ParentMap | Holidays

Holiday traditions

As every parent knows, having children changes everything. Holiday traditions are no exception to this rule. Take those routines that seemed so easy before children -- sleeping in on Christmas morning, for example, then driving to Wenatchee or Yakima or wherever home used to be to meet up with the relatives for a mid-afternoon feast. Those trips become a living nightmare when you factor in a teething baby or a sullen teenager. And where does Santa leave the pile of gifts?

We want our children's holidays to be perfect, but how can we pull this off? If our mental picture of Christmas dinner is Grandma carrying a giant steaming turkey to a linen-covered table worthy of Martha Stewart, surrounded by dozens of cousins, what happens if we are casual vegetarians whose few extended family members are scattered around the U.S. How do we reconcile the mass-market fantasy with our personal reality? What do we substitute for turkey, Grandma, linen and cousins? How can we paint a meaningful holiday picture of our own? What do we hold on to, and what do we let go?

The Rev. Sue Reid, Pastor for Congregational Care at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, finds that many parents are now beginning to incorporate alternative holiday traditions that reinforce their particular faith, rather than the consumer culture. "There is a greater look now at cultural needs -- helping serve a meal, looking beyond ourselves -- than I saw 20 years ago," she says. "Holidays used to be primarily family-oriented but that is broadening out. Some folks develop winter holiday rituals that may or may not be faith-based but help teach children how to help others."

New parents who are grappling with how to celebrate the holidays should look at their own childhood celebrations and evaluate how they feel about them now, she adds. "Be clear in your own mind about what you want to recreate and what you are trying to avoid," she advises. Young families who are distant from relatives or have other reasons not to gather with extended family should understand that "our family can be people we've chosen to call family." This knowledge is helpful for single parents and blended families, too, she says.

Erin and Brian Bonipart live in North Seattle with children Cole, 5, and Sara, 3. "Santa is not a big deal in our house," Erin says. "The kids get one gift each from Santa, plus their stockings. We really want the kids to focus on the true meaning of Christmas."

The Boniparts light candles in an Advent wreath every night before dinner during the weeks leading up to Christmas but shorten the traditional readings. "Little kids really need the shortest Bible verses available," Erin explains, adding that she went online and researched Advent wreaths to find a child-friendly approach. Erin also used a plastic nativity set to help her children understand the Christmas story.

"The kids got to choose one figure to add to the manger scene each day, and I was saving Baby Jesus for last," she explains. When the Jesus figure disappeared several days before Christmas Eve, Erin was forced to improvise a substitute. "A week after Christmas I found Jesus in the onion bin, where my little girl had tucked him," she says with a laugh.

Rolling with the punches can help parents retain joy in the holidays. Erin and her husband have modified a number of traditions since having kids, recently swapping their custom of choosing and chopping down the perfect tree for a new tradition of buying something closer to home. "Sometimes we'd be out there in the rain or the snow, with a baby in the backpack, trying to decide which tree to cut," Erin recalls. "Last year I had the flu and so my husband took the kids to get the tree, and they just bought one. We ended up saying, 'that was so much easier! Let's do it again that way next year.'"

Yonah Karp and Harold Bobroff live in Seattle with their children Hannah, 8, Abraham, 5, and Nora, 7 months. Yonah says that while she and Harold have always observed the major Jewish holidays, they do so more fully now as parents. Certain celebrations such as community dancing at the Simchat Torah (the celebration of the completion of the Torah) and building a sukkah (temporary outdoor shelter) for Sukkot (a celebration honoring the Hebrew people's 40 years of wandering in the wilderness) are important family traditions.

The Karp-Bobroff family attends children's holiday services at Temple Beth Am so that their kids can participate without the overload of an adult service. While the children did not fast during Yom Kippur, Hannah chose to forgo dessert. Such small steps, Yonah notes, eventually result in kids who fully understand their religious heritage. And like most parents of young children, Yonah strives to balance her children's holiday expectations with what she can accomplish.

"The challenge is to figure out how much to do that will feel good and be enriching -- without exhausting Mom," she notes. "I've had to find creative ways to let some things go and try not to get attached to a particular thing happening the way I think it should. What actually happens and how it feels is more important than how it looks, because it can look right but feel wrong." An important part of forming comforting holiday traditions instead of stressful ones is accepting the reality that having small children limits lavish holiday spectacles, she adds.

