Christmas has arrived, bringing with it the renewal of long-standing traditions....some spanning generations and others which emerge as the families of our children carve out their own holiday routines.

Christmas is a special season which transcends gifts and decorations and sales at the mall to embrace that which is truly most important in life.....the faith which guides our lives and the loved ones who surround us.

As traditions evolve, as long as faith and family remain the centerpiece, the spirit of Christmas remains intact.

Childhood memories are an important part of the Christmas season. Those are years spent growing up together, before life takes siblings far and wide to begin their own families and traditions. And the Christmas memories last a lifetime.

I still remember being determined one Christmas Eve to stay awake long enough to hear Santa Claus arrive as he made his rounds.....and possibly even catch a glimpse of him. I believe I was 4 at the time; I know I was not yet in school. My plan made perfect sense to me. After all, I was sleeping in the second floor of our farmhouse, just beneath the roof on which Santa and his sleigh were to land. There was no way I would miss the sound of eight reindeer prancing just overhead, I reasoned.

But I must have dozed off....and when I awoke the next morning the presents were under the tree. I may have been disappointed by not actually seeing Santa but I have since come to realize that Christmas is about believing in things that you can’t necessarily see but can certainly feel.

We had many traditions growing up.

The arrival of the advent candles at our church was a sure sign that Christmas was near. Each week another candle was lit, serving as a countdown of sorts to the holiday.

Our church always had an evening Christmas celebration during December as well. If I recall correctly, we enjoyed a soup meal, the church youth presented a Christmas program and we would be presented our own little goodie bag with holiday treats.

We actually did that one year in a barn, which was symbolic of being in a stable, and while a memorable evening that never caught on as a tradition. I remember it being one of those still winter nights with frigid temperatures....one of those evenings when the snow crunched loudly under foot and the cold was pervasive.

But in a sense, bringing people together in the cold of a winter night to celebrate felt right.....as did watching relatives stomp the snow off their shoes and shake off their coats as they arrived at our home for the annual Christmas Eve soup dinner. Rarely if ever did anybody decline to brave the wintry weather in order to be part of the family gathering.

That Christmas Eve get-together was typically followed by our own family Christmas and present-opening on Christmas morning, followed by dinner (and more presents) that evening with grandparents.

As Christmas approached, I also looked forward to the day (or days) that my mother would set aside to bake all sorts of Christmas cookies and make various candies. Those were good days to be a kid, without doubt.

Once done, Mom would stockpile the cookies and candy and dole them out for us to enjoy as Christmas approached.

Those childhood memories remain vivid after all these years, even as our holiday habits have changed.

Kat and I now count among our family a half-dozen children and 10 grands.

We have forged our own traditions together.....which are different than those we remember growing up because our own children now spread far and wide, and have established their own Christmas routines.

Our tradition includes one thing we don’t do, which is purchase typical gifts for one another.

Sure, I may have teased her a time or two about asking how my new SUV would fit under the trees (just leave the keys, and we’re good to go), but in reality we both enjoy not having the pressure of shopping for a gift.

We usually give ourselves a gift of time away together, be it a full-fledged vacation or just a night or two at the coast. Ironic, isn’t it, that the most precious gifts cannot be purchased at the mall or online?

That’s not to say that we forego gift-giving altogether. It’s Christmas, and gifts for the grandchildren as they grow up are always going to be part of the holiday. I wish that we could spend Christmas with them all in person....what a great gift that would be!

I am a firm believer, though, that too many people fall into the trap of believing that everything has to be picture-perfect for Christmas. That perfect holiday may happen in a Hallmark movie, but real life doesn’t usually work that way.

Those who expect nothing less than an exquisite tree, perfect gifts, a flawless meal and total harmony at Christmas are setting themselves up for disappointment....in fact, they’re almost surely to be disappointed by such lofty expectations.

Christmas is not about those things.

It is about celebrating faith and family, reaching out to others less fortunate, and wishing one another Merry Christmas.....not happy holidays or some other generic greeting.

On that note, I wish you and yours a safe and very Merry Christmas.

Dean Harris the Managing Editor of the West Side Index and Gustine Press-Standard. He can be reached at dharris@mattosnews.com or by calling (209) 243-8104.