Our first Christmas after dad died: Christmas traditions that healed our hearts

By Sarah Briggs

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 21 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

The Tanner family gathers around their gingerbread houses. Creating gingerbread houses helped Sarah and her siblings celebrate Christmas after their Dad died.

Provided by Sarah Briggs

The holidays can be filled with love and joy, but when you are fighting memories and heartbreak, the holidays can be anything but joyful, especially if you've lost someone close.

My dad passed away 11 years ago when I was 15. It was absolutely heartbreaking for my entire family. When Christmas came six short months later, I felt like we were all holding our breath. If we let out the air, the pain would be too sharp to handle. Without Dad, we couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for our annual Christmas traditions. Dad was goofy at Christmastime and his excitement was contagious. No one could take his place; in fact, no one wanted to.

Luckily, angels came to our family that year. While many tried to ease our burdens, the ones that gave the gift of new family traditions — ones we could do that weren't incomplete without the presence of Dad — truly blessed my life.

One angel was our good friend Stephanie Nye. She brought us a new Christmas tradition: making gingerbread houses. She brought six gingerbread houses, one for each of us six kids, to assemble and decorate. They were beautiful. We created candyland castles with frosting, sprinkles and sweets. Gathered around the table in a new tradition helped unify my family. The spirit of a happy family playing together once again filled our home. This became a tradition that we could enjoy without replacing Christmas memories of Dad. We've been decorating Christmas gingerbread houses every year since Stephanie visited our home. In fact, this year my husband and I helped our daughter create a tie-dye Christmas gingerbread house in a tradition all our own.

The second angel was my aunt, Marilyn. She sent a bag of mini-marshmallows, plastic goggles and 18-inch PVC pipes for an indoor snowball fight. We used the PVC pipes to rocket mini marshmallows at each other. We ducked, giggled and screamed as brothers chased sisters. With time, this tradition evolved to a tamer version for young nieces and nephews.

Marilyn also sent the book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” with directions to play the Grinch gift game. The Grinch gift game is a different way to distribute Secret Santa gifts. A narrator reads the story to the group seated in a circle, and every time the word "Grinch" is read, the group passes their gift to the right. Every time the word "Who" is read, the group passes their gift to the left. These new traditions have added excitement that we now anticipate every coming year.

The last angel was my sister, Tia, who wrote a beautiful program about the birth of Christ. She used the scriptures and Christmas hymns as well as her own thoughts to remind us of our gratitude for Christ. The Spirit of God bore witness to us that we could be together as a family for eternity. Every year since, we have enjoyed this religious part of our celebration, but that first year was especially memorable with the passing of our dad not long before.

There were tears and heartbreak that first Christmas without Dad for sure, but it was also filled with unity and hope, drawing us even closer to him.

What Christmas traditions do you and your family look forward to each year?

Sarah loves to write about playing with your family. She regularly blogs about new games and activities to play with your family at www.playwithyourfamily.com.

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