Holiday traditions are a lovely way to create lasting family memories. But do you have to bake cookies with your kids every year just because that’s what you did with your own mom? Or maybe you grew up without much holiday fuss and feel like you missed out; how do you go about implementing more festive fun for your own family? Are traditions still traditions when they’re invented from scratch?
“Holiday traditions, and tradition and rituals in general, help families create shared meaning,” family therapist Megan Costello tells us. She brought up another way of looking at traditions: “In building a family life, parents are creating a whole new culture that has never existed before.” That’s right, parents: great power, great responsibility.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to create brand-new holiday traditions for your own kids, regardless of what kind of holidays (or lack thereof) you grew up with. Just try to look beyond Elf on the Shelf (but no judgments — we definitely have one of those) to create unique opportunities to share this special time of year.
Below are tips on how to start new holiday traditions tailor-made for your own family — inspired by real parents who did just that.
More: The Best Holiday Books to Read With Kids
Many modern parents are inspired to create new traditions out of their respective beliefs, religions or varying degrees of observance. Brooklyn mom Laura explains that her daughter “has only been around for two Hanukkahs so far, but we made sure to light candles before bedtime and sing a song from my husband’s more secular tradition and a prayer from my slightly more observant one. We bought our daughter a kids book about celebrating Hanukkah and read it to her occasionally ahead of the holiday (or randomly throughout the year), so she knows what it’s all about. And we’re sure to enjoy at least one feast full of latkes, which may be her favorite part (can’t blame her).”
Los Angeles mom Robynn Markus has a unique activity planned for her two preschoolers: “Since my husband is Jewish and I was raised with an exorbitant amount of Christmas tradition, I started making a ‘House of Hanukkah’ with my kids,” says Markus. “We buy a huge box (big enough for them to fit inside) and make Hanukkah decorations and cover it with lights inside and out, and every night of Hanukkah a gift ‘magically’ appears inside! I think they enjoy it more than Christmas now.”
Hone in on ideas that appeal to you
You’re not likely to stick with a tradition that you’re not interested in yourself. I love decorating (and eating) cookies, so holiday baking was a natural choice for my family. I let my kids help with the mixing and have them cut out some of their own cookies with cutters, and they get to decorate a few. Even though it can be stressful to bake with preschoolers, I grin and bear it because they love to “help.” Plus, they love to be involved in making gifts, and we love to give out edible treats. And I know that when they’re older, they (hopefully) won’t spill flour all over the kitchen, but we’ll still have our annual baking tradition.
Consider giving back
It’s always a good idea to instill the holiday spirit of giving; bringing children on community-service excursions is a great idea. “I made an advent calendar with little boxes glued to a board,” says mom of two Jenny McCormick. “A third of the boxes have candy or little toys, a third have pieces of paper with family activities written on them and a third have charitable or donation-based activities listed. The kids might find ‘Bake cookies for firefighters’ or ‘Donate a bag of toys.’ It inspires us to give back.”
Use your environment
Is there something special about the area you live in that you can incorporate into a holiday event? “Since we live in Southern California, we go to the beach on Christmas Day,” says mom Sarah Grubb, who started a unique tradition with her 21-month-old son. “We get a shell each time and put it in a jar.” A Christmas shell jar? Adorable. Mom of two Katie Szurpicki is originally from Nebraska, but she also takes advantage of her current Los Angeles locale. “Now that we are in California, we hike on holidays,” she says of her new family tradition. Soak up that sun when you can!
Another nature-filled holiday tradition is that of Holly Ramey, a Nashville mom and healer who celebrates Solstice. “The winter solstice is the rebirth of the sun — when the days begin to lengthen, a solar new year,” Ramey explains. “I love to celebrate with my daughter by building a ceremonial altar with flowers, candles and crystals with the colors yellow and orange to represent the sun. Sometimes I add pictures or quotes — whatever feels relevant to the theme of rebirth and renewal. To include my daughter Ruby in this ritual, we’ll light candles, sing a song (I like “This Little Light of Mine”) and say a prayer of gratitude to welcome the light into our lives.”
And speaking of nature, mom of one Megan Persson, who lives in Sweden, plants her Christmas trees after the holiday is over. “Each year, we buy a living Christmas tree, which we plant on our land once the ground thaws, and we’ve named the ‘Christmas forest’ after our daughter,” says Persson. “We will take a picture each year with her next to her Christmas forest and let her witness herself grow in relation to the trees.” Is that a magical idea or what? “We want to teach her the importance of being a good steward of nature,” explains Persson.
Aka the “reason for the season,” whatever that means to you. Incorporating “gratitude jars” at Thanksgiving is a fun way to recognize what we have to be thankful for. “Thanksgiving to me is a truly beautiful occasion that captures the spirit of being grateful,” says Claire Summers. “These special moments are to be celebrated and remembered for years to come, which is why I started our own tradition by creating the Thanksgiving Glass Jar.” Each day through the month of November, Summers and her family and friends write down things they are thankful for on notecards and put the cards in their jar. On Thanksgiving Day, they all read the cards aloud. “We do this before we sit down to eat; it not only gets us talking and sharing, but acts to open up our hearts and fill them with love and laughter throughout the day.”
Keep it simple
Get the family involved in no-stress activities like singing carols, decorating or even just wearing matching pajamas. Anything that fosters bonding is a great idea. “We’ve tried other traditions, but this one has stuck,” Sarah Robinson says of her family’s matching holiday pajamas. “My oldest, who is now 5, looks forward to it and knows it’s ‘our thing.’” I too got my family matching Hanna Andersson pajamas for Christmas. And yes, I bought them in October — that’s how excited I am.
Whatever new tradition you decide to start with your family, getting kids on board is key; don’t drag them into something they’re not psyched about. “The hallmark of a successful tradition is to create one that your loved ones look forward to and that can be shared for years to come,” Summers advises. The best way to do that? Take into account your kids’ input and interests, because these traditions will likely make up a big part of their childhood memories. Remember what we said about great responsibility?