Christmas Holidays

Our Traditional Christmas Eve Dinner: The Shepherds’ Meal

Last week, a few days before December began, we were sitting around at dinner and I asked the girls, “What are the most important things for you that we do at Christmas time?”

Without hesitation, both Ella and Ani said that the shepherds’ meal, which is our Christmas Eve dinner, was the number one thing they looked forward.

Christmas eve dinner ideas

Since my family has been doing this for our Christmas Eve dinner since I was probably eight or nine, this was music to my ears.

It was one of MY favorite parts of Christmas all growing up and I’ve loved adapting it for our own family.

I feel like Christmas Eve can get kind of harried as you do final wrapping and prep for a big Christmas morning, so I love a Christmas Eve dinner that takes less prep and

When I was growing up, our shepherds’ meal usually consisted of homemade bread bowls with soup and bottles of sparkling cider. The idea was that it was the kind of meal that the shepherds might actually have eaten in the time of Jesus.

Also, every year, my parents bought more sparkling cider (after the first year where we had one) and basically no matter how many bottles they bought, it always got finished off. It became something of a joke in our family.

We’d move the coffee table in the family room and spread out a big blanket and eat on the blanket by candlelight (or the light of the ceiling fan dimmed . . . either way worked) and the light of the Christmas tree. Everyone would dress up in nativity costumes – originally that was bath towels tied around our heads with my dad’s old ties but eventually my aunt made us a set of real costumes one year and we’ve used those ever since.

Once our meal was over, we’d recite the Christmas story from Luke 2. My parents assigned us parts long ago (I’m pretty sure it was when we still lived in Wisconsin) and I can still recite nearly the whole thing by heart, not just my own part.

It was such a simple Christmas Eve dinner but so sweet and memorable throughout my life.

Christmas eve dinner

If you’re a long-time reader, you may know that my youngest brother’s name is Shepard and he passed away from a brain tumor in 2000 when he was three. We’d been doing our shepherds’ meal before he was born and then throughout his life, but after he died, it felt extra special with that little unplanned connection to his name, as a way to remember him at Christmas even after he wasn’t there to celebrate with us.

Over the years, as Bart and I switched off Christmas celebrations with each of our parents, we always participated in the shepherds’ meal when we were at my parents’ home and when our first Christmas spent with our own children in our own home rolled around, there was no question that we’d carry on the tradition.

I personally don’t care for bread bowls because they seem so massively wasteful to me – no one EVER eats the whole the whole thing and you end up throwing away a ton of soggy bread – plus you need all that time for them to rise and bake and so, although Bart loves a good bread bowl, I axed those immediately (if he ever decides he wants to make bread bowls for six people on Christmas Eve, he can go right ahead).

Back in 2014, we spent Christmas with my family in Las Vegas after we flew home from London and before heading back to North Carolina for Bart’s last semester of school, and on Christmas Eve, my mom sent us to Trader Joe’s to pick up some sparkling cider and we thought, “Let’s pick up some OTHER foods for dinner that might be somewhat historically accurate.”

We picked up some dried fruits and nuts and some goat cheese and crackers to go along with the bread bowls and soup. (Let’s be honest, our focus was more on picking delicious food and less on authenticity).

Since then, our Christmas Eve dinner has morphed more into a spread.

Last year, when my parents came for Christmas along with my brother Crawford, we had dried mangos and dried cherries, coconut cashews, fresh fruits and vegetables, spinach dip, a couple of kinds of crackers, several different cheeses, some meats, and possibly some soup (neither Bart nor I can remember if we did soup – it seems like we might have skipped it, what with having four little spill-prone children). Basically, it was a giant charcuterie board.

We set all the dishes out on our coffee table and everyone served themselves before setting in on the blanket on the family room floor.

It was my favorite year yet and I’ve been anxiously awaiting this coming Christmas Eve dinner since December 26th.

You already probably know that I do not enjoy dressing up (and neither does Bart), so in our own family, we skip the costumes because we are total Scrooges.

We HAVE assigned everyone parts from Luke 2 and our girls love practicing their parts all December long. On December 1st, I was surprised to see that both Ella and Ani still remembered their verses from last year.

The year Bart’s parents are joining us for our Christmas Eve dinner and I’m looking forward to carrying on this favorite tradition in our new home.

