota FJ40 wasn’t enough to break us free.

We sat there for what seem like hours as he walked to my grandparents’ house to fetch my grandfather and a tractor. He might have been gone all of 30 minutes before returning with his head a little lower. My grandfather, however, was grinning ear to ear knowing the story would become fodder around the dinner table for years to come.

Stories weren’t the only traditions around the table either. Every Christmas Eve featured shrimp cocktail for dinner, a legacy from my mother’s family. The next night, prime rib was the ritual delicacy.  

I know most of these customs are shared widely, with the exception of the shrimp cocktail, and I recognize how fortunate I am to have a family with the time and resources to devote to such endeavors. As a kid, I equated Christmas with gift-giving because that’s what kids do.

Now that I’m older and have a family of my own, I’ve come to treasure not the gifts themselves, rather the time together they represent. I’ve forgotten most of the toys, clothes and other tokens I’ve received over the years, save for a smattering of sentimental gifts. While gift giving is still a central tradition, I’m more interested in seeing the reactions of others opening their gifts.

I’m also more cognizant of the work necessary for traditions to develop and flourish. Like everything else, Christmas as I know it didn’t just happen. My parents, with my mom doing the heavy lifting, spent countless hours planning, shopping, cooking, baking, wrapping and organizing to make those traditions happen.

I count these moments among the greatest gifts I’ve received. My wife and I have passed down some unchanged, mixed others from both our families and created some out of whole cloth. This year may require some tweaks to certain traditions, but it’s also a good opportunity to reflect on what’s important and evaluate if anything could be improved upon.

While we will still exchange gifts, this year has made me ever more thankful for our traditions. Even if they will be modified, it’s a reminder that presence is far more rewarding than presents. For that, I’m forever grateful for the gift of tradition.