When you first get married and have children, the holidays take on new meaning. Maybe you have memories of awesome traditions you had growing up (opening a present the night before Christmas, going caroling, having a big dinner with Grandma on Christmas Eve…whatever your family did).  These traditions made your holidays special, and you want to make the holidays just as special for your children.

Of course, your husband likely had his own traditions growing up, too.  And they may have been different from yours, either in small ways (they opened all their presents on Christmas Even instead of Christmas morning, for example) or in major ways (your husband is a different religion and celebrates different holidays all together).  Regardless, you have two sets of traditions to mesh!

Many young families, before they have children or when their children are first born, try to do it all.  They travel to every family get-together and try to do all the traditions from both families.  Or, they don’t do much of anything, because they’re just getting used to being a family.  Eventually, though, what needs to happen is that you have to start your own traditions as a young, independent family.

This is an issue that’s been on my mind a lot lately, actually.  My daughter will be 3 in January, so this is the first year that she’s really old enough to understand what’s going on.  She knows that Christmas is coming and that she’ll get presents.  She knows she will spend time with her extended family members.  She is interested in helping buy and wrap presents for friends and family, and in baking and decorating Christmas cookies, decorating a tree, and all the other trappings of the season.  So, while up until this point we’ve been able to “get away with” a random mish-mash of holiday events and no real traditions, it’s now time to start ours.  I’m betting many of you are in the same boat!

You and your husband need to sit down and discuss what’s really important to both of you. What do you want to teach your children about the season?  Which traditions did you love as a child, that maybe you’d like to incorporate with your children?  How much traveling do you want to do?  How many holiday events are enough, and how many are too much (especially if you have a lot of family nearby)?  Which traditions are your children old enough to understand at this point, and which might need to wait until they are a little older?  Let’s look at these questions!

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What do you want to teach your children about the season?

This is pretty important.  What are your beliefs about the holiday season?  I’m going to go with Christianity as my example, because that’s the message of this blog and the way we live in our home.  What’s the focus of the season for you?  Is it family togetherness?  Is it Jesus?  Both?  How do you feel about presents?

For example, we have come to feel that the presents exchanged on the holiday are often too much.  I grew up with big Christmases, but I can’t see doing the same.  I don’t want to spend a lot of money buying presents I know my kids won’t play with two days later.  I don’t want them to focus most heavily on what they’re “getting” this holiday.  I want the presents they receive to be meaningful, appreciated, enjoyed.  We’ve decided that we’d like to keep Christmas small, getting each family member only a few small things that come from the heart.  As our children get older, we’ll encourage them to make or buy small gifts for each other, too.  Gift giving needs to be from our heart, out of love, not because it’s a season of “stuff.”  Other families may feel differently about this; this is just what works for us!

Some families may decide to celebrate Advent with candles, calendars, or other symbols.  Others will serve in homeless shelters together, teaching children about giving to those less fortunate.  Others will buy gifts for children in their community who are in need, or donate to Operation Christmas Child.  Others will read from the Bible every week or night, to tell the story of Jesus’ birth.  Some may do all of these things, or entirely different things!  It’s important to consider what you’re trying to teach, and choose your traditions based on this.

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What traditions did you love as a child?

Maybe you always went to Grandma’s for Christmas dinner, and you still want to do that (either to your grandma’s, if you can, or to your parents’).  Maybe you always baked Christmas cookies with your mom, and you want to do that with your children.  Maybe the extended family always gathered and spent a long time in prayer, thanking God for each family member over Christmas.

If you have a tradition that you especially loved, one that really “made” the season for you, consider including it. Include your husband’s favorite traditions too!  If you are really happy about the traditions you’ve chosen, and you go about them lovingly, then your children will love them too.

How much traveling do you want to do?  How many holiday events are enough, and how many are too many?

When you first get married and don’t have kids yet, it’s not that big a deal to travel from home to home for dinners and celebrations with every branch of the family.  But once you have small children, it becomes really tough.  Small children don’t do well with the change in routine, long hours in the car, and tons of attention from extra people. They get crabby, tired, overwhelmed.  For your children’s sake and your own sanity, you’ll probably need to limit the traveling you do.

Can you host one holiday, so that you can still see everyone (assuming they can and will travel to you)?  Can you alternate where you spend a holiday, or say that Thanksgiving is with one family (maybe the one that has the “bigger” traditions) and Christmas is with the other?  Can you be a little “selfish” and say that you’ll travel to celebrate at other times of the month, but the actual day is reserved for just your small family at home?

You also have to consider all the other events – church pageants, Christmas plays at school, friends’ holiday parties, etc. How many of these are too many?  Maybe you decide that you will only do one event per week.  Or maybe you choose only those which are most important to you (your best friend’s holiday party and the church pageant, for example).  Or, maybe you choose the ones that are the closest so that you don’t have to add travel on top of the event itself!

We’ve done a combination of these methods.  We attend some of the extended family celebrations, and we attend celebrations on other days of the month (Christmas this year with my husband’s family was Dec. 18, for example).  Some years we host, and some or all of the family comes to us.  And sometimes…we have a holiday just to ourselves.  :)  That’s important too, so that you can start some traditions in your own home!  Luckily our family understands this and is fully supportive of celebrations at “other” times!

Image by Holland Fabric House

Which traditions are your children old enough for, and which may need to wait?

Although certain traditions may be important to us, they may not be practical in our current season of life. For example, if you have very small children, you may not want to light and keep Advent candles out.  You may not be able to go and serve at a soup kitchen as a family.  These things may need to wait until your children are a bit older.

It’s okay to make a list of the things you’d like to include eventually and start just a couple of traditions each year. Maybe this year, you start by having a small gift exchange, including your child in choosing a present for a needy child, and having dinner at Grandma’s.  Next year you can start an Advent calendar.  Maybe the following year you can volunteer together at a soup kitchen.

It’s not all or nothing. Traditions evolve over time. They do require some purposeful planning and preparation (all that decoration and those travel plans don’t do themselves!), but you don’t have to go from nothing to every tradition you’d like to include in one year!  Go slowly, see what you and your children seem to really enjoy.  Some traditions that evolve may surprise you; traditions that you don’t choose may surprise you too.  If you plan, you can include the ones that are most important to you, and let the rest evolve spontaneously.

What are your traditions?  How have you started them as a young family?

Top image by emilyonasunday