Adopting Memory-Making Holiday Traditions

By Marie Sherlock

Jean Staeheli and Jo Robinson, authors of Unplug the Christmas Machine, say that holiday traditions are important for kids because they give children something to look forward to, they provide a sense of order and security and they are, quite simply, the stuff of life-long memories.

Tree Cutting FamilyWhile holiday traditions are as diverse as the families that observe them, they often fall into three categories, reflecting the family’s faith, their ethnic heritage or some charitable theme. For example, on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, Anne Prahl of northeast Portland reads a Jewish story to her two sons after lighting the menorah. The boys receive small gifts each night – “maybe a candy bar or some Silly Putty®,” says Prahl – and several additional gifts on the eighth night. But Prahl emphasizes, “I want to keep the focus on Hanukkah,” on the Hanukkah stories, playing dreidel and spending time together.

Ethnic traditions, handed down over multiple generations, are the source of many holiday rituals, like enjoying special once-a-year foreign foods. Many families also adopt charitable rituals, participating, for example, in Adopt-a-Family programs, buying food and gifts for needy families, or donating items to emergency shelters. Every year Cheryl Hering’s two daughters bring donations to their church’s holiday food drive. The family also participates each year in a holiday gift and food drive at another church, where the kids actually help wrap the presents. “The girls really enjoy doing these things,” says Hering. “They learn to think of others; they learn about charity.”

While families can find inspiration from books, relatives and other families, some traditions are entirely unique. Jennifer and John Mitchell of Beaverton give their two children 12 envelopes each Christmas, to be opened on the first day of each month in the following year. Inside each envelope is a certificate for some kind of a family experience. “It might be something as simple as a gift certificate for ice cream or for a roll of film that must all be taken outside in the rain,” says Mitchell. She adds that this tradition helps her kids “appreciate experiences over material objects, and it builds anticipation for family creativity.”

An important and sometimes overlooked quality of the holidays is its emphasis on the senses, according to Staeheli. She believes in incorporating those sensory delights in holiday traditions like cookie-baking, lighting Advent candles, singing carols and cutting down the family tree. “During December we’re bombarded with stimulation,” says Staeheli, “but we’re actually sensually deprived. Kids will remember the smells, sounds and sights of the season.”

According to Staeheli, traditions needn’t be either expensive or elaborate. “Anything can be a ritual if approached with a certain spirit. Kids will remember
them anyway,” she says.

Return to: What Kids Really Want For the Holidays: Tips for Making the Season More Meaningful and Memorable