Starting Traditions as a Young Family

christmas mantel

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!

Advent candles

Image by Powi

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.

Christmas cookies

Image by sgvisuals

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!

Christmas decoration

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

About Kate Tietje

Kate is a work-at-home mom to (almost) 4 kids -- Bekah, age 4.5; Daniel, age 3; Jacob, 1; and baby #4, due mid-March 2013. She is married to Ben, a wonderfully supportive husband! She blogs at Modern Alternative Mama, where she writes about natural health, real food, parenting, and all things “green.” She also recently launched Modern Alternative Kitchen, a site about traditional cooking, and is about to launch Modern Alternative Pregnancy. In her “free” time, she enjoys sewing, crafting, cooking, and playing with her children. Follow her on Facebook!

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Comments

  1. My husband and I have always give our Christmas presents the weekend before Christmas and we have a special dinner before the ‘busy’ Christmas the following week where we try and see all the family. This is our first year as a family of three and though our son is too young to understand what’s going on I’m hoping to start a tradition of doing family shoe boxes in the same style of the ones we do through church where they get sent abroad to kids/families who don’t have a lot. My hope is that we will give practical things and ‘treats’ rather than excess- I’m already going through a time of de-cluttering and recycling as much of our stuff as I can- we don’t need more ‘stuff’!

  2. We have kept the actual gift and decorating part of Christmas very simple and I like that. Our two girls get one or two small gifts each (or a combined gift like this year) that are useful and practical. My husband and I also exchange a gift each, again something more on the practical or encouraging side, not just more clutter. We don’t spend much either, and are open to giving and receiving second hand gifts. We don’t do gift exchanges with much of the extended family anymore. Everyone has so much “stuff” and as the family grows its too much, even with drawing names. It just adds to the stress of the season and we like to keep it no or very minimal stress!

    We decorate a tree and talk about the Christmas story but we don’t do the big turkey dinner or any of that. Too much stress, especially with young children.

    We do unfortunately have all our family (that makes 3 families plus extended families and siblings all in different places) at least 6 or more hours away. Which makes it really hard and we’re trying to figure that one out. We used to do the 3 days here 3 days there 3 days the next place with dropping in for a few hours at this or that inbetween…but it doesn’t work anymore. No one else has small kids so they don’t understand/don’t remember. If anyone else knows how to figure this one out please comment! The actual get togethers themselves are kept fairly simple for the most part (and we’ve had talks to ensure that they don’t get overwhelming) but the travelling is the big one, and no, our families for the most part don’t understand that the road travels our way too…its a tough one to figure out!

  3. What a great blog! I also come from a family where Christmas was a really big deal and included lots of presents. I don’t want that to be the focus as much with our children (our girls are 6 and 4). This year I am focusing on making gifts more meaningful rather than “big”. I made infused honey to give as gifts and will include some homemade sourdough english muffins with some of the honey. For my girls, I made flannel quilts and am really looking forward to seeing them snuggle in them for many years. I did purchase a few other gifts for family and friends, but I am not worrying about the gift being “big enough” as I have previously. I am refusing to allow that to be my focus.

    My family always did stockings Christmas Eve and that tradition has continued. (In the stocking was always silly string and whoever gets to the silly string first gets to start the silly string fight. Very fun family tradition!) Christmas Even is now the time we celebrate Christmas with my side of the family. This year my husband’s family is planning on celebrating Christmas the day after Christmas. This will be our first Christmas day with a whole morning and early afternoon at home. I am really looking forward to it!

    Every year we have read our kids the Christmas story out of their children’s Bible. It is difficult for them to get beyond the focus of gifts, but we do our best.

  4. I just posted about traditions and was so happy to see this article…after trying hard to keep up with all of the fun things, we are due this year for a ‘reworking’ of sorts as our family grows. This is super helpful as we look ahead and ponder what to continue and what to let pass, thank you!

  5. My son is turning 4 in January so we are still in that “figuring out the holiday tradition” stage. We always do a Christmas brunch at my inlaws and then dinner somewhere else. This year, my mom is hosting Christmas dinner since I hosted Thanksgiving. I went overboard on the gift but tried to keep everything educational or crafty.

  6. We too started the “Three Wise Man” gift giving tradition when our oldest were 1 and 3. They are 12 and 10 now. I am happy to report that they voluntarily and without suggestion “gave up” one of their gifts for a World Vision gifts. When they ask to do this tears of joy came to my eyes. They get it!

  7. We decided as a young married couple that WE would host Thanksgiving, and go see both sets of close family at Christmas (they live less than 2 hours away from us and about 2 hours apart). It worked well, even with one child, until this year – I’m 8.5 months pregnant, and don’t want to get too far away from my hospital/obstetrician. Unfortunately, a lot of my family is not able to drive down to see us, so we’ll be basically spending Christmas at home with just my husband’s family coming for a few hours in the afternoon/evening.

    On the one hand, it’s less hassle; on the other hand, I find myself at loose ends, since there’s so LITTLE to prepare for – our only traditions with my in-laws are an informal gift exchange and going out for Chinese food.

    It’s also been more of a struggle to determine how much is TOO much to commit to this year. Some days, I’m doing great, and go stir crazy from being home with my toddler and nothing to do – it seems like all our friends are constantly on the go this time of year… but then there are other days when I can hardly move, and ANYTHING seems overwhelming.

  8. Our son {first} will be 9 months old next week and we moved {farther} away from family to NC when he was 1 month old. This year, we’ve decided that we will be staying here…and probably here-on-out for Christmas. It was very important to my husband to start our own traditions together as a family. Admittedly, at first, I was a little disappointed to not be with our families, but as the time grew closer, I am SO excited and wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s been fun to talk about what traditions we’ll carry on, some new ones we’ll start, the “order” of Christmas morning, the menu, etc. And starting now we’ll be able to enjoy special Christmases and traditions that our children will remember. I think it will be very special, indeed.

  9. Our boys are 2 and 4, so we’re also in the “figuring out traditions” phase. My favorite tradition so far is the Three Kings gifts that we give our kids. We only give them three gifts: one that is relatively valuable and something they’d really love; one that is spiritual (in our case, it’s usually some kind of book); and one for the body (like clothing). It takes a lot of stress out of the holidays because we’re not buying a lot of gifts, and puts their focus on Christ, instead of what they “want” or what they’re going to “get”.

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