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Christmas Eve in my family growing up meant going to my grandmother’s house in the evening, where there were bubble lights on the tree and oyster stew on the table, opening gifts, then heading home where Mother read the gospel of Luke before we went to bed. Ahead of the holiday, we baked the same cookies every year and took the same tour of the neighborhood, looking at the Christmas lights.

Did you have holiday traditions in your childhood family? Were these accidental traditions – things that happened once and then just stuck – or were they traditions someone decided to include? How have you settled on the traditions around the holidays for your own children, right now?

Take some time to consider what customs and rituals you’d like to repeat every year at holiday time and then plan to make those happen. By being intentional about traditions, you take control of the values you communicate and you cement memories for your children’s future.

Children’s capacity for episodic memory forms during the three-year-old year, so the years from birth to age four are a good time to fiddle with customs, seeing what fits best. You’ll be able to toss out rituals that just don’t work very well – or are too much work entirely! – without disappointing your child in future years, since he won’t remember them. By age six or seven, though, what you do together as a family over the holidays will be activities your children will expect year after year.

The trick is to use the entire month of December and not try to cram a lot of activities into Christmas week. Another trick is to be choosy about what you do as a family and understand you cannot do everything. The final trick is to share the work. You, your partner, and your children’s grandparents can all have a role that adds to the richness of the holiday season.

A nice balance of traditions might include something from each of several categories:

Community. Participation in religious services, tree-lighting ceremonies, community sings, and so on are key ways to share the joy of the season with others. Consider going caroling, driving around to see outdoor lights or seeing a holiday play. Being part of celebrations bigger than ourselves is an important addition to the season.

Decorating. Choosing a Christmas tree and decorating it can be a family affair, along with hanging a wreath on the door and stockings on the mantel. Creating handmade ornaments and building a gingerbread house are activities that adapt to children of all ages and can become more sophisticated as children grow older. And, of course, trimming your home or windows with colored lights is always fun.

Storytelling. The holidays are full of story, both religious ones and secular tales. Read stories to each other, tell stories, and even watch holiday television programs. Singing is another way to tell the stories of the season and music always makes everyone feel good.

Food. Christmas baking is time-honored and children love to make and decorate cookies and cakes. Leaving a snack out for Santa Claus is a ritual in some households. If your family doesn’t have traditional foods for the holiday dinner, there’s no reason why you can’t create a menu that can be repeated every year.

Service. Bring the meaning of the holiday home by including volunteering at a food bank or homeless shelter. Help children choose a charity and make a donation. Find ways to help out neighbors, feed the birds, or pitch in as needed. Many organizations need help and making this a traditional activity in your family sets a good example and brings a warm glow.

It doesn’t matter what traditions you choose – and certainly there are many more options to choose from than the few I’ve suggested here. The key thing is to choose. Choose what fits your values and the meaning you want your children to attach to the holidays. Incorporate these into the family’s activities throughout the entire month.

Build traditions deliberately. They will last in memory a very long time.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.