By Kristen S. Bourgault (Recycled from December 2013, Edition 2)
Illustrated by Bob Berry
Every year on Christmas Eve after dinner at my parents’ house, we settle around the lit Christmas tree and read ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. Their copy of the book isn’t fancy or leather-bound, but rather an oversized, three-foot-tall coloring book that was started by my parents the year they were married. The coloring is not complete—many pages were left unfinished, abandoned as the years of parenthood wore on, and after 30 years of continued reading, some pages have started to fall out and tear.
Still, every single year, no matter who has been invited as a dinner guest, or who stopped by at the last minute, or who surprised us from out of town, we go around the room taking turns reading pages. As our families have grown, younger readers would struggle with the words, older readers would strain to see the pages across the room and jubilant guests who’d had too much wine over dinner would stumble over the words with laughter. And throughout the years of repetition of this small and simple activity, memories were created. You cannot envision my parents’ house on Christmas Eve without bringing to mind that ratty old book. And while many of us could recite it by heart, we still pull it out year after year and come together in that moment, to read the written story while creating a story of our own.
When I look back on the holidays I’ve celebrated both as a child and an adult, they are full of rich memories. Specific moments from each year stand out—special gifts that spoke to me, late-night parties with surprise guests, amazing meals that were prepared to perfection. But what strikes me the most when looking back through my mental catalog of holidays are not the extraordinary things that happened just once, but rather the more subtle ones we repeated. The treks to the tree farm deep in the woods, stuffing the stockings while trying to guess what was wrapped inside each little package, decorating the tree with the full knowledge that my mother would rearrange the ornaments as soon as we went to bed, opening that one special Christmas Eve gift (it was always pajamas) or blowing the French horn to awaken our parents on Christmas morning.
Traditions are the patterns we repeat each year to celebrate the holidays. They are a way of measuring a family, of measuring time and change, of revisiting things that were old and experiencing them as new again, with the wisdom gained over the past year.
Traditions help children and adults alike know what to expect during a busy season. They help to anchor us during this chaotic time and to focus on what is important. To envision the history we are creating as a family—an elegant story that grows and changes as years pass, but has at its core solid love and understanding. It’s a loyalty and commitment to one another and the silly ideas we hold to as a bonded family unit.
How to Start a Tradition with Your Family
Draw from the past. It would be hard to identify the beginning of most traditions, as they are often passed down from generation to generation without much thought to their rhyme or reason. But the beauty of traditions lies in their ability to be carried forward—so your past is always a good place to begin. If you are looking to start a new tradition in your family, talk to those who came before you to discover what sticks out most in their mind from their childhood holiday memories. Reach back into your own childhood and try to remember the things that you did each year. Derive traditions from your family’s past by calling your grandmother to hear those old stories. Explore things that are traditional in your town, culture and heritage. You could bring back an old forgotten family recipe, collect ornaments from your elderly relatives to build your own collection, or start using a pitcher that has been passed down for many generations.
Make it unique. To create a tradition that will stand the test of time with your family, pick something that you all enjoy doing together. This seems obvious, but it might take a bit of thought and conversation to arrive at something everyone is truly interested in. If this is something you want to do every year, it will be more fun if everyone is involved in coming up with the ideas. This way you are less likely to have to pull teeth to get everyone to participate. Think long term about how your family will grow and change, and anticipate an activity that will endure the years. An outdoorsy family might select a Christmas Eve hike through the woods, setting out treats for the birds. While a more media-centered family might enjoy creating a video holiday greeting together with their cameras and computer.
Choose something that speaks to who you are as a family, and it will have a better chance of standing the test of time. Don’t get tied up in other peoples’ ideas of traditions—go with things that will work well for the family you have, not the family you wish you had.
Keep it simple. Traditions do not have to be complicated; in fact, the more simplistic the idea, the more likely you are to do it every year! Don’t make elaborate plans for how your tradition will be carried out, but rather create simple ideas that can be expanded on and evolve over time. The act of doing something repetitive each year as a family is the most important part.
