Special thanks to General Mills for sponsoring today’s post. I was thrilled to partner with them since General Mills products are an integral part of our daily family life and holiday traditions.
I didn’t grow up with a lot of family holiday traditions. My mom liked to decorate for the holidays, but aside from opening gifts together (either on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning), we didn’t do anything else as a family. Our house wasn’t exactly a hotbed of Christmas spirit.
When I met my husband, I was introduced to an entirely different holiday experience. In his family of 16 (mom, dad, and 14 kids), they had several family holiday traditions! The difference between how our two families celebrated Christmas were very different.
It’s an amazing thing to watch a family with traditions. They have an unspoken understanding of what needs to be done and shared memories of the past. There’s an excitement leading up to the holidays that has nothing to do with material goods and a comfort that comes from the reliability of the traditions that endure through the years. I knew I would raise my children with as many holiday traditions as I could once I saw their effect.
As a military family, this became even more important to me since it was one way to provide stability for my children. Military life also presented challenges to traditions since my husband was often deployed during the holidays. It’s hard to enjoy a family holiday tradition without the whole family!
Also, trying to pull off a dozen holiday traditions on my own while taking care of the kids was a challenge. As a result, the holiday traditions we adopted were those that we found the most fun and were the easiest to continue year after year.
If, like me, you grew up without holiday traditions but you’d like to start, these are all great ones to introduce. Since many of these were ones I adopted from my husband’s family, even those of you steeped in tradition might find a few new ideas.
Fun Holiday Activities That DIDN’T Become Traditions
Over the years, we’ve tried a number of fun holiday activities. Any of these would be great family traditions, but for one reason or another, didn’t become one of MY family’s traditions.
Much to my musical husband’s dismay, he was only able to talk our family into one season of caroling our neighbors. Apparently, all of our children inherited my singing ability, or lack of, to be more accurate. We don’t mind belting out Christmas carols. We’ve just decided that it’s a better gift to do so in the privacy of our own home.
If your family creates a better harmony than mine does, or if your neighbors are hard of hearing, Christmas caroling would make a wonderful holiday tradition. It’s free, easy, and can be done almost anywhere.
One year I made salt dough ornaments with the kids. These are super easy to make and fun to decorate. To this day, they are some of my favorite ornaments to hang on the tree. In fact, this year the kids asked to make new salt dough ornaments since it has been 10 years since we last made them.
We didn’t make this an annual tradition since my kids already make ornaments every year at school and at various holiday events. It seemed redundant to make them as a family too. Over the years, we’ve sometimes tackled new ornaments or crafts (e.g. our Jolly Rancher ornaments and our fleece wreaths). In retrospect, I wish I’d been more purposeful in choosing a new craft each year that we could work on together.
Every family should make a gingerbread house together at least once. It’s fun to watch everyone’s ideas come together. It’s also messy, a little difficult to assemble (particularly if little ones insist on helping with putting the house together), and a challenge to eat.
The kids love making the houses so I’m sure they would have enjoyed it as an annual tradition. Once every few years is enough for me though so in our house, it didn’t become a tradition.
Elf on the Shelf
I’m not sure how we missed out on this very popular tradition, but we did. By the time I was aware of it, most of my kids were older. And the one year we tried, the dog ate the elf.
Since we never got past the first day, I don’t have any insight to offer other than the fact that millions of other families seem to really enjoy this tradition!
Our Family Holiday Traditions
Nothing builds anticipation like a good countdown. We have multiple advent calendars to help us countdown to Christmas.
The first one we purchased is a nativity scene with pockets for each of the figures that belong in the scene. Each day we add a new person, animal or item to the scene (thanks to the magic of velcro).
Next, we got one that has little doors that open to reveal a tiny prize for each day (we use chocolate kisses). Sometime after that, we got one that holds candy canes.
Each new addition becomes another part of the tradition (we don’t get rid of any as we add new ones). As a result, we’re currently counting down to Christmas with five different calendars.
