Find Ways to Make Holiday Traditions More Fun. (At the Very Least, Have Some Holiday Traditions.)

Two of my resolutions are to Start a new family tradition and Do something festive.

I want to do something more with the Fourth of July. When I was growing up, this was always a very fun holiday. We were often on vacation in my parents’ hometown, North Platte, Nebraska, which was a great place to celebrate the Fourth. We bought a lot of family-style fireworks – sparklers, snakes, poppers, wheels — and shot them off in my grandparents’ backyard, plus North Platte had various town activities. July 4 is also my mother’s birthday, so that lent the day an extra air of festivity, and we ate a lot of cake and ice cream. It felt like a special day.

But in my life now, Fourth of July isn’t particularly special, because I haven’t tried cultivate traditions. Every year, we spend the weekend with my in-laws, which is fun. But we don’t have a particular meal we always serve, or an activity we always do. We don’t shoot off any fireworks (which may actually be illegal in New York, I’m not sure), and we don’t go see fireworks. My older daughter was scared of fireworks for a long time, plus both my children become raging terrors if they stay up much past their bedtimes.

Studies show that family traditions support children’s social development and strengthen family cohesiveness. They provide the connection and predictability that people crave. They help us mark the time and the seasons in a pleasant way. My Third Splendid Truth is The days are long, but the years are short, and I find that this kind of festivity helps to slow time, and at least to make time more memorable. It brings the family together in happy circumstances.

I want to think about traditions to build in to our holiday. Most years, we have a very Fourth of July dinner – corn, hamburgers/turkeyburgers, cake. But I want to declare a “traditional” meal, so that it feels both special and predictable. Maybe we add a berry salad of strawberries, blueberries and apple slices to be red-white-and-blue. Maybe we always bake cupcakes decorated with red, white, and blue sprinkles. Whatever.

This year, I bought some sparklers, so at least we’ll have something in the fireworks family. Sparklers are the easiest, safest, and most fun of fireworks, so why did I never do this before?

This is one of the most important things I’ve learned from my happiness project: I need to take responsibility for the kind of life I lead. If I wish Fourth of July were more festive, I need to figure out how to make it more festive. If I want sparklers, I need to buy them. As Kafka wrote, “You are the problem. No scholar to be found far and wide.”

How do you celebrate Fourth of July? Do you have any good home-based traditions to propose? I’d like to have a little more than sparklers and cupcakes to mark the day.

* Speaking of fireworks, I loved this little video of fireworks created from household objects.

* If you’re looking for a book to read over the holiday weekend, please consider The Happiness Project (can’t resist mentioning: #1 New York Times bestseller).
Order your copy.
Read sample chapters.
Watch the one-minute book video.
Listen to a sample of the audiobook.

  • With an achievement like that, you shouldn’t resist mentioning it! Congrats, Gretchen: on the book and the new family traditions.


    • gretchenrubin

      Awwww thanks! I so appreciate that.

  • onemagictrick

    My family’s Fourth of July tradition is to go to a neighborhood party frequented by all of my brother’s friends and their families. It’s potluck style, and there are sparklers, and we usually go to the local fireworks afterwards. It’s a great day, filled with people I only see once a year.

  • Homegardener

    I just downloaded the audiobook. Can’t wait to get into it!

    • gretchenrubin

      Great! I hope you enjoy it!

  • Karenlw

    Very timely posting for me. I have been thinking the very same thing.

    Fourth of July for me is one of my least favorite holidays. Not at all because I don’t appreciate the sentiment, but as far as what I do (or don’t do) to celebrate.

    Unfortunately, a very negative personal experience happened shortly after the 4th of July holiday eight years ago. And while I am not overly aware of the connection, I think that the general recollection pervades my attitude about doing anything really special surrounding the 4th.

    So, seeing as it is the holiday weekend is already upon us, I will make it about small, fun things that I can do on a limited budget. And in homage to your idea, I will make one specific gesture that can become a little tradition.

