Celebrating family at Christmas

Mrs Hazel Boltman, Head of Gibson House

With the year drawing to a close, the School community once again came together for an evening ‘under the stars’ with Christmas carols, bubbles and ‘snow’ filling the air, and fairy lights lighting the way. Christmas is always a special time of year, and here at Girls Grammar we have our own way of celebrating. The girls participate in Secret Santa events in their House groups, give gifts and cards to one another and their teachers, and look forward to the final music event of the year, the Christmas Carnival and Carols. In the festive atmosphere, we celebrated with stories told through music, stalls with tempting treats and fun activities, and the arrival of Santa. Each child and adult there was looking forward to some aspect of Christmas and had their part to play in the celebrations, whether as an organiser, a musician, a student leader, or a child filled with wonder and anticipation.


As Christmas draws near, what we need to ask ourselves is not what we celebrate, but why we celebrate and how we celebrate. These occasions offer an opportunity to focus on the big things of life, to look for meanings beyond our selves and embrace issues that are complex, disturbing or profound. Through festivals and the stories enacted around them, we come to grips with these struggles and see a model of how we can address these issues.

Christmas is a significant event that is celebrated world-wide. A Christian festival, it has at its core the birth of Jesus. This is still seen in the many nativity scenes on Christmas cards and heard in the carols sung. We often hear Yuletide commentary to the effect that Christmas has lost its meaning, or been hijacked, but it has always been thus. Some argue that the 25th of December was originally the pagan festival of Saturnalia, or a festival celebrating the birth of the Sun, and that the church took over the date in an effort to draw the masses away from paganism and into a Christian celebration (Miles, 1976). Our secular society has seen the institutionalisation of Santa Claus as the primary figure on Christmas Day. Regardless of the origins, 25 December is celebrated by millions, albeit invested by many with little or no religious sentiment. As the world shrinks and the marketing grows, people of many faiths are beginning to celebrate Christmas as a time to feast and to give gifts.

It is important for each of us to know ourselves and what we are celebrating this holiday season. Christians should endeavor to look beyond the tinsel and to reconnect with the religious meaning of Christmas. This is a time for Christians to deepen their faith and renew their relationships within their families and within the church. Agnostics, atheists and people of other faiths may choose to celebrate the season as a time of family, feasting and giving gifts, without the religious overtones. Whatever the beliefs, Christmas is usually a time for celebration and family.


It is, for many, a time to reconnect with our families on a deeper level. In his article ‘The Stories that Bind Us’, Bruce Feiler asks, ‘What is the secret sauce that that holds families together?’ (2013). His question is, of course, rhetorical, and the answer stems from research into what makes families effective. Feiler suggests that knowing your family history is crucial in growing resilient children and creating effective families. Using the time over Christmas to talk to your children about their family history will help to foster their feelings of connectedness and their resilience. Knowing where their parents and grandparents were born, where they went to school and how they met, starts to develop a family history.

A ‘Do You Know?’ scale was developed by Dr Marshall Duke, on whom Feiler based his article. Duke advocates asking twenty questions, ranging from the aforementioned to questions of a more probing nature (cited in The Mustard Seed House, 2013). However, it is not just the answers to these questions that build a healthy family, but the time spent telling the facts and building the stories that is invaluable. It is the process as well as the content. The time spent together and the tales told then build up into detailed stories that are needed to develop a healthy family narrative.

Dr Duke has researched the types of family narratives that come out of these conversations and has categorised them into three types (cited in Feiler, 2013). The first is the ascending narrative, where the family has come from nothing and has risen to where they are now. While this is a positive, healthy narrative, it can leave some children feeling incapable of reaching these same heights themselves. In an unfortunate paradox, the intended inspiration can ultimately be demotivating. The second, the descending narrative, has children hearing stories of how great the family once was but that they have since declined. The possible deleterious effects of this kind of narrative are self-evident.

The third story trajectory may well be the healthiest: the oscillating narrative, with stories of success and of failure, of setbacks and of periods of growth. As a child learns that their forebears and family members have faced adversity as well as enjoying success, they may internalise valuable psychological insights. The realisation that their family members have struggled may help them to rebound when they go through tough times themselves. The oscillating narrative takes the pressure of perfectionism off the child and helps them to develop what Carol Dweck (2006) calls a ‘growth mindset’. Viewed in this way, the family’s history is important because of what can be learnt from it.


Children are not alone; they are part of a family and a community. Reliving these family stories allows them to connect to something bigger than themselves. They begin to develop an intergenerational self as they hear the family history told and retold by members of different generations. Duke noted that most family stories were passed down by mothers and grandmothers, and at times of vacations, family dinners and celebrations. It is this time of family members giving to each other that builds the resilience and cements the family bonds.

There is, of course, a broader family context, which is why many people spend time reaching out to others at Christmas and giving back to their communities. This can be through volunteering for a local organisation or helping people that need assistance. Reaching out to others has the added benefit of improving our own mental health while reminding us of the spiritual meaning of the holiday season. There are as many ways of reaching out as there are people in need, from those within our families to the needy in our communities.

So as we plan for this festive season, it is important to plan for family time. To put aside those differences we have with various family members and to connect on a level that is healthy and beneficial to ourselves and our children. Let’s make this Christmas a time to celebrate by giving of our time, our history and ourselves. It is not about the food, the gifts and the hype, but about finding a meaning bigger than ourselves and helping our children to look beyond the tinsel and find their own meaning too.


Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Feiler, B. (2013, March 15). The stories that bind us. The New York Times. Retrieved November 25, 2013, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html?_r=0

Miles, C. (1976). Christmas traditions and customs. New York, USA: Dover Publications.

Mustard Seed House, The. (2013, April 26). Table talk: The intergenerational self. Retrieved November 25, 2013, from http://themustardseedhouse.com/tag/dr-marshall-duke/