Peek Into Our Christmas: A Christmas Eve Ornament Tradition

Growing up I was always jealous of families that opened gifts on Christmas Eve. My brother-in-law, for instance, was able to pick out one gift to open before bed. As I recall, there were no rules. You could shake. You could squeeze. And yes, you could even pick the biggest box from under the tree. But I had to content myself with sitting around the tree as a family, singing Christmas carols together and shaking the gifts to guess the contents (a scene my husband describes as a ‘Norman Rockwell Christmas’). In short – I had a pretty good life. But I did like to gripe about not being allowed even one present on Christmas Eve.

Though I adored Christmas as a child, and have nothing but fond memories of the experience, one of my favourite realizations as a newlywed was that we had the chance to start our own traditions. Many of them bear a distinct resemblance to traditions from my childhood but with a twist. For example, I grew up with homemade pizza on homemade crust for Christmas Eve supper; now we make donair pizzas on store-bought Naan bread.

But one of my favourite traditions is opening a gift on Christmas Eve. We’ve managed to escape the potential letdown of getting your “big” present before the excitement of Christmas Day. In fact, the kids are giddy with excitement even though they know exactly what they’re getting – a new ornament.

We started this tradition without realizing it. Our first Christmas after getting engaged, I traveled to spend the holiday with John and his family. He was away working when I arrived and had left a welcome package for me, complete with a small Christmas ornament. In honour of our upcoming nuptials, I had purchased him a silver “F” at a local pharmacy. Though we never purposefully set out to do so (or at least I don’t recall a discussion on this topic) we just kept on exchanging ornaments.

And when kids arrived, they joined in the fun.

Some years we put a lot of thought into the ornament. When we visited Australia together I bought an ornament of two koalas in a gumnut tree; the year Abby learned to skate she got a glass figure skater. Last year John got a blown glass sushi roll, another year a surfer mouse (I looked through a dozen at a local store to find the one that looked the happiest – please tell me other people do this too with dolls/ornaments/stuffed animals!?).

Other years, it might not have a sentimental backstory (the house below, Abby’s ornament last year, just looked really sweet and inviting to me – a miniature fairytale Christmas setting).

Years ago my best friend from university got married and one of her wedding gifts was a special box filled with Christmas ornaments. Her grandmother had purchased an ornament for every year she had been alive (completely under the radar, I believe) and presented this as a curated source of ornaments for her first Christmas as a newlywed! I can’t imagine having the patience to maintain a collection like this in secret for several decades (and what happens if grandkids don’t get married? Surely, eventually, you have to give them the ornaments?!).

ornaments 2020

The math of this tradition is quite daunting. Assuming both children stay home until they are 20, in addition to our already full tree, we are poised to add another 50+ ornaments.

But we’ll make room. We’ll get rid of the old tattered ones, or even the glossy ones that have no character. And someday I’m sure my heart will break – like a few of the ornaments already have – when a box of ornaments leaves my house to go adorn another tree.

But I hope they’ll be happy in their new homes, starting their own traditions, and have nothing but (mostly) happy memories of Christmases past.

Do you have any Christmas Eve gift traditions? Do you collect a new ornament to commemorate special events like a new job or family vacation?

14 thoughts on “Peek Into Our Christmas: A Christmas Eve Ornament Tradition”

  1. When I was newly engaged to my husband, his parents got us a Bride’s Set of ornaments (12-piece in a gorgeous box) and we put those up every year and I think about what a thoughtful gift it was. Apparently it’s a tradition in his family and every new bride gets a set. And since we’ve moved in together, I’ve gotten us an ornament every year that represents something from that year (moving, getting jobs, getting a new pet, watching a tv show – last year it was an ornament that said “the year we stayed home” ha!) and it’s the first present I have my husband open on Christmas. It’s a lovely ornament tradition.

