A family Christmas custom that’s going viral on the social media feeds this year is the concept of “elf on the shelf.”

This is an elf character who appears at various locations throughout the house during the days and weeks before Christmas. His job is to inform Santa who has been naughty, and who has been nice, during his visits with the family.

Obviously, this custom is most appropriate to a demographic that we no longer fit! My husband and I are empty nesters. My daughter is a young adult who has her own apartment, and our home is where she spends holidays and occasional weekends.

I’m not sure I would have invited a visiting elf to our house anyway. I’m actually more fond of another kid-friendly custom that has been trending during the past couple of years as a modern twist on an old school tradition, and that is an Advent day by day calendar. Seriously. If I still had a little one at home, I would have crafted a nice centerpiece by now and there would be little surprises in it every day.

As it turns out, the two early December customs I invoked during my family’s child-rearing years are just as appropriate to our empty nest years.

The first is an Advent wreath. My husband and I are familiar with the evergreen circle and its four candles for the four Sundays before Christmas from our Catholic and Lutheran upbringings. While I like the blue and rose candles some churches have adopted for a modern interpretation on the colors, we follow the older tradition of purple and rose candles. The centerpiece is normally lit at dinnertime in our house.

The other tradition that is cherished at our home is St. Nicholas Day. I’ve talked about this before, and interestingly enough, my archived post on that topic is getting a lot of page views this week.

This is a very old custom that has its roots in the German, Dutch and Russian Orthodox cultures, and you can learn about it at the St. Nicholas Center page. It was revived in our family about 1972, when I learned about the customs of St. Nicholas Day in kindergarten class and pretty much made it clear my brothers and I should get some kind of treat on Dec. 6.

My mother knew about this custom, I am sure, from her reaction. She had German-speaking grandparents who would have certainly known of St. Nicholas Day. The holiday tradition just was never introduced to my generation until I heard about it elsewhere!

But Mom was a good sport and went along with my request. From then on, the night before Dec. 6, we children were all told to put our shoes out and look for treats in the morning. There was always an orange along with some other candies in the shoes.

There isn’t a lot of effort or money involved in doing this. But it made a huge impression as we were growing up, and here’s proof: most, if not all, of us siblings have carried on this tradition to the next generation with our own children.

There is room for interpretation and adapting to family circumstances. The St. Nicholas has a collection of family customs about the treats that each family selects, the telling of the faith-based legends of St. Nicholas, leaving letters to Santa or the Christ Child to be picked up that night, and reminders of why we should be generous during the holiday season.

As a modern example, one of my sisters has arranged for St. Nick to leave money that her children are then asked to donate to the Salvation Army’s red kettle campaign.

Shortly before my daughter visited a couple of weekends ago, I went shopping at the Russell Stover store in Dundee to buy some “above and beyond” chocolates and also got some candy canes.

My daughter was given her share of the candy to take back with her, with instructions that she could eat her treats on Dec. 6.

She followed up to tell me that she has found a stocking and hung it up in her apartment, and put the candy inside to wait for the appropriate day. The candy I bought for my husband and I is waiting in a bag, and will be displayed Dec. 6 in a pretty red dish on the dining room table. Then we get to eat our treats.

How does a parent explain the fact that the older St. Nicholas legends do not mesh with the modern-day stories of Santa Claus? Yes, there are obvious comparisons and the historical research is a fascinating topic for teens and adults. The trick is how to handle the little ones’ questions.

I’ve heard some wonderful ideas and interpretations, but here’s what we did:

We told my daughter when she was little that St. Nicholas was retired and had passed on most of the gift-giving duties to Santa. St. Nicholas therefore only visited the families who specifically requested him.

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