Fun and Easy Holiday Tradition? For Us, Graham-Cracker Houses.

This weekend, my daughters and I made our graham-cracker houses. As I write about in Happier at Home, every year, instead of traditional gingerbread houses, we make graham cracker houses, which are easier to build and decorate.

Every year–this also seems to be part of the tradition–I almost forget to organize the house-building, until it’s almost too late. But we’ve always managed to do it.

I learned how to make graham-cracker houses when my older daughter was in kindergarten; I was a parent helper when the children made them as part of a unit on “home.” (Coincidence? Or not?)

For me, one of the most important aspects of home is the celebration of traditions–like the building of these houses. Family traditions mark time in a happy way and give a sense both of anticipation and continuity. Research shows that traditions, routines, and rituals boost physical and emotional health. And they’re fun.

I love graham-cracker houses because they’re very festive, they’re very dramatic, and they’re easy.  No kids crying because the task is too frustrating or because “it doesn’t look right”; no mother irritable because the task requires a lot of errands, prep work, or clean-up. (My husband cheers us on, but doesn’t build a house himself.)

If you’d like the extremely easy instructions about how to build a graham-cracker house, you can find it in the Behind the Scenes extra here.

Do you have any satisfying yet easy holiday traditions? I have to keep traditions manageable, or I just can’t keep up with them.


  • Rachel Ruhlen

    A friend of mine inspired me this year to create our own advent calendar, where each day is a new activity. They are fun, simple, easy activities (several of which we’d probably do anyway). I decided to do this on Dec 1 so I had a very limited time to come up with 24 ideas. But once I got going it was easy.

    My friend is newly married so her advent calendar has 24 mini-dates. She says they’ve easily accomplished the ones involving food, which is a good lesson for future years.

    My daughter is 17, and will be going to college next year, so I feel it’s a little late to be starting a tradition, but oh well. “Pet the cats” was easy (we do that daily anyway), and “Exchange back rubs” was lovely (another we do often anyway). “Reading hour” was another easy one, but “Writing hour” didn’t happen. Some of the activities were things that were already scheduled, like her band concert, or visiting my parents and decorating their tree.

    I came up with most of the ideas, with a couple suggestions from daughter & husband. I asked them to review & approve (or disapprove) all the ideas, with the understanding that participation is voluntary and anyone can say “I don’t feel like it” on any day with no hard feelings.

    My daughter surprised me–years ago I tried to make watching “White Christmas” a Christmas tradition. It’s a favorite of my husband’s. She found it boring so that tradition fell by the wayside. When I was asking her for suggestions, she asked that the Dec 24 activity, which should be a little bit special as it’s the last one, be “White Christmas”. She remembered it as fun, not boring!

    • gretchenrubin

      What a lovely idea!

  • peninith1

    My special tradition: My Christmas tree has been illuminated with all green lights since 1995. That was the year that I bought the first home I had ever owned. My sons were in their teens. I closed on the house on the 18th of December, and we moved across town with a rented truck in an ice storm. Boxes were everywhere, and not so well marked. My older son brought us a housewarming present–with his high school job $$, he went out and bought us a Christmas tree. Decorations? Who knows where they were in the welter of moving! On something like 22 or 23 December, I went to find lights, and the only strings left were all green. I thought it would be a year of hideous, but when I decorated the tree, I found that it was eerily, glowingly GORGEOUS. I have used green lights on the tree in honor of my son’s special gift to us ever since.

    • penininth1

      sorry about the doubling up! thought it didn’t post the first time )-:

      • gretchenrubin

        A great way to remember an important milestone.

  • peninith1

    Yep, all green lights on my Christmas tree every year since 1995. That year, I bought the first home I had ever owned. My two sons and I moved across Arlington, VA in a rented truck in an ice storm to take up residence in our new home on the 18th of December. Boxes were everywhere, and not well-labeled. My older son came home a day after the move with a Christmas tree he had bought us as a housewarming present. Decorations? Who knew where they were in the welter of moving! I went looking for lights on the 22nd or 23d of December and found nothing but all green or all gold lights. I picked the green and resigned myself to a yucky looking tree until I plugged it in–eerily GORGEOUS! I have used green lights on my tree every single year since in honor of my son’s love and generosity. Pretty special to me every year.

  • Sadye

    Throughout my childhood — and practiced in college sometimes! — the first Christmas song we had to play every year was “Christmas Time Is Here Again” by The Beatles, because Dad is such a big fan. After that, we could put on all the other tunes. Super-easy and makes me smile!

    • gretchenrubin

      Great tradition.

  • Sarahhp

    I do an activity calendar too for my daughter. We are in our third year now. I did debate whether to do it this year as I have nrw born twins and very little time but I am so glad I made the effort. I’ve kept it really simple mainly doing activities that don’t require shopping for anything (like painting toe nails, face masks, making pancakes). It’s been great to find half an hour each day to do this and i’m sure my 4year old will appreciate it.