    1. I do wish I spent a bit more time picking thematically significant ornaments, but since I buy 3 each year, I tend to prioritize getting them on clearance at the end of the previous season! While they don’t necessarily reflect a life event/interest from the current year, I do try to get something that has personal relevance (like the sushi roll for my husband last year because we both love sushi and have it almost every week on date night).

      Last January I bought a baseball for our son for this Christmas…but he moved very quickly from a baseball obsession to being 100% about soccer. I’m not sure if I’ll give him the baseball ornament or not…only 23 more days to decide!

  2. Ornaments are (were?) never a big deal in Germany. I knew my mom always had sets of ornaments, so any one ornament didn’t hold a special significance… although having spent many Christmases in the US now, I have started to give “special” ornaments as gifts to my family sometimes (e.g. a wooden “California state” and “California bear” ornament, personalized wood ornaments with the names of my sisters family, etc.)

    I did grow up opening ALL presents on Christmas Eve (as is tradition in Germany), but Jon and I have combined traditions and we now open one or two gifts on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas Day.

    1. A friend of mine is German and it always felt so strange that all their gifts were open by Christmas morning! I was an adult before I realized this was traditional in Germany.

      Personalized ornaments are a great idea too; sites things like Esty are a great place to find just about anything!

  3. Oh, what a nice tradition! We add a new ornament to the tree every year, usually themed with what has been happening that year, or picked up on a vacation, or something that reminded us of the year. This year, for example, we have a WWE ornament *shrugs*

    Growing up I opened one gift on Christmas Eve after church, I think it was the smallest gift under the tree that could be opened by each person. We save all of ours until Christmas morning.

    1. I like spreading things out on Christmas morning too; we typically open stockings before breakfast and then main gifts after the first feast of the day!

      A few years ago we traveled to my parent’s home on Christmas Day. We ended up treating it like Christmas Eve (since we love our Christmas Eve traditions) and then had presents/typical Christmas Day activities on Boxing Day. I LOVED this. It felt so exciting to be opening gifts late – delayed gratification.

  4. I sometimes buy an ornament when traveling, but not always! I should have been better about that as I love seeing ornaments I’ve bought on trips when decorating the tree.

    In my family of origin, Christmas Eve was our big night of Christmas. It was just our family. We’d go to mass and then have oyster stew (bleh – I never liked it but it was a meal both my parents had growing up) and other appetizers, like cheese and crackers, veggies and dips, and some smoked fish. Once my siblings started to get married, my mom started to make a pasta dish. And then the traditional meal morphed into crab legs and shrimp and some other things since only a couple of my siblings like oyster stew. We would open all of our gifts that night and would take turns going from youngest to oldest. Our santa gifts would come while we were opening gifts (they had a clever way of doing this that is too long to type out!). We’d spend Christmas Day with my dad’s side of the family. When I was younger, we did spend Christmas Eve with my mom’s side of the family but that tradition fell off when the families got too big – my mom is 1 of 8 so it didn’t take long for it to be too large of a group for my grandparents to host!

    Things have changed since I merged traditions with Phil. We tend to spend Christmas here in Minneapolis so we usually go to his cousin’s house for Christmas Eve. They have sort of adopted us as family since Phil and his mom don’t really have any other extended family. Even though it’s Phil’s cousin, he feels more like an uncle to us as his kids are all in college or have graduated from college (Phil’s dad was the youngest in his family and then his parents had him and his (deceased) brothers in their 30s). I really love this group of cousins so look forward to seeing them on Christmas Eve. That wasn’t possible last year w/ Covid. This year it seems like they are moving the celebration up, probably because we have a baby which is incredibly kind of them (I was thinking we would not be able to celebrate as it’s usually in the evening and Will goes to bed around 6:30 usually). Then Christmas Day it will just be our family + my MIL. Santa gifts will be there in the morning along with other gifts. Last year we’ve Paul open 2 presents/day but I don’t know if that will fly this year. His mom will give the most gifts and I think she’ll maybe want to watch him open them but we’ll see!

