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How to Enjoy Family Holiday Traditions When Your Life is Chaotic


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When day to day life is full of change and activity, it’s hard to imagine establishing order and tradition. But it is possible! You really can enjoy family holiday traditions even if your life is chaotic.

hands playing with a truck or holding a star on a wooden background with title text reading How to Create Holiday Traditions When Your Life is Chaotic

When I met my husband, I was in awe of all of his family’s traditions and the Christmas spirit that flowed through his parents’ home. His mother brought all of her childhood family traditions to her own family and the joy and comfort that those reliable behaviors and customs created was palpable.

Before we were even married, I decided I would adopt as many of those family holiday traditions as I could for our own family.

That challenge was more daunting than I expected. As a military family, we had to cope with multiple relocations, separation from my husband for months at a time, and living far from extended family.

a family standing outside

Quickly I realized that traditions requiring my husband’s presence couldn’t be honored every year since he was gone for many of them. I also couldn’t incorporate any traditions related to the weather since the places we lived varied so widely in terms of weather. No bundling up in front of the fire with a hot cup of cocoa in the middle of the desert!

Establishing family holiday traditions WAS difficult, but it wasn’t impossible. I really wanted to provide my kids with some stability in the midst of our chaotic lives. So, I worked hard to find traditions I could honor year after year.

Choosing the Right Family Holiday Traditions

One of the first things I realized, was that I would have to choose traditions that worked with our chaotic lifestyle. For me, that meant working around:

  • My husband’s deployments
  • Inconsistent locations/climate
  • Travel difficulties (depending on where we lived and how many children I was trying to transport)

I couldn’t commit to visiting relatives every year, nor celebrating at home as a family. Also out were cold weather activities and anything I needed my husband to help with.

Remarkably, that left me with a lot of options! Here are the family holiday traditions we celebrate every year:

  • Thanksgiving feast with friends and family anywhere possible
  • Stockings are filled on St. Nicholas Day (12/6) and always include a new ornament

stockings handing from a white brick fireplace

  • Holiday baking
  • Holiday decorations
  • Advent calendars
  • Open one present on Christmas Eve (pajamas to wear that night)

a boy and girl in pajamas

  • Open remaining presents Christmas morning
  • Hang out in pajamas all Christmas day (if we want)
  • Special Christmas dinner

Your list might look different and it should! The thing about family holiday traditions is that they should be special celebrations for your family and be meaningful for you.

Incorporate Variety Into Your Family Holiday Traditions

One of the things I try very hard to instill in my kids is resiliency. Because our lives are fairly unpredictable, I want them to be comfortable with change. One way I do this is to make variety part of our traditions.

For example, though holiday baking is one of our annual traditions, WHAT we bake often changes. I always let the kids have a vote in what we make and often this means trying new recipes. We also end up with popular favorites that are requested every year.

One of our traditions is choosing a tradition to try. My kids love finding out what traditions their friends celebrate and often ask if we can try them too. That’s how we ended up Christmas caroling one year and doing Elf on the Shelf another year. There was also the infamous homemade Christmas of 2014.

Variety also means not feeling like we have to check off every tradition every year. For example, we only manage to work in gingerbread houses every other year for some reason and I’m okay with that.

three kids sitting at a kitchen table making gingerbread houses

Focus on Family Gathering

Because our family is the most stable thing in our chaotic lives, the number one thing I focus on when it comes to our holiday traditions is gathering as a family. Even when my husband can’t be here for the holidays, we exchange emails, packages, and if we’re lucky, phone calls or video chats.

When we can, we try to travel to see relatives during the holidays or invite them to come to us. When we can’t gather in person, we call and exchange texts or, more recently, post on each other’s social media profiles.

More than money, status, or accolades, family is what makes up the core of our values and provides a community to support us. No matter what other family holiday traditions you celebrate, gathering and connecting with your loved ones should be at the top of the list!

four kids holding their Christmas presents in front of the Christmas tree

Though we might have skipped one or two of our annual traditions over the years, the one thing we’ve never done is allowed anyone in our family to celebrate alone. Even on deployments, my husband has his brothers-in-arms, which is an extension of his family in many ways.

Thrive This Holiday Season

Need help getting ready for the holidays? Use one of these printable Christmas planners.

All three have helpful checklists and ideas to help you get and stay organized through the busy holiday season. Each one is a little different so that you can choose the one that works best for you.

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