My Children and the Traditions of Their Father

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by Paul

I’m a sucker for a good Christmas story, and I suppose I have my mother to blame thank for that.  Mom was a great story teller, and on Christmas Eve, we’d gather around the fireplace in the living room, and she would tell us another Christmas story – The Other Wise Man, The Little Match Girl, The German Christmas Apple, and more.  Those stories not only tug at my heartstrings because of the stories, but also because of the memories they invoke.

My love for Christmas music may well also be genetic.  My mother used to tell me her father would whistle Silent Night all year long.  I enjoy the secular as well as religious songs.  I’m as happy to sing Silver Bells as Hark, The Herald Angel Sing (though I’m happy to leave those novelty songs behind: I don’t really want a hippopotamus for Christmas, and my Grandma did not get run over by a reindeer, thank you very much).

I like to think the Christmas traditions from our home will also rub off on our kids – our annual cookie baking and giving, our Christmas Eve Swedish Smorgasbord and retelling of the birth of the Savior, our singing and playing of carols.  I know my boys especially have gone through phases where many of those traditions have seemed less important (though they’ve always been happy to eat), but I hope that as they grow and have families of their own they’ll find some comfort in the traditions of their childhood, just as I do.

My anxieties around Christmas (and I have plenty) are all connected to my fatherhood.  I still do not sleep well on Christmas Eve, but not because I wonder what Santa might bring me; I worry that one of my children might not be thrilled with what Santa brings her.  (Thankfully, none of my children has ever grimaced at me after opening the Santa gift with the “what were you thinking” look that they are capable of; I assume that’s their mother’s good influence at work.)  And I worry that the things that are most special to me at this time of year may not be special to them, namely the celebration of the birth of our Savior and what that means.

Jeffrey R. Holland, before he served in the presiding councils of the church, spoke to religion faculty at BYU and spoke tenderly of his lessons of fatherhood, and what they taught him about Joseph:

As a father I have recently begun to think more often of Joseph, that strong, silent, almost unknown man who must have been more worthy than any other mortal man to be the guiding foster father of the living Son of God. It was Joseph selected from among all men who would teach Jesus to work. It was Joseph who taught him the books of the law. It was Joseph who, in the seclusion of the shop, helped him begin to understand who he was and ultimately what he was to become.
I was a student at BYU just finishing my first year of graduate work when our first child, a son, was born. We were very poor, though not so poor as Joseph and Mary. My wife and I were both going to school, both holding jobs, and in addition worked as head residents in an off-campus apartment complex to help defray our rent. We drove a little Volkswagen which had a half-dead battery because we couldn’t afford a new one (Volkswagen or battery).

Nevertheless, when I realized that our own night of nights was coming, I believe I would have done any honorable thing in this world, and mortgaged any future I had, to make sure my wife had the clean sheets, the sterile utensils, the attentive nurses, and the skilled doctors who brought forth our firstborn son. If she or that child had needed special care at the Mayo Clinic, I believe I would have ransomed my very life to get it.

I compare those feelings (which I have had with each succeeding child) with what Joseph must have felt as he moved through the streets of a city not his own, with not a friend or kinsman in sight, nor anyone willing to extend a helping hand. In these very last and most painful hours of her “confinement,” Mary had ridden or walked approximately 100 miles from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. Surely Joseph must have wept at her silent courage. Now, alone and unnoticed, they had to descend from human company to a stable, a grotto full of animals, there to bring forth the Son of God.

I wonder what emotions Joseph might have had as he cleared away the dung and debris. I wonder if he felt the sting of tears as he hurriedly tried to find the cleanest straw and hold the animals back. I wonder if he wondered: “Could there be a more unhealthy, a more disease-ridden, a more despicable circumstance in which a child could be born? Is this a place fit for a king? Should the mother of the Son of God be asked to enter the valley of the shadow of death in such a foul and unfamiliar place as this? Is it wrong to wish her some comfort? Is it right He should be born here?”

He then continues to praise Mary, herself little more than a child, who alone brought the Savior into the world.

I came across Elder Holland’s words in the early 1980’s as my own family was young, and I was anxious to model my fatherhood after Joseph’s.  Joseph did not have means to do everything he might have wished, but he did what he could.  He did what he needed to do.  I wanted to be like Joseph, to provide guidance to my children, and to get out of the way so that they could each discover their divine potential.

Alas, I am no Joseph.  I am an imperfect father and I have imperfect children.  We all make good choices some days and not such good ones other days.  Some of my children walk in paths I would not have chosen for them.  Some of them carry burdens that, while I sympathize, I cannot understand.

But I do have this:  I have children who enjoy coming home for Christmas and joining us around the table for a Christmas Eve smorgasbord or a Christmas Day ham dinner, and who, if not completely believing, are at least patient and kind with our displays of faith and hope in the birth of our Savior.

