There are the good holiday traditions, and then there are the bad.
Uncle Harvey's annual jello salad? Bad. Driving four hours on an icy road to get to your mother-in-law's house, while your three kids fight over a Game Boy ... also lamentable.
Instead, we're here to help you ring in the good.
A good holiday tradition brings the whole family together with a ritual everyone can look forward to year after year. And, because it's yours and yours alone, it's an ideal bonding activity. Whether the traditions you choose to adopt are silly or serious, the important thing is that they emphasize spending quality time together. Which just happens to be free.
To celebrate that spirit—old bonds, new traditions and an intact budget—we’ve come up with eight ideas guaranteed to bring everyone closer (and remind your kids that the best things in life can't be bought from a store).
Show and Tell, 2.0
Have each family member bring a physical object that demonstrates what he is most grateful for. This can be literal (like the new toy your five-year-old is thankful for), more sentimental (like your Grandmother's vintage necklace or a family photo) or purely abstract or creative (like a piece of macaroni to demonstrate that you're grateful for having food). Pass the object around the table as each person explains why it's meaningful. Bringing in objects that a kid can touch, taste and feel makes this a tactile—and memorable—experience.
Throw a Card-Sending Party
Rather than procrastinating about sending holiday cards (or staying up till the wee hours doing it all yourself), make it into an annual, all-in-the-family celebration. Set up an assembly line so each person has a specific task, from addressing cards and putting on stamps to sealing envelopes. To encourage participation, let each family member choose which postage stamps to put on his or her cards--the USPS makes cute new holiday options every year. And let each family member select songs for your playlist. After all, Santa's elves always sing while they work.
(By the way, to find the perfect card, check out our holiday card guide, here.)
Create a Snowman Village
Instead of buying a premade holiday scene, get in some quality time with your kids by making your own white Christmas in the form of an easy snowman village. Put one kid in charge of creating the snowmen out of styrofoam balls (here's how). To make it personal, let each child decorate a snowman to look like themselves—or another family member. Another can cover old milk cartons with white paper and draw windows and doors to make them into buildings. Then sprinkle additional cotton balls around—and glue them down if desired—to make your scene truly snow-covered.
Start a New Tradition ...
of setting a budget! Our Take Control Bootcamp will take you through it, step-by-step.
Turn Your Kids Into Holiday Elves
Get your kids excited about helping in the kitchen by turning them into totally legit elves. To get into the spirit, make a simple origami "elf" hat for each child, which they can decorate however they want. Then plan to bake a classic treat like sugar cookies, and assign specific jobs to each kid based on age. For example, 7-year-olds can help measure ingredients, 5-year-olds can put sprinkles on top, etc. Write their special job—like "mixer" or "sprinkler"—on their hats so they feel like real Santa's helpers. A night-before showing of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" will also get them psyched about toiling in their own North Pole.
To keep hungry bellies from eating all the food you're cooking, have a healthy snack on hand to munch (here are some suggestions).
Instead of purchasing an actual tree this year, take the money you would have spent on a pine and donate it to an organization that plants trees around the world. Conservation sites are a great way to donate money to a larger cause—for example, a $25 donation to Plant A Billion Trees will plant 25 trees. Then, so you don't miss your usual décor, create an artistic display by having the kids gather branches from the backyard. Put them in a vase and dangle your favorite ornaments from them. In front, print and frame a photo of the alterna-tree your family will help grow so kids can explain when friends and family visit.
Match Their Contributions
The holidays are the perfect time to set the precedent of having little ones donate a little money to charity. Sit down and talk about who your child would most like to give to, but come to the table prepared with suggestions of your own based on his interests. For example, mini environmentalists might like The Fresh Air Fund while big sibs might naturally gravitate to Big Brothers Big Sisters. Once he's decided on a cause that's meaningful, offer to match every dollar he donates. You can even print out the logo of the charity—or a picture of the cause it helps—and tape it on his piggy bank as a warm, fuzzy reminder.
Make Your Gift a Get-Together
Have you always meant to go skating at that rink downtown? Wanted to take the kids to tour the neighborhood with the most amazing holiday lights? This year, decide on an age-appropriate field trip, and make a pact with your mom friends that, instead of giving gifts, your families will spend an unforgettable afternoon together. The power of this ritual is in its repetition: If you choose right, it will be an outing you'll look forward to every year. Make sure your kids understand that this is your arrangement with your friends; once they reach the age when they start exchanging gifts, suggest that they start a similar tradition in lieu of purchasing store-bought items.
Take a Holiday Time-Out
Everyone could use a little break from the December madness—in other words, an evening with no talk of gifts, cookies or even ambitious New Year's resolutions.
- If you’re currently in a relationship, you have to balance the holiday demands of your family and your partner's, to say nothing of the kids', which can leave little time for the two of you. Pick the next night that works for you to reconnect and rekindle your romance. Get a sitter and consider it an early gift to yourselves.
- If you're craving time with a close friend you haven't managed to see in months, make a holiday date to go get pedicures and fancy coffees together—and no, they needn't be cinnamon-flavored or topped with candy canes. In fact, paint your toes purple and call it a non-holiday day.
- Consider outsourcing some chores that you would usually do yourself. While this may make you feel guilty, you can use the "What's My Time Worth Calculator?" calculator to decide if spending the whole day cleaning up after a Christmas cocktail party is worth it.
- Or, if the thing you really covet this holiday season is a bit of alone time, pawn the kids off on Grandma, and pencil in a pre-Christmas afternoon off: Grab the latest Jodi Picoult book to read in the bubble bath with a glass of wine. After all, it's tough to bubble over with holiday spirit unless you make time to take care of you—a worthy ritual if ever there was one.
Tell us—what holiday traditions have you started with your own family?
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