Making Memories & Keeping Old Ones Alive

By Jessica Pleger
Photography by Lisa Taylor Hall

As we prepare for the Christmas season in warm, sunny Florida, it might take a little magic to get in the spirit. As tradition has it, as soon as we polish off our Thanksgiving meal, we are eager to pull out those Christmas bins and let the Christmas decorating begin! Since we are known for our beautiful beaches instead of snow-covered mountains, Southerners have created time-honored traditions that are sure to bring our own holiday cheer. We might be lucky enough to get a couple days of cool temps while we are out buying our tree and putting lights up! That’s Christmas in the South.

For many, the Christmas season brings comfort and joy because of family traditions that remind us of happy memories of seasons past. Traditions are important as they keep us connected to our roots and those who are no longer with us. They keep special memories alive and passed down for generations. I know not everyone is sentimental about traditions and the holidays, but I promise they will add a cheer to your days and a smile to your heart!


Advent (from Latin adventus, “coming”): in the Christian church calendar, the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas and for the Second Coming of Christ. Regardless of denomination, churches in the Heartland have a special service dedicated to Christ’s birth—the celebration of Christmas. Attending a service is a great way to instill in our youth (and remind ourselves through all the hustle) the reason for celebrating Christmas. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

The Tree

Finding that perfect tree is where the decorating begins and, ultimately, the tree is the star of the show! Loading up your family, turning on Christmas jams and going to your favorite tree farm or retailer is part of the fun. We all have our favorite type of trees. Mine happens to be ten feet tall and as fat as I can find. And then the true fun begins… the decorating! Pulling the ornaments, both old and new, from the boxes. The new are shiny and matching; the old are handmade and oh so special as they tell a story of times remembered. As meticulous as I am about having a perfectly decorated tree, it’s the ones my kids have created over the years that matter the most as we get to reminisce every year of special times that have gone by too fast.

The Little Things

Matching pajamas,Christmas bedding, and let’s not forget the Christmas movie marathons—there are so many little things that can add to the holiday cheer! I can’t recall how many times we’ve watched Home Alone, The Grinch, or Elf, snuggled on the couch in our cozy blankets, eating popcorn. Locally we have Christmas parades, tree lighting ceremonies, horse drawn carriage rides, and special events to bring joy to girls, boys, and families from the Heartland. And most importantly, a chance for the kids to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus themselves, to hand over that coveted Christmas wish list, and to check if they’ve been naughty or nice.

The Gifts

For my kids, I have them ask for something they want, something they need, and something to read. Symbolic to the Three Wise Men and the gifts they brought Jesus, this is a great tradition to start. It helps keep materialistic habits in check while also focusing on things people will genuinely appreciate. My kids might not be a current fan of this tradition, but they’ll learn to appreciate it… hopefully. It’s also important to teach the gift of giving. We choose children from the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree, which can be found at various locations locally, and gift them with items on their list such as clothing, toys, and games. The gifts are distributed to the family to place under their family Christmas tree. The gift of giving is such an important gift to share with your family!

We’ve recently incorporated a “white elephant” into our family Christmas. It’s the ultimate re-gifting experience. I encourage you to give it a whirl! Not only is this activity a hoot but unwrapping the creative (and often hilarious) gifts makes gift-giving more about the experience than the gift itself. First, put presents in a central location and take turns, each choosing one to open. When it’s your turn, it’s your choice to snag a previously opened gift or try your luck on an unwrapped one. Best white elephant gift we’ve had to date: a “diamond” bracelet. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

The Gathering

Get dressed up. Create a great table-scape. Use your family heirlooms.

Make New Memories

Growing up we always spent Christmas Eve at my dad’s parents’ house. Dressed in our Sunday best, we all looked forward to the memories to be made in my Nana’s kitchen. Her working tediously to prepare our Christmas meal will forever be etched in my mind. We always started with oyster stew which is a standard Southern tradition. The meal always included beef, fried shrimp (which almost caused us to burn down the kitchen one year, so don’t put grease-soaked paper towels in a hot oven) and was rounded out with her famous biscuits. So many special memories flooded my mind in that kitchen!

Over the years, our table grew and grew. Whether it was my self-proclaimed Aunt and her family from Charleston or local family friends, it was always a blessing to be around the dinner table on Christmas Eve on South Hammock Road. Honestly, it isn’t the presents I remember at all. I probably couldn’t recall even a handful of the gifts I received, but I can tell you a thousand memories made in that kitchen and in that home with family.

On Christmas morning we went to my mom’s parents’ house, bright and early and usually dressed in our pajamas. We have since adapted our tradition into Christmas lunch. My mom is one of eight kids, so everyone brings a covered dish and fills their plate so full a show dog couldn’t jump over it! But one thing hasn’t changed—we always use Grandma’s china (not always willingly because, let’s be honest, our family gathering consists of an average of 35 people every year and Grandma’s china is not dishwasher-safe). But she loves it, and we love to see her joy. We also love to banter about who gets to hand wash dishes every year. It wouldn’t be Christmas dinner without it. (Have I mentioned we like tradition?)

No matter what traditions you have or how you choose to spend your time, make sure it brings you good tidings of great joy. It’s never too late to make new traditions or resurrect old ones. But most importantly we must always remember— Jesus is the reason for the season!

Traditions are important as they keep us connected to our roots and those who are no longer with us.  They keep special memories alive and passed down for generations.