    I love hearing about others traditions so this was a fun post to read!

    1. I’m so glad you’ll be able to do your Christmas Eve celebrations. Early bedtimes can be a real challenge with this sort of thing and I never found my kids would settle well somewhere else and never stayed asleep in between the car/home.
      This is getting a lot easier as the kids get older.

      We’ve never really spaced gifts out with the kiddos, but a few years I have packed up a chunk of the gifts (after they were unwrapped) and set them aside in a closet. Over the next few long, winter months I would periodically cycle something new out (on a day when we all needed a pick-me-up). I don’t think I could do this now as they keep a close eye on their own things, but when they were little, it was a great way to extend the fun and brighten what can be an otherwise dreary season of the year.

      1. I have also hid gifts away! I hid one gift away for over a year because I knew he wouldn’t really appreciate it until he was a bit older. It’s nice to do that when they are younger because the # of gifts can be super overwhelming and the more things our son has to play with, the less well he plays. So that’s been a great strategy for us as well, and it’s nice to have something fun to pull out on a dreary day in February for example!

        1. I actually re-wrapped a gift for this Christmas that Levi received last Christmas (from someone outside our immediate family and I DID give them credit on the packaging this year, so I didn’t try to pass it off like it was coming from me)!

          Even writing that it feels like a bit much, but it was still in box and it just wouldn’t have been his “thing” last year – one of those National Geographic fossil kits. I think he’ll really enjoy it this year and he gets the fun of opening it twice, haha.

  5. I love this so much! I love the thought that goes into each ornament, so every year when you decorate the tree it’s like a trip down memory lane. And having something to open on Christmas Eve is really fun. Growing up, we were allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. We didn’t get to choose it- the “Santa” presents were all hidden away until Christmas morning- but my parents always had one gift for each of us. So now my kids of course always get one gift to open on Christmas Eve ( and even though my kids are 12 and 18, the Santa presents still appear magically under the tree on Christmas morning.)

    1. Never too old for Christmas traditions! Santa was never a big deal in our house growing up (I peeked when I was about 4 and saw my parents + older siblings stuffing stockings and my kids have NEVER believed), but my sister always had Santa gifts for her son and I thought it was so fun they only came out between bedtime Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
      I think I remember reading another blogger – Kelle Hampton – who has a tradition where she attaches string to the tree and then winds it all over the house. The kids follow the strings until they find the gifts at the end which are always from Santa.
      We do something similar where we do a scavenger hunt for the kids each year. One of the gifts will hold the first clue and then they have to go all over the house (and outside) going through the clues before they find the shared present. One year it was sleds, another year it was a receipt for a hotel we’d booked for a night away from home before the New Year!

  6. This is a lovely tradition. I also like how you and your husband realized that you don’t have to continue ALL of the legacy family traditions, and that you can add your own special ones.

    Growing up, every year, my mother would give us each an ornament. These were then handed over to us when we had places of our own. I’m trying to remember where mine are now, and they may have ended up back at my parents’ due to my lack of a Christmas tree. Clearly, I have not lived up to the festive ideal… (That said, they DO use them, if I remember correctly, so it’s not as if the ornaments are just, well, moldering in a box somewhere… Still, though, writing this just induced a spasm of daughterly guilt…)

    While I love the idea of homemade pizza (yummm….), what on earth is a donair? I tried clicking the link and was still unable to come up with a concise description. Is it… a type of meatloaf? A stir fry? Some combination thereof? I guess the key question is, how does one construct a donair pizza? 🙂

    1. Donairs are a pretty niche food – but very popular on the East Coast of Canada.
      It is a bit like a spiced meatloaf, and you make a very specific sauce, too. I make mine different from the recipe I link to.
      To make the pizzas I make the meat, slice it very thinly, put the donair sauce on a crust (I use Naan bread), and top with cheese. I serve with tomatoes and fried onions on the side. A family favourite!!

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