You can use traditions as a way of making the obligatory parts of your holiday more fun. Get together with the neighbors to do your wrapping and have everyone bring over their supplies to share. Getting it all done together can give you a sense of accomplishment that you will want to revisit each year! Write out the Christmas cards assembly-line style. Have one person stuff the cards, one put the addresses on, one do the stamps.
Don’t forget to laugh. Humor goes a long way to sustain us, especially as the years wear on and we all grow and change. Even when the dynamics of your family become complicated and strained, revisiting a good laugh you all shared can remind you of the deep bond that you have formed. Incorporating humor into traditions can extend their shelf life. Wearing antlers to the mall is cute as a toddler, humiliating as a tween, but by their twenties your children will be digging through the box of decorations, looking for that old worn headband.
Document your memories. Modern technologies have made it easier than ever to constantly have a camera in hand. Document your traditions each year to create a catalog of progressive memories that you can revisit and reflect on in the future. Photographing the same events and the same people in the same locations and same poses will bring lots of great memories for years to come. These photographs can help you see how your family changes and how people look different over the years. It is hysterical to look back and see the differences in clothing and hair styles! Creating albums that highlight these traditions can serve as another tool to cement them in your family history.
What Not to Do with Traditions
Don’t force it. Traditions should not become so fixed in your mind that they become forced. If you forget to do it one year, or if your family just isn’t feeling up to it for one reason or another, let it go. Don’t lament it, just move on. You will always have a chance to do it again next year. Remember that year it rained for the entire first weekend of December? Maybe you didn’t go to your favorite tree farm but instead picked up a pre-cut tree at your local hardware store. It’s okay. There is no punishment for straying from the path. These unplanned diversions can even feed into your memories and stories later on: “Remember the year…”
Don’t make your traditions another obligation. Traditions are meant to be fun and enjoyed by everyone in the family. They should not become another stressful holiday obligation. When you find that your traditions are becoming more of a burden than a blessing, it may be time to reevaluate. Maybe you simplify or even eliminate some of the things you do each year. If your family has outgrown some of the traditions, it is okay to move on from them. A tradition doesn’t need to last a lifetime to become a memory.
Don’t try to maintain too many traditions. As with everything in life, moderation is key. At first glance it might seem logical to create traditions in every element of your holiday celebrating. But Christmas comes at an already overscheduled and busy time of year. Don’t try to fit too many traditions into the month or into the actual holidays themselves. Pick a few that are really special and important to your family, and focus your attention on repeating those over the years.
Ideas for New Traditions
The tree. Many Christmas traditions have been built around the Christmas tree. Where you find it, how you get it into your home, what you use to decorate it, where you place it. All of these tasks can feed into building a rich tradition around this important element of the Christmas season.
Countdown to Christmas. Methods of counting down to Christmas each year can help to build up children’s excitement as the holiday approaches. These countdowns often have children opening something each day—as alternatives to gifts and candy, you might consider wrapping up all of their Christmas books or handing out small holiday tasks to do each day.
Traditions of giving back. Build a family tradition around community service by helping out at a local food kitchen, bringing stockings full of pet treats to the animal shelter or participating in a Secret Santa for a domestic-violence shelter. Take your children shopping for gifts for Toys for Tots, and have them pick out something special for another kid in need. Ask around your community to find out who needs help and do something to give back as a family.
Light ride. Wait until nightfall and dress everyone in their holiday pajamas. Fill a thermos with hot chocolate and hop in the car for a holiday light ride. The closer it is to Christmas, the more lights you will see. Blast the Christmas carols and munch on some candy canes for this awesome holiday tradition.
Host a movie night. Invite friends and cousins over for a festive night of cookies and holiday films. After a few years of watching the same movies over and over, you will catch the kids (and adults) singing along to all of those traditional songs!
Attend your town tree lighting. Your traditions do not need to be limited to your own family. Attending your local tree lighting can help build up a sense of community as you see your friends and neighbors there each year, and connect through the celebration and the magic of the holiday season.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to change. Traditions can change! The time spent together bonding as a family is more important than the actual task itself. Don’t feel obligated to do the exact same thing every year. Mix it up to suit your family and your interests as they evolve over time. As you eliminate and change some traditions, new traditions are being made. █