Meaningful Family Traditions

by:  Tina Huntsman
As the holidays approach, my mind turns to the home of my childhood: handprint turkeys taped to the sliding glass door, raking and jumping in huge piles of leaves, decorating gingerbread houses with children in our city’s half-way house, loading up the old station wagon to look at Christmas lights . . .  So many cherished memories.  Long forgotten are the details of who made which food at our Thanksgiving table or who had my name in the cousin gift exchange or whether Santa brought the correct toy that one Christmas.  The only memories that remain are warm, happy, love-filled memories of the stuff that really matters: family and traditions.
The Making of a Tradition
We all intuitively know what a family tradition is—any meaningful event or behavior a family does repeatedly at predictable times.  They are purposeful activities whose desired outcome is to build family unity, remind family members of deeply held values, and connect generations.  The can be little or big; happen daily or yearly; and involve all or some family members.  Although there are as many different traditions as there are families, we know a tradition when we see one.  Traditions, when done right, lend a certain magic and variety to our everyday lives.
Why Traditions Matter
Traditions engrave important messages onto young hearts.  They provide stability and security, a sense of family history, and a feeling of belonging.  They create shared meaning and culture, bring the family together at important times, and provide natural ways to transmit morals and values from one generation to the next.  They give children a sense of the rhythmic nature of life—hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, years.  These lessons—the love, the unity, and the cycles—are vital to the success of the family and the happiness of each family member, especially the children.
Holidays provide the perfect opportunity to gather family close and create shared experiences about things we hold dear.  At Thanksgiving, we gather to celebrate the power of gratitude; at Christmas we gather to celebrate the Giver of all good gifts.  You undoubtedly have a handful of traditions unique to your family.  If you’re looking to include a few more—particularly ones that can double as educational experiences!—here are some ideas from LDSHE families, speakers, and volunteers.
Thanksgiving Traditions
Create a thankful tree.  Create a trunk—whether from a big branch in your yard or cut from a long roll of brown paper—then write your blessings on construction paper leaves and hang them on the tree.
Have each child create a Thanksgiving heart map—and develop their artistic skills.
Buy a set of beautiful stationery (better yet, have the kids make their own stationery!) and let the children mail a thank-you letter each day in November.
If your kids are interested in Mad Libs, have them write their own Thanksgiving-related paragraphs with missing verbs, nouns, and adjectives.  Spend an afternoon filling them in together.
Christmas Traditions
Make (or have one of the kids make!) a small Christmas quilt.  Each night of December, send it to bed with a new family member whose job it is to do a small act of service for each family member the next day.  On Christmas Eve, place it under the tree as a blanket for the Baby Jesus and celebrate all the service your family has given to Christ by giving to each other.
Decorate a small Christmas tree and place 25 wrapped Christmas books under it.  Each night, unwrap a book and read it as a family.  (If you don’t have 25 favorite Christmas books, wrap library books!)
Invite a few families over for “Christmas Around the World”—an evening of international food and fun.  Each family decorates a tree with ornaments that tell about a country of their choice and prepares a traditional dish from that country. 
Take a break from the normal school schedule.  Embrace the season with Christmas projects and activities like caroling, hanging lights outside, making and delivering treats to neighbors, decorating gingerbread houses, secretive gift making and giving, and watching Christmas movies.
Countdown to Christmas with a red-and-green paper chain, each link containing a fun writing prompt.  Your list could include things like:
Write a letter to Grandma and Grandpa.
Write down your favorite Christmas tradition.
Create coupons to give away as a gift. Decorate them and put them in an envelope.
Write “Merry Christmas” in three languages.
Design a pair of holiday socks. Write down where you would wear them.
Write down every Christmas thing in the living room that is green.

Live Your Traditions—Don’t Just Do Them
A few Christmases ago, when I was 8.5 months pregnant, I made a brilliant decision: I cut way back on everything for the entire month of December.  I turned down invitations to Christmas parties I didn’t want to attend, I wrote cards rather than bake treats for my neighbors, and I spent lots of time cuddling in bed with good picture books and my little children.  I worried that my children would miss our more elaborate Christmas traditions, but I decided to let my scaled-back efforts be enough for that year. 
As January approached, the baby was born, and we began packing up our Christmas things, I realized that my family had enjoyed Christmas just as much—maybe even more—than usual.  By focusing my limited time and energy on the few things that really mattered most to me—inspiring books, family time, and small acts of love—I had created simpler traditions that were just as meaningful as my more elaborate traditions.  I had kept the joyful spirit of Christmas but discarded its busy-ness.  I had found a way to live our traditions rather than do them.  And it brought joy and new energy to our holiday observance.  May you find ways to do the same this year and always.
My family’s favorite books (both read-alouds and picture books):
A Christmas Carol illustrated by Brett Helquist
A New Star in Heaven: A Christmas Story from the Bible and the Book of Mormon by Val Chadwick
A Night without Darkness by Timothy M. Robinson
A Small Miracle by Peter Collington
Angela and the Baby Jesus by Frank McCourt
Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck
Christmas Oranges by Linda Bethers
Drummer Boy by Loren Long
Gift of the Magi by O Henry
Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
Little Red Buckets: A Story of Family and Giving by Lynda Nelson
Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert E. Barry
My First Story of the First Christmas by Jeanne Buck
Room for a Little One by Martin Waddell
Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend by Julie Stiegemeyer
Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant
The Christmas Candle by Richard Paul Evans
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
The Christmas Story: From the King James Version by Gennady Spirin
The Christmas Train by Thomas S. Monson
The Crippled Lamb by Max Lucado
The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie dePaola
The Little Fir Tree by Margaret Brown
The Night Before Christmas Pop-up by Clement Clarke Moore
The Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke
The Polar Express
The Tale of Three Trees by Angela E. Hunt
The Trees of the Dancing Goats by Patricia Polacco
The True Gift by Patricia MacLachlan
There Was No Snow on Christmas Eve by Pam Munoz Ryan
Why Christmas Trees Aren’t Perfect by Dick Schneider