In the midst of the holiday deal frenzy and the search to find that perfect gift, I often lament that the true meaning of the season is easily lost. When I think about the holidays, the words that come to mind are family, sharing, giving, memories, and hope, not traffic jams, long lines, and stress. This is not what the holidays should be about!
The good news, however, is that holiday joy and memory-making are actually most easily found in the simplest of pleasures. As a mother, it’s crucial to me that my kids learn and appreciate the true meaning of the season through creating, giving, and sharing, not focusing solely on their personal wants. Introducing family traditions early on takes little financial investment and will impact children the rest of their lives. Here are a few of my favorite family traditions that make our season more gratifying:
Light the Fire
The moment the temperature dips below 40 degrees, we make it a habit to light a fire every night. I have always equated the feeling of warmth with family and the holidays. Gathering in front of the glow of the fire is truly magical and makes us all feel content and nurtured in the knowledge that the holidays are upon us! We also try to ingest the glow, so to speak, by drinking delicious warm beverages — our special hot chocolate recipe, hot cider, and unique seasonal teas make us feel soothed and warm throughout the entire season.
Sing Seasonal Songs
We enjoy playing holiday music in the car and at home. Sometimes I’ll print out lyrics and ask everyone to join in. We also love making traditional songs into rounds — breaking our larger group into three and having one group begin, one group come in a few bars later, and the last group come in a few bars after that. We usually sing the song two or three times. It never goes perfectly, but we always end in peals of laughter!
We always decorate the house with homemade decorations. Simple paper snowflakes are a family favorite! For a little twist, we like to make twirling ballerinas with the snowflakes serving as the dancers’ skirts. In our household, everything becomes a competition. Recently, we had a snowflake-making contest where a few of us created snowflakes and asked the others to vote on their favorite design (creators entirely anonymous). The result was that our youngest son won hands down, proving that with snowflakes, at least, age and experience don’t always win the day! Paper chains in holiday colors are another fun and easy craft, and look incredibly festive draped across the house. A final favorite for us are paper-doll type chains featuring holiday figures and icons such as Christmas trees, Santa Claus, dreidels, and wrapped presents. We love decorating them and hanging them around the house.
We are obsessed with making holiday-themed food. Our kids love nothing more than decorating and devouring their concoctions! And decorated sugar cookies have no religious denomination! They can be cut out in any shape and size, and decorated in various colors to be enjoyed by all! Another one of our favorite activities is making gingerbread houses. We model our activity after the TV show “Chopped,” giving everyone access to the same decorating supplies and challenging them to come up with the most creative combination of them on their house. We then have a judging panel and winners, but that is certainly not necessary. The finished homes go on display in our kitchen for all to see throughout the entire season!
Consider making a request that everyone in the family give one gift that is homemade and truly from the heart. Some ideas include a drawing or painting; a photo in a hand-decorated frame; any craft, a poem, story, or song; or a scrapbook capturing favorite memories. Doug still treasures a photo collage our daughter made for him from one of our favorite family vacations!
Take a Holiday Photo
Have everyone dress in their favorite holiday finery and have a neighbor or friend take a photo of the group to commemorate the season. Include pets and anything else that is truly special to each individual. Make certain one of the photos is lighthearted and fun —our go-to is the pose of everyone jumping in the air and catching the group in mid-air. Then as a family create a funny caption to define the photo and turn them into homemade holiday cards. Cards are the perfect way to spread joy to family and friends — especially those who live far away!
Create an evening focused on honoring the family’s culture by eating traditional holiday foods, reading traditional holiday stories, and playing traditional holiday games. This will begin a tradition that your children will look forward to year after year! Hanukkah is full of traditions for us … from making latkes to playing the dreidel game with Hanukkah gelt (chocolate) to choosing and lighting the candles and opening one gift each night for eight nights. Each of our children has their own menorah they received at birth, plus multiple others they made in preschool, and one of our favorite contests (yes, it’s all about healthy competition for our family!) is to light the candles at exactly the same time, and see whose candle is the last to go out. It is a wonderful tradition because it encourages the children to watch the candles burn and flicker to their last wisp of smoke. We also all gather around the candles on the last night of Hanukkah — we have about a dozen different menorahs, each with nine candles lit, so the glow on that last night is absolutely magical. We always turn the lights off, and just take a moment to appreciate the heat, light, and glow that is given off by that large number of candles burning bright.
Teach the Art of Wrapping
Kids love the idea of wrapping gifts, but most don’t truly understand how to do it! Teach your children techniques for wrapping presents, then practice, practice, practice! Start easy with square or rectangular-shaped items, and once mastered, move on to uniquely shaped gifts. There is no better way to feel holiday cheer than wrapping gifts, and we have spent many blissful hours doing so!
Give to Others
For the last nine years, my children and I have donated and wrapped toys for those in need in our community. Of all our traditions, this is the one that carries the most personal meaning for me. We wrap for a local charity called Al’s Angels, which acquires, wraps, and delivers close to 10,000 gifts for children in need. Their wrapping parties take place in a donated space that changes every year, sometimes with 50 volunteers of all ages wrapping, other times with only a handful. But everyone is there with the same intent — to make the holidays a little brighter for those less fortunate. And my hope is that the more my children find joy in giving to others, the less they will focus on what they receive. And that will in turn make them a little more thankful for what they already have.
My hope is that the memories my children carry with them from the holidays will light a glow within them that burns eternally. The holidays are a reminder to me that family matters and that we must care about each other, our friends, our neighbors, and all of humanity — especially those who are less fortunate. That human connection is so much more powerful than material gifts, and will endure well past the holiday season!
My wish for you? Peace, joy, and time to make memories with the ones you love!