When my mother developed the dementia associated with Alzheimer's disease the concept of memory become very real to me. It is our memories that define us and our lives; our memories make us who we are, they inform our future selves, they are our connection with every other person. The memories we help to create in the lives of our children are incredibly precious, which is why, when the holidays come around, it is so vital that we establish traditions to associate with those memories.
Another reason for family traditions; we live in a chaotic and constantly changing world. Now, more than ever, children (and adults) need some things that they can count on. Traditions are indispensable in fashioning a family's identity and creating a feeling of inclusiveness for everyone involved.
Christmas, in particular, lends itself to tradition and ritual because there are already so many established traditions and rituals associated with the celebration. Gift-giving, caroling, choirs, special programs, shopping, baking cookies, visiting Santa; any of these can be incorporated in a unique way into your own family traditions.
Here are some specific ideas and “seeds" to help you think about creating or strengthening the holiday traditions in your family.
It's important that your traditions “fit" your family; forcing the 1938 version of “A Christmas Carol" on everyone may not go over well. Think about what you all enjoy when deciding what your traditions will be; some of them will develop organically, some deliberately. For years our family has enjoyed brunch, a matinee and then a Chinese restaurant (ala “The Christmas Story") every Christmas day. It works for us.
Choosing a particular day for tree-trimming can be a meaningful tradition. Many families put up their trees on the day after Thanksgiving, while everyone is still high off of left-over turkey and tryptophan. Visiting a tree farm to purchase or even chop down a Christmas tree is a wonderful tradition; the entire experience is one that will give the tree so much more meaning. Children will appreciate the experience, will enjoy helping to choose the tree, and will be much more invested in decorating it.
An easy tradition that will give the family something to do together; make garlands for the tree. Put on some Christmas music or a favorite Christmas movie, make some hot chocolate or hot cider and string together cranberries or popcorn, or make paper chains, or cut out snowflakes. Use them to decorate the Christmas tree, mantle, stair railing. Strings of popcorn and cranberries can also be used to decorate outdoor trees for the benefit of the birds.
Something I did with my own children was buy or make each of them a personal ornament every year, from the time they were born until they were through high school. When they got married, I boxed up their ornaments and handed them over; they were able to take those ornaments to decorate their own trees. Each ornament has an association that they will be able to share with their own children (if they ever have them…Granny's not getting any younger!)
Advent calendars or other Christmas “countdowns" are always fun; they can be as simple as changing the number on a chalkboard or as elaborate as giving a small gift each day leading up to Christmas.
An abundance of annual plays and holiday entertainment can lead to a family tradition. My daughter and I went to see the Nutcracker Ballet every December from the time she was 3 years old until she was off to college. I can see her twirling around the lobby of Clowes Hall during intermission in her fancy Christmas finery like it was yesterday.
If you are religious, or even if you aren't, go to a Midnight mass or other church service; most churches host special programs during the Christmas season, and many of them are annual events.
One of our family traditions is singing Christmas songs and carols. This is something we do every year with my husband's family; we always have fun and it is a way to honor the memory of my husband's parents who started the tradition. If you don't sing, pick a movie that everyone enjoys and watch it each year; read a story; play a certain game; the simplest things can take on extraordinary meaning when we equate them with a time of togetherness and a shared history.
One family I know of hosts a Christmas Eve sleep-over; aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents all spend the night and share Christmas morning together; each child gets a new pair of pjs to sleep in. That sounds like one of Dante's nine circles of hell to me, but to each his own.
The pjs reminded me of another of our family traditions; my mother-in-law bought each of her grandsons some type of Nerf gun every Christmas, from the time they were toddlers until they were well into high school. The boys absolutely loved it; those Nerf darts flew around our heads for hours.
During a season that has become notorious for commercialism and gimme gimme gimme, establishing a family tradition that involves selfless giving can be profound. Volunteer to serve Christmas dinner at a shelter, “adopt" a needy child or family for Christmas (“Angel" trees can be found in banks, stores, churches and other places), bake cookies for a lonely neighbor or nursing home. I know of one family who sorts through their toys prior to every Christmas; anything that is in good condition and isn't being used is donated. If you are an active bunch, participating in one of the many walk/runs for charity that occur during this season can be a meaningful endeavor.
If you have holiday traditions, keep at them; even when your children get older and seem to be unappreciative of those annual rituals, do them anyway. When they regain their minds (post-adolescence) they will value those family customs once again.
So enrich the lives of your family with your own holiday traditions and soul - sustaining memories. To help you along –
Some Christmas Movies
A Christmas Carol (1951)
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
The Bishop's Wife (I love this movie!)
A Christmas Story
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Die Hard (Sure, why not?)
The Polar Express
This isn't a movie, but it is one of our traditions and one of the most heart-warming renditions of A Christmas Carol ever – Mr. Magoo's A Christmas Carol. I know. But trust me. The animation is what you would expect from 1962, but the story and songs are great. In fact, I am going to go dig it out right now.
Best Read-Aloud Christmas Books
How The Grinch Stole Christmas!
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
The Nutcracker (Susan Jeffers)
The Legend of the Poinsettia
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey
The Polar Express
The Crippled Lamb
The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree
The Snowman (love the video too!)