    But next year, watch out!

  • This might not be exactly the kind of tradition that you were imagining but I have to mention my sister’s patriotic pedicure. It started three years ago at the behest of her Vietnamese pedicurist, and she wasn’t really too excited about it. However, as is often the case, happiness is what you choose to make of your life. Sometimes we enjoy something that, at first, we resist. My sister’s new mantra is “Object to nothing.”

    Here is the full story about her American toes

    I love your blog and now visit it every day. It gives me great inspiration.

  • Amy

    Independence Day has a double meaning for us, as it is my youngest child’s birthday, too.

    So we always begin the day with a pancake breakfast (with all the good stuff – strawberries, blueberries, chocolate chips, whipped cream…) because that’s what we did on the 4th of July the year she was born. She was 3 weeks early, so no planning was involved.

    We have a variety of activities for the rest of the day, because whether the holiday falls on a weekday or a weekend determiens if many of our friends travel. But we always go see fireworks, and we always make a flag cake with sparklers for the birthday girl.

    Usually I make bbq brisket, and friends join us for potluck, but it’s not quite consistent enough to call it a tradition.

  • Diana Rothberg

    Dennis Prager, a national radio host (you may know of him from his book “Happiness is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual 1988–the first chapter is “Happiness is a Moral Obligation”) suggests that all over America we have freedom Seders.

    Just as the Jews maintained a cohesive identity over 2 thousand years partially by the retelling of the escape from bondage in Egypt into freedom via Passover Seders, Americans should re-tell the story of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.

    The only specific thing I could find on his website was this kit that a group of people have put together to make learning about our founding fathers fun and interesting, particularly for children

    Here’s Dennis’ original article on the topic

  • Jordan Bell

    As an Australian, it feels a little weird to tell an American what to do on Independence Day, but perhaps you could start a tradition that either celebrates personal independence (like each person naming something they’d like to learn to do for themselves over the coming year, and reflecting on the things they can do now that they couldn’t do last year?), or taking some time as a family to do something to help others increase their indepedence (reading to underprivileged kids, or ???), or goes back to the history of the event and talks about the importance of independence in a national sense. Or just read from the Declaration!

  • You could add a reading/discussion of at least the beginning lines of the Declaration of Independence, maybe as a meal is being served. It could ground the celebration, and I know that having the same story or text read on a holiday every year can be very powerful.

    Happy 4th!

  • anonymous

    Making homemade ice cream is always widely appreciated. The process is fun, group-oriented, and full of anticipation (and affords the satisfaction of working to create something marvelous), and the ice cream itself is in a realm above and beyond… even the most pure store-bought varieties are just a different product somehow. But of course, I’m a hypocrite to make this suggestion, because as an adult I don’t allow myself to indulge in this once-favorite experience…. : (

  • I live in Europe so we don’t have 4th of July, but we have other holidays. And you know what, I figured it out that a tradition is not a tradition the first year you do it, it becomes a tradition in the years after, when the trial and error is over and you just do it because you feel like it, not because you labeled the experience as a tradition in the first place.

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s an interesting point. As I’ve tried to build more traditions into my
      life, I’ve been more assertive about it — not waiting for them to arise
      spontaneously. Sometimes this happens, which is GREAT — but sometimes it
      doesn’t, as with this July 4th example. We just never did anything that
      became a tradition.

  • Lynnel

    I love your festive breakfast idea- seems like something I could implement without stress! The other easy thing I do is dress the kiddos in a red-white-blue theme. Probably not all that meaningful, but somehow dressing for the occasion is a visual reminder…

  • Eastcoastraine

    Growing up my parents would always have friends over to celebrate the 4th. My mother would always plan elaborate food which would vary from year to year. In the evenings they would play MahJong, with the actual Chinese characters on the tiles. I’m not sure why this became a tradition but they only played during the 4th of July holiday, even though we would get together throughout the year. As we (the kids) got older we learned to play and would have several games going so that everyone could play ~ it really was a great time and made the day feel special, I guess because we were all together instead of people scattered around in the kitchen, at the BBQ grill outside, and watching television. 🙂

