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Creating New Family Traditions Around the Holidays

17Dec 2009

A “new tradition” is sort of an oxymoron. By definition, (“a long-established, inherited way of thinking or acting”), a tradition is some action that you have been doing for a while. But I believe it is both possible and helpful to intentionally create new traditions for your family.

We need to recognize that families go through a variety of life stages, with different needs at each stage. And the demands and parameters of daily life vary significantly. Think about what life is like when you:

  • Are in college, or a single young adult.
  • Are newly married, early in your career, without children.
  • Have 2-3 children, ages birth to four years old.
  • Have 3 children, ages six to twelve, and both parents are working outside of the home.
  • Are parents of preteens and high school students.
  • Have some children in college and some at home.
  • Have daughters-in-law’s and sons-in-law, with some of your children living in other parts of the country.
  • Have become empty-nesters, and eventually grandparents.

It is hard to imagine a family tradition that could survive and be really appropriate for family members across all of these life stages (with the possible exception of special foods served at holiday meals). That is why most family traditions die over time — they no longer “fit” with where the family is currently. So it really seems necessary for families to create (or revise) family traditions over time, if the family is going to continue to have traditions they celebrate.

We may want to review why having traditions is important?  What is the big deal?  On the one hand, I could argue, they really aren’t that big of a deal — they aren’t directly related to the survival of anyone or the family.  On the other hand, I believe traditions are important for a number of reasons.


  • Create a sense of togetherness among family members.
  • Provide a context by which family memories are made and can be recalled (“remember when you were little, we used to … “)
  • Become an avenue through which you can teach important values (e.g. going as a family on a service project together).
  • Give a sense of stability and predictability to a family, which children both need and desire.
  • Generate positive emotional energy within a family through a sense of anticipation of the event, and also gratitude for the energy expended to make the event occur.
  • Develop a pathway of transferring family history, values and stories across generations (“When I was growing up, our family . . . “)

Let me give you some examples of traditions we have created within our family over the years.

Opening Christmas presents.  When our children were little, we devised a strategy to manage the pressure of them wanting to open Christmas presents (which were already under the tree) on Christmas eve.  Rather than facing constant and repeated questions (“Can’t we just …), we came upon the plan of me [dad] giving the family a present to open on Christmas eve.  Every year it was a game that we could play together that evening.  So it accomplished a number of goals:  a) decreased the demands to open presents;  b) provided a family activity for us to do together; and c) helped us develop quite a storehouse of games to be used throughout the year!

Giving gifts to charities and educating the family about the charity.  Several years ago, when my siblings and our families gathered together to exchange gifts at my parents’ home, we decided that we didn’t need to give each other small, and sometimes not very meaningful gifts, just out of habit. We were having our own families, didn’t need the extra expense, and the time and energy to shop for one another (even after we had reduced it to drawing names to just give one present) didn’t seem worth it.  So we agreed to start a new gift giving tradition.  That each year one sibling and our spouse would choose a charity; we would provide information about the organization and the services they provided, and then the siblings gave money to that charity instead of buying gifts. (This was a time-limited tradition which went away as our families grew larger and we no longer meet together to exchange gifts across the extended family.)

A new holiday meal.  In deference to my friend, Dr. Gary Chapman, and his book The Five Love Languages, I would propose that there is a separate love language for teenage boys — food. (Anyone else who has had three teenage boys knows what I mean.)  This is especially true for our middle son, Joel.  A number of years ago, when Joel was in high school, he proposed that we start a new tradition, a Christmas eve meal of barbeque meatballs, fries, salad, and brownies for dessert.  His brothers, sister, and dad all thought this sounded like a good idea — and in exchange for help in making the meal, mom agreed to the new tradition, which we enjoy to the present.

A family story-telling event.  When we moved into our home over fourteen years ago, we started a tradition focused on our new, large fireplace.  We call it “The First Fire”.  Every year, as the weather gets colder, we pick a night to build our first fire in the fireplace.  We start it without newspaper (only using really small pieces of wood) and try to start it with just one match.  After the fire is going, we turn out all the lights, sit around the fire and eat some wintry munchies (popcorn, hot cider, hot chocolate, make s’mores).  And then we tell family stories.  Kathy and I tell stories about our families when we were growing up, and even stories that our parents told us about their childhood. And then we tell stories about each child, when they were little.  (The siblings all chime in with their own memories and stories of one another.)  It really is a delightful time.  We will have to see if the tradition continues or how it may morph into a new form, since our children are all at college or out on their own now.

There are other traditions I could share (Fourth of July celebrations, vacation sites we went to repeatedly for years, birthday traditions, New Year’s traditions), but that is enough for now.

As we approach the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, when most families gather together, I would encourage you to think about your current (or possibly past) traditions that you want to keep going or rekindle.  And also think about possible new traditions that you may want to start.

Here are a couple of lessons we have learned in starting new traditions:

  1. There needs to be a leader, someone who leads out and take charge.  Just throwing out an idea (“Maybe we should . . .”  or “What do you think about .  .  . “), doesn’t make it happen.
  2. Having more than one family member involved and committed raises the probability of getting started.  Trying to start a family tradition by yourself doesn’t usually work.  There needs to be “buy in” from one or two others (depending on the size of your family) to sustain the energy needed to overcome inertia, and to “get it done”.
  3. Don’t wait for everyone  to get excited about the idea in order to start. Having unanimous agreement or excitement is probably an unrealistic expectation (especially if you have teenagers!)  It is okay for someone to not really be that excited about the idea initially.  But usually, if it is a decent idea and implemented adequately, family members “come along” and often later admit they enjoyed the time.

Whatever you do together as a family over the coming weeks, do it and enjoy one another!

May God bless you and your time together over the holidays.

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