Not all of my children will be home this year, but as their father, I will hold them where I always do, in my heart, wishing them the merriest of Christmases, and the peace that comes from knowing the Savior.

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About Paul

Paul was a convert to the church with his parents and siblings when he was a child, and therefore has the great blessing of having some of his formative years in the church while still remembering his family’s conversion experience. He is the father of seven and husband to his lovely wife. He served an LDS mission in Germany and has lived in Latin America and twice in Asia for his employer; now he lives with his lovely wife and youngest two children in the Midwestern US. Prior to earning his MBA, Paul also earned degrees in English and Theatre History. He also blogs at A Latter-day Voice (see the link below -- in "Our Authors Elsewhere" section at the bottom of the page) where he writes, as he does here, of his own experience as a Latter-day Saint. He does not speak for the church but will speak in favor of it.

5 Responses to My Children and the Traditions of Their Father

  1. Bonnie says:

    I spend a lot of time thinking about Mary and Joseph in December. For me, it is the month of celebrating the importance of family, because this family reared the Savior of all mankind, serving as the best possible preparation for his mission. It scares the heck out of me to think that, but it’s enlivening and empowering as well. I don’t know that our traditions are very tangible – there’s always an orange and an apple in their stockings, they love to trade candy before they wake me at 7AM, we have the same meal for the dinner, we spend Christmas Eve talking about the nativity and reading the scriptures. We have an advent calendar I made when I was 19, and we put up the decorations the same way. Other than that, we are traditionless, other than the fact that we TALK all the time. I hope it’s enough. Sometimes I’m intimidated by the traditions others have. I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type, and sometimes I fear I’ve not provided the tenderness of those sweet traditions to my children. Still, they form them with their families. And we TALK. Family is so important.

  2. Paul says:

    We share similar concerns about whether “it” is enough. I tint the older I get the less concerned I am about getting all the details are straight.

  3. Ray says:

    Thanks for this, Paul. It is touching and moving.

    This is the first time since my oldest left home for college that we have had all of our children with us for Christmas, plus a future daughter-in-law. Our home has been packed tight – and it has been glorious.

    Having said that, I want to point out one thing. You said:

    “Alas, I am no Joseph. I am an imperfect father and I have imperfect children. We all make good choices some days and not such good ones other days. Some of my children walk in paths I would not have chosen for them. Some of them carry burdens that, while I sympathize, I cannot understand.”

    We have no idea how well your description of yourself fits Joseph’s actual life. We know he was an imperfect father who had imperfect children. We know he made good choices dome days and not such good choices other days. I think we can be fairly confident there is a good chance some of his children walked in paths he would not have chosen for him, especially since he had at least eight of them. We know he had one child who carried burdens that he could not understand fully, and we can be certain he didn’t want to leave his wife to bear her burdens alone – though he surely died before all of his children reached adulthood and marriage.

    Frankly, from what I know of you, I think Joseph might have wished to be more like Paul – but I also believe that would have been wished in error. We are who we are – and God loves us for that, not despite that. Your kids love you and want to be with you, and that, as much as anything else, is what it’s all about. You have been “sealing” them to you throughout your life in a very practical way – and that practical bond is stronger than any theoretical bond.

    God bless you (and everyone else) at this time of year. May we all feel God’s love and acceptance especially now and know that, when all is said and done, our own “I am” is as acceptable as Joseph’s and Mary’s.

    • Paul says:

      Ray, you’re very kind.

      And you’re right. I have made assumptions about Joseph that may not be true, based on one of his children. I suspect there are some who might do that with me, too, even though I wish they wouldn’t. 🙂

  4. templegoer says:

    We make a lot of these ‘traditions’ in the church,but I think the key to even beginning to make it work as our families grow up and out is flexibility, something that I read between the lines of your post Paul. I’d love to see that concept get a little airing as I’ve certainly found it more challenging than maintaining tradition. I think Bonnie’s family tradition of talking puts them in a good place for the future. It’s all about the ability to negotiate around difficult things. Wow,we’re having our most difficult yet, but I can see that has to happen in our lives, and we have to make good stuff come out of it

    It’s also great to see a concerned father expressing his anxieties about the family, and to have Joseph’s role acknowledged. Again,I’d love to see this idea get more of an airing, giving our brethren an opportunity to reflect on those qualities that Joseph might have had in order to be trusted by God with his Son. A priesthood lesson in the manual maybe?

    And, we had a Christmas lunch conversation about first memories of the season, and the day. Not one of our children could remember anything before the age of eight. So much for all the hand -made gifts and tree ornaments, the crafts and the carols.And all the angst around getting the gifts right. Having children is a humbling experience.

    We do it for ourselves I guess, making the kind of Christmas we want to have.

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