Christmas is a magical time of year for young and old. It’s time to reflect on the things that matter most. While the chaos of shopping, wrapping, and gifting can be overwhelming, focusing on wholesome family traditions can ground us and keep our focus on the real reason for Christmas. For kids, traditions not only provide something consistent to look forward to, they also help connect generations and make lasting memories.
How Holiday Traditions Make Resilient Children
A few years ago, in a New York Times article, “The Stories that Bind Us,” I read about a study that found a surprising way to raise resilient kids:
“The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
This information came out of a study conducted by a psychologist, Dr. Marshall Duke, from Emory University. He worked with a number of children, asked them what they knew about their family’s history (anything from where grandparents grew up to how their parents met), and had them take a number of psychological tests.
Family Connections Create Identity
Dr. Duke was blown away by what he found: the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness came from having this family knowledge. Why the correlation? Why does it matter if my own two children know where my mother-in-law went to school? What matters is that the child feels like a part of a larger family. Dr. Duke called it a strong “inter-generational self.”
Think about different groups that you are a part of. Does that knowledge of being part of something bigger than you give you confidence, courage, resilience, support, and so on? Finding strength from a group or tribe or family has been studied and found to correlate in many other areas, from education to business. Groups that create a strong, core identity, create successful individuals.
How to Create a Family Narrative
Creating this family narrative can happen in a number of different ways. Dr. Duke outlined four of them, which you can print up for your family with this!
Passing Down Family Christmas Traditions
For this post, I’m focusing on one: building up that intergenerational self through communal activities. With the holidays, it’s all about creating family traditions. What are some of yours? Here are some of mine as well as those of my friends. Feel free to adopt any into your traditions! “The hokier the family’s tradition,” Dr. Duke said, “the more likely it is to be passed down.”
9 Family Holiday Traditions to Increase Family Unity
1. Thanksgiving Letters
A unique tradition in my family started about a decade ago: Thanksgiving letters. We write a single page letter to siblings or in-laws to share on Thanksgiving. Over the years, we’ve adjusted the format (because not everyone was married in the past). This year, it’s tied in with Christmas gift giving. My husband and I will be giving gifts to my older brother and his wife (there’s a spreadsheet; we’re that family). For Thanksgiving, we will also write them letters. The letters are gratitude letters that share funny memories, compliments, tender connections, and goofy jokes.
On Thanksgiving, those who are able to attend the dinner at my parents’ home receive their letters. The other siblings receive theirs in the mail. We read them, quietly sitting on the couches in the living room, while children run around screaming and shouting about when will it be time to eat pie?! In the midst of feasting and the expected holiday-chaos with kids involved, it provides a moment of connection, gratitude, and love.
2. Family Christmas Pajamas
A common family tradition is giving Christmas PJs, pajamas, or jammies. Some families open theirs together on Christmas Eve and wear them that night. A friend of mine has a little twist on how they do it. Right after Thanksgiving, they have a visit from the elf who brings them their pajamas. They wear them all month long!
Any way you do it, it’s a fun tradition that doesn’t have to cost too much and means you have new, warm pajamas. Hopefully, it comes wrapped with a little Christmas snow, too. My brother’s family receives Christmas pajamas and a visit from Santa each year.
3. Wrapped Christmas Books
A great holiday tradition that gathers you and your kids around a book each night is to gift them! Take 25 books, wrap them up, and place them near the tree or fireplace. Choose a big blanket and stuffed toy to place nearby for cuddling. Each night, pick a present, open it and spend time reading together, snuggled under the blanket. My friend, Sandi, picked up Christmas books at an affordable price from a Scholastic book order through the school. My friend Kaati wraps up a combination of some she already owns, some from the library, and some new books each year. Find what works for you!
You could even read the final book on Christmas Eve in your pajamas, then curl up together and sleep under the tree like my friend, Mary Jane, does with her family.
If you’re looking for suggestions on some great holiday books, new ones or classics, try any of these!
