Tips for starting a family holiday tradition

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Starting a family tradition sounds like an oxymoron, right? But traditions have to start somewhere.Studies show that traditions are quite important to family happiness. In fact, family rituals encourage children’s social development and boost feelings of family cohesiveness by 17 percent. They help provide connection and predictability, which people—especially children—crave. Without traditions, holidays don’t feel much different from ordinary life. And they’re a lot of fun.

So how do you start a family holiday tradition?

1. As with all things in life, get enough sleep and exercise regularly. Traditions take energy. They commit you to mailing out those Valentine’s cards or making homemade ice cream for the Fourth of July. If you’re exhausted all the time, these tasks will be a burden instead of a joy.

2. Don’t fight your natural inclinations. Although participating in the annual Thanksgiving cancer walk-a-thon sounds like a great yearly tradition, if you’re a family of couch potatoes, you probably won’t stick with it. Maybe the whole family could watch The Sound of Music on Thanksgiving night instead.

3. Traditions are more meaningful if everyone participates. But you can’t just dole out chores and expect people to help cheerfully. Think about what each person likes to do: cook a signature dish, put up decorations, pick the music, run errands, deal with the grill or fireplace.

4. It’s wonderful to carry traditions through generations, but don’t be too upset if you can’t keep up every element. For years, I insisted that we get a ceiling-high fresh Christmas tree, because “It’s not Christmas without a real tree!” When I was growing up, buying the tree was a key part of the holiday, and I couldn’t let go of that. Finally, I realized that it just doesn’t make sense for my family now. We always go for a long Christmas visit to Kansas City, where my mother puts up two or three amazingly gorgeous trees—one decorated with nothing but Santas Claus ornaments. We didn’t get to enjoy our New York tree much, and it was a huge hassle. So now we just put up a lot of easy-to-handle decorations, and the “real tree” is part of what makes it fun to go to Kansas City.

5. If you’re starting a new tradition, consider how it plays into family dynamics. You can’t just announce, “The whole family is going to have Thanksgiving at our house from now on! It’s no trouble at all!” and then get upset if people don’t cooperate. Who hosts, who cooks (and what they cook), who cleans, who travels, and how in-laws get a turn are all loaded questions. Consequently, you may want to…

6. Consider under-celebrated holidays. Maybe you can come up with a fun tradition for Leap Day. And Groundhog Day is ripe for a larger vision.

7. Don’t load up a tradition with too many moving pieces. Our Halloween has exploded into: lots of Halloween decorations around the apartment; a carved jack-o-lantern; the decoration of a gingerbread haunted-house; costumes, of course; an official Halloween photo in a Halloween frame, for us and the grandparents; a Halloween party, complete with sandwiches cut into Halloween shapes, followed by trick-or-treating. Enough.

8. Children love it when everything stays the same, so try to keep as much consistency as possible—i.e., don’t mess with the sweet potato recipe. My sister and I still enforce the elaborate Christmas-morning routine that we developed decades ago.

What traditions do you celebrate as a family?


From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.



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