Tradition runs deep in the Kelley family. You will find it expressed in many ways, but especially in our holiday celebrations. The meal menu is not casual or accidental: Turkey, cornbread dressing, and green rice, among other items, on Thanksgiving; Mexican food, always including tamales, on Christmas Eve, and a big Kelley breakfast of Egg Stuff and biscuits on Christmas morning. We would gather around the tree for a Christmas Eve program that included my Dad reading “The Night Before Christmas” and me reciting the true Christmas story from Luke 2. We always watched football on Thanksgiving Day. On Christmas morning the adults would linger around the table discussing whatever came up. That was where, on Christmas morning in 1978, our family learned the Conservative Resurgence would be launched six months later in June 1979, although that name for the movement did not come until it was well underway. You get the idea. Tradition runs deep in the Kelley family!
Rhonda faced quite a culture shock when she experienced her first Kelley Christmas. She learned we all wore the same outfit on Christmas Eve and took more family pictures than she could conceive. Her favorite annual Christmas pictures: the group photo of everyone with the initials CSK and the silly picture at the end with everyone making funny faces. Don’t get her started on Beaumont’s coldest ever Christmas Eve (10 degrees) when we were all wearing Hawaiian outfits as we ate Mexican food, or the time the guys (except my Dad) did all the Christmas pictures bare-chested (no kidding!). I was shocked to learn from Rhonda that every family in America did not eat Mexican food on Christmas Eve and do the things we did. Tradition runs deep in the Kelley family, and I assumed it was so for every family.
Time has an inevitable effect on all things, including holiday traditions. Some remain to this day. Some disappeared as the years rolled by. Some were altered or adjusted as life changed circumstances. New things were added along the way, such as family friend Vanee Daure, with deep south Louisiana roots, reading “A Cajun Night before Christmas,” the British custom of opening crackers before the Christmas feast, and listening with Rhonda to Patrick Stewart read “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens on our first drive of December. When tradition runs deep in your family, you find room to add more.
This year we have been reminded that even for those families where traditions run deep, some things are more important than traditions. Due to health challenges that developed for Rhonda’s Mother, Thanksgiving and Christmas look much different this year for our family. The schedule could not be planned in advance with precision. Some things never happened. Some were adjusted. Some are still up in the air. Our key words for this holiday season: uncertainty, flexibility, and determination. Determination because all are determined to enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas with or without the expected traditions. We celebrated with profound gratitude at Thanksgiving, and we have been glorying in the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas.
At our official celebration of Christmas with Rhonda’s family this weekend, I told the story behind the Christmas classic “O Holy Night.” A three-year old niece sitting next to me asked if we could stop and sing it together around the table. From there we sang other Christmas favorites, enjoying a very sweet moment doing something new for us. It was a vivid reminder that the expression of profound gratitude and the celebration of the coming of Christ into the world are what we truly celebrate each year, not our family traditions. We have had no complaints from family about was missing, but we have experienced deep joy in coming together to celebrate what God has done to create this distinctive family.
Ace Collins has written several books about the stories behind a wide variety of Christian songs and traditions. Nearly every Christmas I tell the story he records of an assistant priest in a small Austrian village high in the Alps in 1818. The annual Christmas Eve Mass was a highlight of the year in the village, but hours before it was to begin, Joseph Mohr discovered the organ was broken and unplayable in the extremely cold weather. Desperate to have some music for the service, Mohr remembered a poem he had written two years earlier. He found the poem among his papers and rushed to the organist to ask if he could compose some music and teach the choir to sing it in time for the service now only hours away. Franz Gruber got to work and composed a tune that could be played on a guitar and taught to the little choir. It would not be the traditional Christmas Eve music the people expected, but at least the service would have music celebrating the birth of Christ. When the organ repairman came several weeks later, he heard the story of what had happened when the organ failed, and he asked if he could hear the song that saved Christmas Eve Mass. He loved it and took the time to write it down. As he traveled about working on other organs in the region, he frequently shared the story and the song. As more and more churches heard the song and added it to their Christmas music selections, it eventually came to the attention of King William of Prussia, who asked his Cathedral Choir to present “Silent Night,” now the best known and most recorded Christmas song of all time.
That small village church in the Austrian Alps did not get to experience their Christmas tradition that cold, snowy Christmas Eve of 1818, but they still celebrated the coming of Jesus into the world. Things worked out in spite of the disruption. For our family, the 2021 holiday season is unlike any other. We still do not know exactly what Christmas will look like. Some beloved Christmas traditions are on hold, but we are embracing the reasons for the season and each other with renewed focus and vigor. Tradition runs deep in the Kelley family, but gratitude for Jesus and love for each other run deeper still.
Whatever Christmas will look like in your family circle this year, I encourage you to hold the traditions loosely. Passionately embrace each other and the joyful celebration of that glorious night when Jesus came to us. That is a tradition you will not lose and life cannot take away.
Merry Christmas from our family to yours!