    Wow, I hadn’t thought of that in years, thanks for the post about the importance of these traditions, and remembering them. 🙂 Laura

  • The advice of taking your own happiness into your own hands is so great. I always have this idea in my mind of what I want our holidays to look like (bbq for the 4th, lots of baked goods and decorations for Christmas!), but I feel sad/upset when things don’t turn out that way or other people don’t cooperate. This is a good reminder that if I want things to be a certain way, I need to take responsibility.

  • maryl

    Here’s an easy one for July 4: I have a John Philip Sousa CD that is pulled out for that day only. A little parade music goes a long way, but it creates a festive mood and is enjoyed by all ages. Choose your moment (breakfast? cocktails? the lighting of the grill?), and the kids will be marching and the seniors tapping their feet. Or it can simply energize your party clean-up!

    I live near the FDR Home and Library in Hyde Park, NY. Eleanor Roosevelt had a tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence aloud outdoors every July 4 at her nearby retreat, Val-Kill cottage. Val-Kill became part of the US National Park Service, and the tradition of reading the Declaration was continued by the Hyde Park Town Supervisor. I took my daughter (now 18) in her stroller one year. It was almost 100 degrees in the shade and my daughter (blessedly) slept through the ceremony, but it was so moving to me — a wonderful Independence Day memory.

    I heard the Declaration read aloud by many different voices on NPR yesterday morning, and it was, again, a thrill. It’s a challenge to START a tradition with a teenager, but we’ll give reading aloud a go on July 4 (at least the preamble and summation).

  • nickdico

    Growing up in Queens, we always had the obligatory block party on the 4th of July with (yes, illegal then and probably now!) fireworks. It continued when we all moved south w/ even more food and fanfare thanks to larger neighborhoods.

    I live in the deep South now, but remembering the 4th as a kid always makes me want to just enjoy the weekend surrounding the 4th of July. Not because of childhood memories per say – but because of what I have learned what the holiday is about.

    And I quote –

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    If anything sums of this whole adventure of yours Gretchen (books, blogs, videos) and our journey with you and others for our own – it is this holiday. This day in history where we recognized that happiness is a pursuit worth living for.

  • healthEgg

    If anything sums of this whole adventure of yours Gretchen (books, blogs, videos) and our journey with you and others for our own – it is this holiday. This day in history where we recognized that happiness is a pursuit worth living for.

    These fruits make you lose weight fast: Tomato, Banana, Apple, Pineapple

  • Pjbuse

    I’m from the south and that means FRIED, yes fried, chicken. Normally, we bake and grill our chicken but on the fourth of July we declare Independence day from healthy eating and enjoy the good stuff…. fried chicken! We have a large family/ community cooking (normally) then the kids will shoot fireworks.


  • Annie

    How about a trip to the beach? With picnic, cook-out on beach, or stop at a seafood shack on the way home? And fireworks – I don’t like the loud noise myself, but I’ve always been able to find somewhere far enough away to mitigate the noise, but close enough to enjoy the view.

  • Sylrayj

    I’m a Canadian, so we have Canada Day on July 1, instead of a celebration on the 4th. So far, in every place in Canada I’ve lived, as much as I can remember, there is a big celebration for the community. The village of 365 people had a parade and a school open house. The city of 162000 people has a fair, duck race, midway, and fireworks. It’s such a community-oriented holiday! I think that if I were ever to find myself someplace that didn’t have a gathering like this, I would make my own, with a potluck picnic and games for the kids. The important part of the holiday, for me, is community.

  • PrairieDawnPam

    In our community there are many, many — too many! — activities to choose from to celebrate Canada Day. The nice thing about joining in on a community celebration is that you don’t have to do all of the planning or shopping and if none of your family members or friends shows up you can still party with friends.