- The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg—a classic Christmas story with incredible illustrations, ages 4-10
- The Night Tree by Eve Bunting–with beautiful illustrations for ages 4-8
- Who Is Coming to Our House by Joseph Slate—a sweet book about animals preparing for baby Jesus for ages 1-3
- The Nutcracker: A Dancing Primer by Jennifer Adams—from her BabyLit series, a clever baby book that moms and dads will also love, for babies and up
- A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas— the magic of the holidays captured in a beautiful poem, ages 10 and up
- Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel—a Caldecott Honor classic that is a little spooky, and a lot of cleverness, ages 4-8
- Wombat Divine by Mem Fox—the cutest story about a wombat trying out for the nativity with not a lot of luck, ages 4-7
- The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski—a moving story with beautiful illustrations that will likely leave you shedding a tear or two, ages 6-9
- How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss—A book you could pair with a movie night!, ages 5-9
- Carl’s Christmas by Alexandra Day—very few words in this book, but my daughter wants to read it year-round, following the dog’s Christmas adventure with the baby, ages 2-6
- Finding Christmas by Lezlie Evans—a story about changing our perspectives on what makes the best gift, ages 2 and up
4. Advent Candle
As a little girl, I remember having an advent candle in my bedroom that my sister and I lit (with my mom or dad helping) each night. The candle has the numbers on it, counting up to Christmas. The smell of that candle, especially after we blew it out, takes me back to my childhood Christmas!
Recently, I found a similar candle and I was so excited to buy it for my kids. They loved it more than those little chocolate advent calendars. Turns out, fire is far more exciting, at least for my kids! Since they don’t share a room, we put it on our table and burn it down each night as we eat our dinner.
5. Black Friday Getaway
While the crowds battle each other out for Black Friday deals, why don’t you pack up your family and sneak away for a few days? A friend of mine has been doing this with her family for the last several holidays. She loves that she can focus on her immediate family since her holidays are often spent trying to get to a lot of events with extended family. It’s a calmer way they like to kick off the hectic shopping season. Just be careful you’ve digested all of that Thanksgiving turkey if you’re driving far so you can stay alert!
My husband works in education, so this means it’s a good holiday break for both his schedule and our kids. It’s a bit hectic if we attempt to get on a plane, though. Prepare yourself for busy airports!
6. White Elephant Exchange
If you love a little silly (or a lot of crazy, depending on who’s involved) during the holidays, host a White Elephant gift exchange! We found some incredible gift ideas for you and shared them in this post, “Best Christmas White Elephant Gift Ideas for 2022”, and included tips and rules for hosting the party at the end. My favorite optional rule: “Anything wearable needs to be worn by the opener.” This also works with an ugly Christmas sweater.
7. Pictures with Santa
A great tradition to document how your family grows and changes over the years is to get annual pictures with Santa. The hardest part of doing this for me is remembering to book them early enough in the fall before all of the reasonable time slots are gone! Of course, this is because I’ve done it through a studio. Visit Santa at the mall, a church gathering, through school, or other events and snag a pic on your cell phone! Print it up and save it in a book or folder where you can collect them over the years. You will love to look back at them!
8. Holiday concerts
What would the holidays be without music? Attending a live holiday concert can be fun for all ages. Many places have Christmas themed concerts specifically for children. Whether it’s bell ringers, The Piano Guys, Santa conducting a local symphony, or a school or church choir concert, music will help ring in the season like nothing else can.
In addition to music, there are other exciting holiday performances to experience. “The Nutcracker”, a holiday play, or a re-enactment of the Nativity can become a fun tradition. Gifting your children or grandchildren tickets to enjoy one of these performances shortly before or after Christmas could be a great way to start a new tradition.
9. Sharing love
One of the most meaningful traditions evolve as you seek to share love with those in need. Whether it’s buying gifts for Sub-for-Santa, making cookies and delivering them to a lonely widow or widower, spreading cheer through Christmas caroling, or inviting someone to join in on one of your family traditions, sharing the joy of the season is a way to make lasting memories (and possibly new friendships) for your family.
Whatever holiday traditions you choose for your family, make sure they are meaningful to you and your family. Your kids will cherish the memories and likely carry on the same traditions with their own families later on.