One of our family’s favorite guilty pleasures is watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation during the holiday season. We love watching Clark, Russ, and cousin Eddy fumble their way through Griswold family traditions. It’s a tradition of our own.
Every year, around this time, we settle into a routine of rituals, such as watching the Griswold’s discover the squirrel living in their Christmas tree, that bring joy to our family and lay enriching groundwork for years to come. Holiday traditions are a big deal around our house.
I hope they are part of your holiday season as well, because holiday traditions lead to the magic moments that bind families and communities together year round.
The Importance of Holiday Traditions
Traditions are one of the foundations of a family. They are rituals, big and small, that often mark particular times and events throughout the year. Traditions give us a sense of belonging and provide ways to express our priorities. They bind us to past generations of family, and build a bridge to future ones.
Traditions that take place during the holiday season are among the most cherished and sacred. Three holiday traditions, in particular, stand out from my childhood. We’d always go to church on Christmas Eve. We’d take a walk after our Christmas Eve meal. And the meal would feature a once-per-year side dish called Yorkshire pudding (made from batter consisting of eggs, flour, milk and beef drippings).
More than opening the presents under the tree, these are the traditions that I remember most fondly and vividly.
I know I’m not alone in cherishing these little moments. In her book, Ask the Children, author Ellen Galinsky discusses a survey she conducted in which she asked children what they would remember most about their childhood. Most responded by talking about simple traditions like family dinners, holiday get-togethers, and bedtime stories. It may seem like the presents under the tree get all of the attention, but simple traditions are the real star of the holiday show.
A New Approach to an Old Tradition
Traditions are more important than ever to me now that I have young children of my own. Yes, my kids make their Christmas wish lists and love tearing through presents to see what Santa brought them, but we’ve all witnessed how quickly the allure of a shiny new toy fades. The best moments are the small, simple ones that don’t involve wrapping paper and big credit card bills.
Last year we started a new holiday tradition. Our kids love decorating the Christmas tree, and are always giddy with anticipation as I bring boxes down from the attic filled with our collection of ornaments.
My wife and I have collected many beautiful ornaments over the years, and so in years past we would carefully hang these ornaments just so in order to give them prominence at the front of the tree.
Our kids, on the other hand, are most drawn to many of the old, imperfect ornaments at the bottom of the box—ornaments from our youth that were preserved by our parents and passed down to us.
These include macaroni noodles glued to construction paper, shrinky dink candy canes, tattered old Sesame Street characters, and gumdrop glued snowmen that my wife and I created several decades ago when we were kids. These are the ornaments that we traditionally placed at the back of the tree, for no one to see.
But last year we decided to do something different. We’ve been on a journey to purge perfection—or at least the appearance of it (after all, no matter how hard we tried perfection was never attainable)—from our lives. So instead of imposing our own version of what a Christmas tree should look like, we decided to let the kids take charge.
Our tree now looks like something you’d find on the island of misfit toys. It would never grace the pages of a magazine, but rather than perfection our tree is now filled with something far more powerful: love and precious family memories. The ornaments that spent so many years at the back of the tree are now taking center stage. And our tree is far better for it.
But it’s not the ornaments themselves that matter the most. It’s the story that each ornament represents that our kids appreciate most. While there’s plenty of room for more ornaments on our tree, it hardly seems big enough to contain all of the memories it holds. Its branches sag under the weight of holiday tradition.
Our kids delight in the tree’s miniature reminders of moments passed, from ornaments my wife and I received as gifts during our own childhoods, to crafts we made in school. Faded photos of family, often glued to colored construction paper, tell stories of past generations who are no longer with us in body, but remain present in spirit. Our tree, imperfect as it is, tells our family’s story. It’s a tradition that I hope our kids will continue with their own.
Three Ideas for Holiday Traditions of Your Own
There are many holiday traditions that we engage in every year as a family. Again, it’s far less important—especially to kids—what a tradition entails. What’s more important is the establishment of holiday rituals, regardless of their form.
Here are a few ideas for fun and meaningful holiday traditions that you may consider adopting for your own family.
1. Cutting down a Christmas tree.
Sure, it’s easy to go to the local tree lot and pick up a beautiful Fraser Fir pre-wrapped in plastic webbing. But there’s nothing like trudging out into the countryside with hacksaw in hand, and family in tow, and cutting down the perfect tree to serve as the backdrop for some imperfect ornaments. I never visited a tree farm until we moved to a small town in northern Michigan three years ago. It’s now one of my favorite holiday traditions.
2. The White Envelope.
A recent post on Becoming Minimalist shared a story written by Nancy Gavin that first appeared in the December 14, 1982 issue of Woman’s Day magazine. It described a tradition started by Gavin’s family in which a white envelope would be placed in the Christmas tree that contained a note that explained the surprise charitable contribution made by the family to a worthy cause.
Gavin explained that: “The envelope became the highlight of our Christmas. It was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning and our children, ignoring their new toys, would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents.”
The story inspired another family to found The White Envelope Project and Giving101, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating youth about the importance of giving. I encourage you to read the post—it’s a moving story of giving and gratitude. The “white envelope” is a tradition that our family will be adopting this year.
3. An outdoor adventure.
In recent years we have started another new tradition: All gift opening-activity on Christmas day must cease by noon. At that point, everyone must wriggle into snow pants, coats, and boots, and head outside. We hike, we sled, we have snowball fights. We get out in nature and have fun together as a family. It’s amazing how quickly the kids forget about the toys they received (and more importantly, didn’t receive) while playing and laughing with loved ones in nature.
Experiencing the Simple Joys of the Holidays
Too often, the holidays are a hectic, harried time, full of shopping and social obligations. During the past few years we’ve been making a concerted effort to be more present, mindful, and grateful throughout the season, while focusing on things—family, friends, and fun—that really matter. A big part of that mindfulness is maintaining established traditions and creating some new ones.
Don’t get caught up in trying to create perfect, Pinterest-worthy family traditions. Slow down and let go of expectations. The best traditions are often messy, simple, and spontaneous. There are no rules when it comes to creating traditions, other than the importance of having them. The real magic of holiday traditions lies in the opportunity to experience special moments with family that will last for generations to come.