You don’t have to buy advent calendars. A simple search for “DIY Advent Calendars” on Pinterest will provide you with hundreds of options you can make yourself. You can also use a printable like my Random Acts of Kindness Christmas Calendar for Kids. There are so many advent calendar options, it should be easy to find one that fits your family.
Trimming the Tree
My family is completely inconsistent when it comes to real vs. artificial tree. When my husband isn’t deployed, we will usually get a real tree. When he’s gone, I pull out the artificial tree because it’s easier. I know many families go out to select their tree as a family. I think that’s a wonderful tradition! It just wasn’t enticing enough for me to drag four kids out in the middle of winter alone and then ignore their bickering as I worked to strap the tree to the roof of the minivan.
We do, however, decorate our tree together. Growing up, my mom wanted a “beautiful” tree, meaning that our homemade ornaments didn’t make the cut. My MIL has two trees – the “fancy” one in the living room and the “fun” one in the family room.
I have several friends who have “themed” trees (e.g. Disney, military, color scheme) sometimes as their only tree, but often in addition to their “main” tree. Remember that part where I said I wanted EASY traditions? Yeah, we only have one tree.
And because one of my favorite parts of Christmas is taking a trip down memory lane as we unbox the kids’ homemade ornaments from years past, all of the handmade ornaments go on the tree alongside my White House ornaments and collectible glass ornaments. Like our family, our Christmas tree refuses to be stereotyped.
My in-laws have a very interesting tradition of hiding a pickle ornament on their tree. In their family, the first person to find the pickle would get a small gift as a prize.
We also have a pickle ornament, which I hide each year somewhere on the tree. The winner in my family gets the satisfaction of winning. If you have a competitive family, victory is enough of a reward.
You could also give the winner a piece of candy or let him or her choose dinner for that night. The tradition is about the fun of searching, not about the prize.
Since we move every few years, our decorating tradition isn’t strictly defined. There are some decorations that go up every year – the nativity scene, the Christmas village, and the holiday bathroom and kitchen linens. And others that go up when we have the time, energy, and space for them – window wreaths, garland for the stairs, and outdoor lights.
I love a home that’s decked out for the holidays, but even just a few accents can make a home more festive. Don’t feel like you have to turn your home into a Winter Wonderland to make decorating one of your holiday traditions. It can be as simple as hanging a wreath on the front door!
We always hang stockings. In the houses where we didn’t have a fireplace, we’d hang them on the stair railing leading upstairs.
Since we are Catholic, Saint Nicholas fills our stockings on December 6 (St. Nicholas Day). The stocking goodies are usually fun items like punch balloons or practical items like socks.
I know most other families fill their stockings on Christmas Eve. Presumably Santa fills them as part of his visit when he’s delivering the other gifts. That makes a lot of sense to me. I do like that since my kids open their stockings so early, those smaller, inexpensive gifts don’t get lost in the excitement of the bigger gifts. So, even if you’re not Catholic, consider creating a reason for Santa to make an early stocking deposit.
When I was first married, I used to call my MIL with a lot of cooking questions. My mother hated cooking and so I only knew how to make things that I could easily figure out on my own.
I was thrilled when my MIL brought me a Betty Crocker Cookbook as a housewarming present the first time she came to visit. This was the same cookbook I had seen her pull out in her own kitchen to bake her Thanksgiving pies and her Christmas sugar cookies.
To this day, that sugar cookie recipe is the one my own family uses every year as part of our holiday baking tradition. Even though we usually make a lot of different holiday treats, the sugar cookies are the ones the whole family helps make and decorate.
Of all of our family traditions, I think baking together is my favorite. We usually make a wide variety of goodies so we can enjoy different treats all month and so we have plenty to share with our friends and neighbors. Even my mom, who hates to cook, will make the Pillsbury™ Shape™ Christmas Tree Sugar Cookies. So whether you go through 10 lbs of Gold Medal flour, baking sugar cookies from scratch, or go my mom’s route of slice and bake, it’s easy to start a tradition of holiday baking.
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.