Sometimes a family holiday tradition can grow to form a neighborhood-wide bond. Peter, Claire, Winnie and Dorothy Andersen live in Seattle's Bryant neighborhood and every year they host a simple Halloween parade. Neighbors show up at 3 p.m. on the Sunday before Halloween, with the kids in costume. A group photo is snapped. Several neighbors play Celtic fiddle tunes, leading the group of 50 or more kids and parents on a five-minute circuit as other neighbors dash outside to watch. Once back, the crowd shares muffins and hot cider, then everyone goes home. This neighborhood tradition just passed year 12. To the families on Northeast 62nd Street, the parade is as important and dependable as Halloween itself.

The Andersens did not aspire to create a major tradition, but "I knew after about the third time we were in for the long haul," Peter says. "People want to know what day the parade will be and actually call me if I'm late sending out the flyers. Of course, the larger parade of life goes on, meaning that the older kids have outgrown it and newer kids have come along. Families come and go from the block, but many who've moved come back for the parade.

"I think an important element in any holiday tradition is that it be really workable -- none of this 'We'll climb Mt. Rainier and do New Year's Resolutions' stuff." Peter adds. "We've really created very little; we've just sort of tapped into some magical forces that are already in place, and it makes for a magical moment."

Many parents agree that these spontaneously evolved holiday traditions are often the best ones: offering structure and comfort without too many hoops to hurdle through.

Mary and Dan North of Sammamish have predictable traditions that continue to nurture their family even after many years. Their two daughters, 21-year-old Emily and 19-year-old Sarah, are away at Western Washington University but still love and rely on their family holiday rituals. After the girls were born, Mary says, "We made a much bigger deal about everything -- we learned special songs and poems, baked cookies. Holiday preparations became a treat instead of a chore."

Christmas traditions in the North family include caroling with neighbors, driving to look at Christmas lights, new pajamas for Emily and Sarah on Christmas Eve ("Still -- just in case Santa checks to see if they're asleep," Mary says), and an enormous breakfast Christmas morning. They always attend a performance of The Nutcracker. The family also bakes holiday treats, especially dishes that reflect Mary's Lebanese heritage.

Even the family's off years -- like the time the pumpkin pies were accidentally dropped upside down inside the hot oven, or when Dan got sick on Christmas and Mary cooked a huge dinner while nursing an infant and with a toddler underfoot -- are remembered now with laughter. "I really like it when we're all together in the kitchen. I wouldn't trade those times for anything," Mary says.

The North family's holiday traditions clearly have deep roots, and demonstrate how they can reinforce a family's love and commitment to each other. "Emily and Sarah are already saying, 'When I have my kids I'm going to do it that way, too,'" Mary explains.

Thinking holidays through in advance is the key to creating happy traditions, adds Rev. Sue Reid of St. Mark's. "Ask yourself in October or November, what do we really need to make this a meaningful Christmas? Slough off stress-producers," she advises. "And please make sure that you have some time each year to be quiet in the midst of the holiday. Do some kind of quiet activity like a family walk to the park or on the beach, something that doesn't get you sucked into the frenzy. Parents should also prioritize a little quiet time for each other and for themselves. Even an hour can make a difference."

Holiday traditions are an important way to cement children within their family group, Reid notes. Most of all, traditions are worth creating because they become "a part of the memory bank of who these children are -- and we are -- for the rest of their lives."

Paula Becker is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of three.

Cut and paste your own holiday traditions

  • Cut out mental "shoulds."
  • Cut out what doesn't work or causes stress.
  • Paste in what brings you closer together and feels good.
  • Cut out loneliness and paste in other families or friends to build a richer holiday experience.
  • Paste in outrageous ideas and keep them if they work. Who says you can't skip Thanksgiving dinner altogether and spend the day at the movies instead? Who says you can't buy yummy deli food, fresh bread and pies baked by someone else for your Christmas dinner? Who says your family's big holiday can't be Kwanzaa, Sukkot or Halloween?
  • Cut out and delete forever the compulsion to do it all on holidays.

-- Paula Becker

Words of Wisdom

  • Yonah Karp: "Start simple with one or two traditions that matter most to you and do those things just the way you want."
  • Erin Bonipart: "Focus on process rather than product, on time spent together, not the gifts."
  • Mary North: "Simplify it and calm down. When you find yourself saying, 'I hate the holidays,' it's time to stop."
  • The Rev. Sue Reid: "Be realistic about what your family can do. Think of a few things, free or paid, to do together, and one or two food activities you can do at home.
  • Peter Andersen: "Relax. Be in the moment. Let yourself make mistakes. It will be OK. It's more important to be close to one another than to be right."

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