    My family’s new tradition is to participate in a costumed fun walk/run in support of the local food bank. All you need to enter is some non-perishable food donations, runners and a red dress. Yes, the men all wear red dresses, too.I ran this year for the second time. Hubby and the kids walked.

    Also for the second time, we invited all our extended family and friends to a bbq party. Last year three people showed up. This year five did. We won’t do the bbq again; it competes with too many “better offers” in the city.

    • jenny_o

      I love this idea of the costumed walk/run – it sounds like a lot of fun as well as a good cause.

  • I’m an American living in France & we try to have at least one “American” event each year. Sometimes it’s Thanksgiving (but I need a year or two in between in order to forget how much work that is), sometimes another holiday.

    This year it’s Independance day, perfect because it falls on Sunday this year & matches up with our desire to have an open house event for friends this summer.

    I do think making traditions like this is important, so even though it can be a lot of work, it’s worth it.

  • DeafMom

    I *so* disagree about sparklers being “safest”. It is NOT. It CAN be dangerous. I got burned by sparklers accidently and I never forget that day. My stepfather were playing around when he waved the sparklers sort of hard and all of the sudden, bit of sparks from sparklers burned my t-shirt and I actually had minor skin burn from it as well. The next day, I saw red and inflamed bruise on my arm from the sparklers, it was little painful to the touch on my skin. So now I am paranoid and avoid them who is using sparklers….because I did not want to be burned again – it hurts!

  • Gretchen, I don’t mean to sound like a downer…I have had some memorable Fourth of Julys, but … I think that traditions can be traps that easily turn into obligations. As one person commented, we have expectations as to how these holidays ‘should’ be celebrated and then when those aren’t met, we end up disappointed. I vote for spontanaety.
    And as much as I like watching fireworks, I can’t help but think of the expression about money going up in smoke!ha! Professional fireworks are awesome, but every year, many people blow off fingers and more ‘playing’ with fireworks.
    So while I’m all for independence, I’m a party pooper when it comes to celebrating July Fourth.

  • great work on this article

  • Taylor

    We don’t do any fireworks – instead we take a minute in the evening, as we listen to the explosions in our neighborhood, to be grateful that we don’t live in a place where those noises are daily and scary. We send thoughts of peace to those who are struggling for their freedom from oppression as The United States once struggled for it’s freedom and we pray that soon those explosions will be only noises of celebration.

  • EscapeVelocity

    When we were kids, we used to decorate our bikes, although at that time my parents’ neighborhood did not have a parade–we’d just ride them around in the street a bit and my mom would take pictures. And when I got old enough, I started making festive desserts, most of which were memorably disastrous (they did not have blue jello then, but you can’t just tint unflavored…).

    Which is partly to say, if your kids really want traditions, they’ll make some.

  • Momoose

    “I need to take responsibility for the kind of life I lead.” This is something I’m slowly realizing. When I think about creating family traditions, I start out thinking my creation must be grandiose and unique. And I’m often disappointed. I’m discovering that while the traditions we create may not seem grandiose and unique to someone on the outside looking in, they ARE grandiose and unique – to our family. That’s what counts.

  • Sohmberger

    We like to attend our small-town fireworks display – good fireworks and just the right-sized crowd. This year, we missed it because of another event, but we still watched DC, NY and Boston’s fireworks on TV.

    Funny to hear your parents were from North Platte! Go Nebraska!! Love my home state.

  • Sohmberger

    It’s fun to make homemade icecream in ziploc bags with kids (or as an adult…)

    • Kristine

      Or with coffee cans. (Ingredients in a tightly sealed/duct taped small coffee can within a larger one filled with ice and salt.) We did it in a science class in high school, and it was fun. I imagine rolling the cans around as they chill would be even more fun for smaller kids. (Although I bet they’d be even more impatient then we were…)

  • Beverly

    I agree with you: if you want an event/holiday to be festive, you must make it that. At my last birthday, my parents kindly made a birthday supper for me. As nice a gesture as that was, it’s always kind of bummed me out that my mother doesn’t go a step further with decorations to make it festive. Our parties/suppers always consist of just serving food, no elaborations. Yes, sometimes simplicity is best, but for me, it was MY birthday and I wanted it to be fun. Instead of wishing and hoping somebody would set a pretty table for our meal, I took the initiative and did it myself with some leftover decorations from my child’s Fiesta themed birthday party. It made a world of difference, at least for me, but that was all that mattered on my special day that only comes once a year.