  • MercedesAmsterdam

    Not a Christmas tradition but a New Year’s one: on the first of January we’re all tired and slightly hung over (kids not yet…), so around 14.00hrs, after slowly getting up and reading the papers we go into town and walk to the best Chinese restaurant (classical type with roasted ducks in the window) to have a meal. Because of the hour it is mostly empty, it’s one of the best meal of the year.

  • Vincci

    My sister and I are in our second year of making and decorating gingerbread cookies. The dough is pretty easy to whip up so I do it the night before and let it chill in the fridge; the next day I drive to her/my parent’s house and we spend the afternoon cutting, baking, decorating. I make a small batch of white icing, but we mainly use the coloured stuff we buy at the store, plus whatever candy we find in the house to decorate.

  • Molly

    I love this blog. I have become so into gingerbread houses since my son came along. Such a great project for little ones. I like it b/c I notice that the more stuff he piles on, the better they look. I’ve been posting pics for my friend and they’re sending me other links about where we can go see professional ones, etc. So charming. And I wonder for Gretchen…do they go along with her love of miniature things? I think that’s something I like about them. We did one from a kit (I know, cheap…but we aren’t ready to fully bake our own yet!), and did one from graham crackers and milk cartons. Love Gretchen’s…love that it doesn’t look like a New York professional baker came over and helped her daughters make it:)!! (And love the Xmas m & ms to decorate!)

    • gretchenrubin

      I hadn’t thought of the connection to miniatures—of course! Love the miniature scenes.

  • Veronique

    I was always trying to replicate the Christmas of my childhood and seemed to always fall short for many reasons until I realized I had to start my own traditions with my family. So last year to find traditions that worked for us I first looked at what did not work (identify the problem) then asked my husband and son what they would like to see happen. For me the biggest thorn in my Christmas side is having to host a difficult and high maintenance relative from my husband’s part of the family. We have to pick her up a fair distance away on Christmas Eve and bring her home on the 27th. For the entire visit our attention has to be exclusively on her or she becomes agitated. My son feels eclipsed and hides in his room. My resentment was growing yearly so I decided she can come on alternate years and her adult children who lived near her could host her the off year. My husband hates doing the long drive in both directions. I suggested on the years she comes we would purchase a ticket in first class for her to come Christmas Eve but drive her home as usual. I was also tired of being in the kitchen all day Christmas so I found a an elegant meal I can prepare ahead. The final thing was excessive expense both in time and money. I whittled down my list of people to shop for (there were a lot of extraneous receivers!) I reduced the amount I spent and focussed instead on quality and began my shopping in November. Last but not least when I am in the kitchen cooking I listen to A Christmas Carol narrated by Jim Dale. It never fails to put us in a seasonal mood.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great example of figuring out what works, what doesn’t, and changing the traditions to make the holiday more festive and fun.

  • I host a graham cracker house making party every year. It’s the one big party that I have and basically everyone I know gets an invite. It is always fun to see who shows up, what they create and how much joy everyone gets out of the experience.

    • mairsydoats

      I host one of those every few years. I made house kits and a ton of frosting in zippy bags, and watch everyone go to town! From the perfectionist friends to the plan-c, can’t build anything, but look at the woodland wilderness pond “house,” it was amazingly fun. Hectic, but fun!

  • DLinBham

    Most of the Christmas traditions I enjoyed at my grandmother’s house as a child just didn’t translate well for Christmases with just my husband and daughter, so we’ve been developing our own.

    My daughter and I make and decorate cut-out sugar or gingerbread cookies every year and have been since she was still in a high chair. We also decorate the Christmas tree together. She gets a new pair of comfy cotton pajamas from her dad every Christmas Eve, and we always read Christmas stories together Christmas Eve along with putting out cookies for Santa.

    Then there’s the elf. Not the “elf on a shelf” that’s become so popular. Ours is invisible; our daughter discovered him when he pinched her a number of years ago. Now he comes in the night and either does mischievous things like eating our Christmas cookies or dumping a bunch of styrofoam peanuts on the floor around the Christmas tree, or brings little treats. His name is Elmer.

    Several years ago we started a new tradition that helped take the stress out of Christmas Day — we don’t have anyone over for a big meal. The three of us take our time opening our gifts, have a big brunch (homemade biscuits and gravy), and stay in our pajamas all day, getting Chinese take-out for dinner and watching a new movie that was under the Christmas tree.

    • Veronique

      I wish I had learned earlier in my son’s life that traditions I enjoyed when I was a child did not translate well. It took me 17 years! If I could do it again I would not have guests on Christmas day either (mIne all have to be visitors who stay for at least three days because of distance) but instead we could visit before or after the day itself. I have changed things for the past few years. We have guests one year the next none. I enjoy it much more particularly the year when we do not have guests but I still regret not having really enjoyed my son’s younger Christmases when it is all so magical for him. I could spend very little time with him because of the demands of our house guests and the resulting nonstop cooking. Ah well, live and learn and move on.

  • Bridget In Oregon

    My daughters enjoy making gingerbread houses, too. This year a friend brought over a “prefab” kit and they still had fun with it. I like posting them photos of the results on my blog and we write fake real estate listings for them; we try to imagine who would be “happiest in that home!”