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  • Reply Ruth December 6, 2018 at 6:33 am

    What a beautiful tradition! I got a little teary when I got to the end of your post (and cried when I read about your baby brother); you’ve described the Christmas Eve scene so well.

  • Reply Sherry L Lindsay December 6, 2018 at 8:18 am

    We are all about the crackers and cheeses for our shepherds’ meal. Like, what other time of year do I let my kids eat that for dinner? I love the idea of memorizing sections of Luke 2! We may give that a shot.

  • Reply Jenn December 6, 2018 at 8:18 am

    I love that you recited Luke 2 rather than just reading it! I want to try this! Kids are so good at memorizing.

  • Reply Sarah R December 6, 2018 at 8:50 am

    What a beautiful tradition! I love that you are not afraid of changing things to fit your needs and your family’s lifestyle. I think too often, I get caught up in all the minutiae that I miss the bigger picture.

    I knew you had a brother that passed away, but I didn’t know the details until now. Your Christmas 1999 is such a beautiful post. What a wonderful way to honor him.

    PS – I live in Brookfield, WI. Where in Wisconsin did you live? 🙂

    • Reply Janssen Bradshaw December 6, 2018 at 9:08 am

      I was born in Milwaukee and then we lived just outside of Madison until we moved to Las Vegas!

  • Reply Suzanne December 6, 2018 at 8:56 am

    What a beautiful tradition!

  • Reply Serene December 6, 2018 at 9:08 am

    That’s too cute. I’m with your husband on thr bread bowls. I’d eat mine and skip dessert (haha). I read about your brother. Upon hearing about about cancer related deaths I can’t help but think,” Really, there’s no cure yet? Really?” I hope,in the distant future, that you and your family will be spiritually reunited with your late brother.

  • Reply Megan Long December 6, 2018 at 2:06 pm

    I think you posted about this once long ago before your blog hit the big time, and when my children got old enough for commercialism to become a worry we decided to try it. We’ve done it ever since and I love it so much! Ours is also kind of a spread of cheese and dried fruit (we used to do soup when I was a kid on Christmas Eve and I never liked it). I love it because low prep AND focus on the Savior. This year we’re going to give the girls little New Testaments to get ready for next year’s course of study at church and let them follow along. I’ve never thought about memorizing parts though – that might be fun to try! Thank you for blessing my family’s life with this tradition.

    • Reply Janssen Bradshaw December 6, 2018 at 2:55 pm

      Megan! This is the nicest nicest comment – you’ve made my whole day. I’m so glad it’s been a beautiful part of your family tradition too!

  • Reply Jaime December 6, 2018 at 3:43 pm

    Love this post and such great ideas. Can you explain how and what parts of scripture the girls get ? And how do you practice this (or anything that requires memorization) with young children ? Thank you!

  • Reply Pam December 6, 2018 at 4:39 pm

    Oh my! How special is this!

  • Reply Brittany Campbell December 6, 2018 at 5:06 pm

    Oh Janssen! I loved this post and though about and prayed for your family all day when I read the Christmas 1999 post. I have loved your blog for so long, and your blog has singlehandedly renewed my love of reading and passing it along to my children along with cooking and baking all of the recipes you post! After I read this post, I love you even more! Have a wonderful Christmas!

    • Reply Janssen Bradshaw December 7, 2018 at 7:00 am

      Brittany, this is so nice of you – thank you so much for your prayers and your kind note.

  • Reply Halie Pullen December 7, 2018 at 6:21 am

    Wow, I’ve never heard of this before, but I love it! We always have some sort of family get-together on Christmas Eve, but I might suggest doing something like this for this year!

  • Reply Mary Ellis December 7, 2018 at 6:39 am

    This is so awesome! Totally going to try this this year. Question for you: How do you break up the “parts” of Luke 2? Esp f or younger kids? Do you keep the whole story short?

    • Reply Janssen Bradshaw December 7, 2018 at 6:41 am

      We do verses 1-19 (skipping verse 2) and each of the girls has one verse. Right now I do a MASSIVE section because I have it all memorized, but as they get older, I’ll give them more of my section. And Tally doesn’t have a part right now.

  • Reply Diana December 7, 2018 at 8:07 am

    What a lovely, wonderful tradition! And how special that you can adapt it to fit your family and your girls love it too!

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