  • RK

    I am a single mom of 2 boys and when they were younger, they were very impatient waiting for the fireworks. One year I decided to take them to see the ‘minor’ league baseball team play on July 4th as they were also having larger than usual fireworks – their special 4th fireworks – after the game. They loved it! and we have gone every year since! We eat dinner, watch the game and then get to enjoy the fireworks all in one very inexpensive outing!

  • Maureenliccione

    Sparklers are illegal in NY

    • gretchenrubin

      Wow, is that right? Holy cow. Thanks for letting me know.

      It was funny — when we were driving my older daughter to sleepaway camp a
      few weeks ago, we stopped in a gas station in another state (was it MA, VT?
      Not even sure). They had a giant “family pack” of fireworks sitting right by
      the Hostess Cupcakes display. I felt truly shocked. But didn’t know
      sparklers were considered ‘fireworks” in NY.

  • DT

    When I was little, fireworks were just for me and my father. My older sister was scared of them and my mother didn’t care about them. So my father and I would go see the fireworks and my sister and mother would stay home. It became a wonderful tradition because we each got alone time with a parent. Rather than view it as a problem – one kid likes fireworks, one hates them – it turned out to be really nice.

    It occurs to me that I have no idea what my mother and sister did while my father and I were out at the fireworks, but that’s okay. Those times with my father were really special.

  • DT

    One more thing! One year, while camping out on the FDR waiting for the fireworks to start, I heard a man reading the declaration of independence to his children. This was obviously a yearly tradition for them, and the kids were pretty in to it.

    This year, my boyfriend and I watched July 4th themed movies, including Yankee Doodle Dandy (a childhood favorite of mine) and Independence Day.

  • lil

    In my opinion, the attitude behind each holiday makes the holiday. For the 4th, our country’s birthday, we make a birthday cake! With blueberries and strawberries, of course. We also try to dress as over-the-top in 4th of July colors as possible–just to be goofy. Finally, we watch a patriotic movie about America’s past. This year, with my girls being 4 and 6, it was American Girl’s Felicity. Their Molly movie is also a really good choice. I think history is important on this type of holiday.

  • This is a great post, it made me think a lot about what I should do. I am young and just left mom and dad’s home, this is the first year of celebrating 4th of july without them. I was trying to do something traditional and fun but felt like without a whole family, it’s just not as good, so I didn’t do anything special really but went to see fireworks with my boyfriend. But I missed the traditional way a lot, where we have all american dinner and shoot firewords in the front yard..

  • Marissa

    My family and friends go to Put In Bay Island on Lake Erie. We camp out, with all the fun things that go with it: cooking out, roasting marshmellows, sleeping in tents, etc. From the ferry ride, to setting up camp, renting a golf cart to drive around the island, visiting the winery, watching fireworks over the lake, going dancing, the swim up bars, everything about 4th of July for us is relaxing and fun.

  • Alice

    On a simple holiday in France with no television my mum brought a card game that we played with the children each night before bed time. They enjoyed it so much we bought our own set of cards when we came home, but they didn’t get used much.
    Next year we went to Disney Florida, with TVs in every room and So MUCH entertainment available I was suprised and delighted when the children asked to play the card game each night before bedtime.
    Sometimes tradtions do just happen. (And I would recommend ‘Whot’ to anyone with children from 5yrs old upwards!)

  • Donna

    I love the birthday candles that are similar to sparklers and it is the birthday of our nation.  I am enjoying wonderful ideas on this site: