Meaningful December Traditions for Families

Meaningful December Traditions for Families

Dr. Laura Markham

Want more family joy and deeper meaning this holiday season?  It’s possible!

The key is simplifying, so you can focus on what matters. Any ambition you have to give your child a wonderful holiday will be sabotaged by taking on too much.  Nobody can spread joy and good cheer when they’re stressed out.

So first, just say no to everything that feels obligatory. Then, consider what you love about your holidays. Consider what you’re not so crazy about.


Finally, make a short list of what you want this year for your family.  Maybe the traditions you have are the ones you want to keep, but you want to make a few tweaks.  Maybe you’ll add a new one this year.  You’ll find your traditions gain meaning as you revisit them every year, regardless of whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Solstice, or Kwanza. In fact, that’s what makes traditions. It can be as simple as having the same breakfast every morning on Christmas — if you do it every year, your children will take great pleasure in it. If you ask your children what they love most about the holidays, don’t be surprised if they mention the little things you’ve barely noticed.

Relax.  Don’t expect perfection. Don’t worry about getting it on Instagram; just enjoy it now! Be grateful for every minute, no matter how messy. And here’s an early gift to make it easier: 50 ideas for Family Traditions to get your creativity flowing as you think about what would most nurture your soul, and your family’s, this winter.

  1. Manage expectations. At the beginning of December, sit down with each child for a special hot chocolate date. Ask them to tell you three desires:

*One present for them that is within your means.

*One “together” present that you will do with them, like take them to the zoo.

*One “giving” present that your child will feel good about making to gift someone else, like stuffing stockings for kids at a shelter, or making a framed drawing for grandma with his own note to her written on it.

This wonderful tradition gives kids everything they really need, and much to look forward to.

  1. Get kids giving. Work with your kids to make simple, inexpensive, fun presents together for your friends and cousins: homemade bubbles, finger-paints, clay, dress-up boxes, jewelry-making kits, puppet-making kits, candy-making kits, snow globes.
  2. Elf on the shelf? If you can’t resist the magic of the Elf, then definitely squelch the idea that the elf is watching your kids to see who’s naughty and nice. Instead, have him do good deeds while the kids are asleep. Tell your kids he loves when THEY do good deeds of any kind, too.
  3. Go through each child’s room with them and create a “give-away” box of gently used items to pass on to kids who need them. Have a family session to clean and repair old toys and clothes and take them to donate. A word of warning — please don’t force your child. If he’s not willing to part with something, just wait until he is.
  4. Send a holiday box to the cousins or grandparents. Let your children help fill the box with their drawings and photos of them engaged in holiday festivities. Be sure to let each child dictate a letter to include saying how much they miss their loved ones.
  5. Make ornaments.Decorate felt trees with glitter, cut foil stars, and make colorful paper chains. Each year, help each child make a new ornament with his photo and the year. Your box of homemade ornaments will be the kids’ favorite box to open every year.
  6. Give love with all presents. Help your child write “Appreciations” for each person in the family to go on their gift, as they help you wrap.
  7. Use dinner discussions to deepen meaning.  You’re eating dinner anyway. Why not have regular discussions throughout the month about why you celebrate and what you’re celebrating? Ask you kids how this holiday makes them think about the way they want to live their lives in the coming year. Open holiday cards together at dinner (let kids take turn doing the opening) and discuss what you love about the people sending the cards.
  8. Make playdates special. Invite the kids’ friends over for a holiday card making party. Use construction paper, stencils and paint, line them with ordinary white paper with typed or written messages.
    10. Give the party everyone looks forward to.Invite ten friends to bring over six dozen of their favorite cookies and some empty containers. Parents drink punch, kids drink hot chocolate, and everyone goes home with a mix of holiday treats from everyone else.
  9. Go Green. Use only recycled wrapping paper, brown paper with kids’ drawings, or newspaper decorated with stickers. Wrap them all in ribbons galore.
  10. Share your tradition with your friends. Have an annual tree trimming party. Or celebrate the Winter Solstice with a candlelit dinner, a roaring fire, and a night walk under the stars. Or make latkes and homemade applesauce to enjoy as you watch the candles in the menorahs light up the night.
  11. Connect.Go gift shopping with each child separately for other family members, but make a point of connecting to that child. Take her to lunch, encourage her to try on clothes and buy her something she covets (wrap it and give it later, of course). Make sure your conversation in the car is really special.  She’ll remember these dates for the rest of her life.
  12. Spread sweetness. Invite your kids’ friends over for a pie or cookie baking party. Together, take your goodies to your local soup kitchen, home for the elderly, or to the firehouse where folks are hard at work on the holiday.
  13. Be elves.Have a family evening where you make holiday cards, or write them, or make gift-wrap, or wrap gifts together. Put on music and sing while you work. Don’t cook that night, have pizza and eggnog.
  14. Make or buy an advent calendar so your kids can count down the days.
  15. Pay It forward.  Buy and wrap mittens and gloves for needy families. Or ask your kids to volunteer with you at a soup kitchen some Saturday. Or give them a set amount to spend and take them to the toy store where they can pick out a gift for a needy child, and let them personally deliver it to a children’s hospital, homeless shelter or charity drop-off point.
  16. Dreidel Showdown Night: Your family will have a “geltload” of fun taking part in an annual family dreidel tournament. You don’t even have to be Jewish! Don’t forget to hide gelt so the kids can have a treasure hunt.
  17. Bring the yule green inside.Go on a nature walk to gather greenery together. Bring a thermos of hot chocolate and just enjoy the fresh air.
  18. Enjoy the glitter.Take a walk or drive to admire the holiday lights together.
  19. Let there be light! Make a menorah together out of clay, spools, or old bolts.  Or make candles.
  20. Unplug the TV to avoid the toy ads, and use the time to make holiday decorations or presents for friends and relatives.
  21. Have picnic dinner in front of the fireplaceor the tree, or just light a lot of candles!
  22. Make a gingerbread house together. Don’t worry what it looks like. The fun is in the doing!
  23. Gather your family and friends and go caroling.Afterwards, gather for hot chocolate and potluck dinner.
  24. Make a treasure map or clues for your kids to follow to find their presents.
  25. Cultivate gratitude. Now’s the time to start a family gratitude journal. Every night at dinner during the month of December, record what everyone is grateful for. Or just write on slips of paper and add them to a gratitude jar. Read them aloud on Christmas Eve.
  26. Take a bath by candlelight. Add glow sticks for extra fun.
  27. Deliver Meals on Wheelsfor homebound folks.  Have your kids bring homemade cards.
  28. Write a family holiday letter togetherto send out to your community of friends and family.  If the idea of paragraphs is daunting, make it in the form of a list of highlights from each family member, or a newspaper or newsletter.
  29. Spread cheer! Spread pinecones with peanut butter and birdseed and feed the birds.
  30. Go on a moonlit walkand watch your breath mingle and hang in the air.
  31. Drive around your neighborhood admiring the holiday lights.
  32. Go ice skating together.Take lessons if you need to.
  33. Have your kids dictate thank you cardsto everyone whose presence enriches their life all year long, and then deliver them.
  34. Light an advent wreath. (Candlelight is magical!)
  35. Lucky enough to have snow? Have a snowball fight, kids against grownups. Go Sledding.
  36. Read a holiday book with your kids every night of the season. If you pack the books away after January 1, and get them out again every December 1, your kids will look forward to these books all year.
  37. Every year, take a photo of the family in front of the tree, or the menorahs. Frame them and put them on the same wall so you can watch them change over the years.
  38. Watch a different holiday movie every weekendduring the season.
  39. Leave cookies out for Santa. Once the children are asleep, make elf footprints to track from the fireplace to the cookie plate, and around the tree and through the presents. (Just use tiny shoes, or cut two sponges in the shape of small shoes and dip them in flour.)
  40. Take photos of your kids opening their presentsso you can send those big-eyed expressions along with their thank you notes.
  41. Make light in the dark. Line your walk with luminaries — paper bags weighted with sand, with a candle in each.
  42. Celebrate snow! Cut paper snowflakes and tape them to your windows and walls to lure a snow storm.  Save them and add more each winter.
  43.  Write a winter poemtogether every year; paste them in a scrapbook.  These don’t have to be high literature or even rhymes.  You’ll be amazed how poetic everyone’s thoughts sound when you record them:  “What I love about winter: The silence of cold nights/candy canes so sweet/making presents for Grandma/snow melting in my mouth.”
  44. Take a walk. You know those times when the kids are bouncing off the walls and the house is a mess and you’re wishing you hadn’t eaten all those holiday cookies? That’s the perfect time to bundle everyone up and get out of the house. Yes, even if it’s dark. Your kids will sleep better after some fresh air and exercise, and so will you.If you want to make this a tradition, be sure to take a family walk after the meal and before dessert, on the holiday.
  45. 47New pajamas as an “early present” on Christmas Eve. Why? You have to buy your child new pj’s anyway. If you give them on Christmas Eve, it’s a lot easier to get your kids into their pj’s on this most-excited-of-all-nights! Not sure it works with a new toothbrush, though.
    Assemble a holiday basket with holiday food and toys for a less fortunate family. Often you can donate anonymously through your church or school.
  46. Save holiday cards in a basket. Throughout following year, at mealtime, take the top card and say a prayer or nice things about the family or friend during dinner. That card is then placed on the bottom of the stack and the next night take the next card and do the same.

Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in

Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.