Photo trees and handmade nativities: four families on their Christmas traditions

Passed down generationally, family traditions hold special meanings that transcend time and place. Here are four parents on theirs

From knitted jumpers and Glühwein, to pavlova and prawns, Christmas differs around the world. In Iceland, it is customary to give a book on Christmas Eve, while in Japan KFC has become the lunch of choice.

But family traditions hold special meaning, passed down generationally, not determined by geography. Here, four parents share theirs.

‘Finds joy in giving joy’

Natasha Robinson’s postie appreciation letter

Every year I tape a Christmas card for the postie to the letterbox. My sister and I started the tradition as kids, in an attempt to create the magical Christmas we saw on TV. We didn’t really do Christmas growing up. We didn’t have much; we would have a barbecue chicken and stay up late making our own decorations for the tree.

Natasha Robinson’s note to her postie
‘I have lived in at least nine houses … so I’ve written to lots of posties!’ Photograph: Natasha Robinson

But making a card and surprising our postie with a Christmas note was an opportunity to find joy in giving joy, the only way we could afford.

I’ve kept it up every year since, even when I lived in London one Christmas. I have lived in at least nine houses in different suburbs of Melbourne so I’ve written to lots of posties!

Right now we have a lovely postie who gives our dog a pat and likes to have a chat. With the pandemic, the postal service was even more important, as I am immunocompromised. He has been wonderful, and giving him a Christmas card has helped form that connection.

I’m creating a lot of new traditions with my family now, but this is special because it is my tradition. It is the one thing I created as a kid that I can pass on.

‘It started small … today it is 500 pieces’

Susanne Thiebe’s handmade nativity scene

When I was little, my dad handmade a nativity. We lived in an apartment in Germany and didn’t have much space, so the figurines are barely 3cm high. Every year we would visit the nativity museum in Munich to get inspired.

After I moved to Australia and had my first child, Dad made us our own. It started small, but every time he came to visit he brought something he’d made. Today it is 500 pieces.

Susanne Thiebe’s nativity scene, handmade by her father.
Susanne Thiebe’s nativity scene, handmade by her father. Photograph: Susanne Thiebe’

There’s a manger and a baby Jesus. I have a kangaroo, a platypus, an owl, a stalk and a huge elephant. He loved the quirky stuff so we have elephant poo too, and my brother and I have the only nativity scenes we know of with pit toilets! Our dog and cat are also models; my whole life is in the nativity.

I try to get the kids to set it up each year. When they were little we would start on the 6 December, Saint Nicholas Day, and take another piece out each day. But I’m the one who puts the baby in the manger on 24 December, and then the three wise men arrive on 6 January.

Dad passed away this year. I have the tools to mend figures that break, but I won’t make any more. I keep them in my wardrobe because they’re so precious.

‘An honest reflection of laughter and love’

Jess’s growing photograph tree

Having two young daughters, I wanted to capture the Christmas countdown and end-of-school celebrations. The year we had both our girls, we started taking a photo each day of December and putting them on the wall.

Jess’s wall of polariods, shaped like Christmas trees.
‘They might not all show us in a flattering light, but it’s an honest reflection.’ Photograph: Supplied

Starting from the bottom left, we slowly build each day into the shape of a tree, with Christmas Day at the top. This year will be our 12th!

The photos are rarely staged; we don’t use filters, and usually have a one-shot-only policy. They are of everyday life: a child asleep on the couch, the first mango box of the season, helping friends move house.

One of our favourites is of our youngest jumping in a puddle. We had travelled hours to visit Sydney. We saw all the sights and carried this heavy Polaroid camera around all day. We had so much fun that we only remembered the photo of the day when we were walking home from the train. The result: a kid making her own fun in a muddy puddle.

They might not all show us in a flattering light, but it’s an honest reflection of the laughter and love we experienced at the time each picture was taken.

Elizabeth Morthorpe’s Advent calendar book stack.
Elizabeth Morthorpe’s Advent calendar book stack. Photograph: Elizabeth Morthorpe

‘At night we unwrap a bedtime story’

Elizabeth Morthorpe’s Advent story stack

When my kids were little, they were a bit young for a chocolate Advent calendar. Instead, the elves would deliver a Christmas book a day.

We’re all about sustainability in our house, so I scoured op shops and garage sales for 24 Christmas-themed books. I managed to get such a collection together over the years that the kids barely noticed any repeats. But they have outgrown it now, so I have about 50 to pass on to someone!

At night, we would unwrap the day’s book as a bedtime story. I read to them every night, even now at age nine and 12, so subbing in a Christmas book was an easy transition.

During such a busy time of year, it was a quiet connection at the end of the day that we looked forward to each year.


As told to Maddie Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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