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How to Create New Holiday Traditions

find traditions & keep them alive

The menu for Christmas dinner is one of the holiday traditions at Jessica Schmulen Williams’ house. It’s always the same. No, the Colleyville mom doesn’t serve up ham, turkey or roast beef; she skips the fruitcake.

“We have perogies, rice and beans, and flan,” Schmulen Williams says. “They don’t make sense together, but it’s special to us. My husband’s family is Polish, so that’s where the perogies come from. And the rice and beans and flan are because I’m Puerto Rican.”

The unique meal came about after Schmulen Williams and husband Daryl, along with their respective children, blended their households. Traditions are very important to them, a way of solidifying their identity as a family of five and giving the kids continuity even as they go back and forth between parents.

“The day after Thanksgiving, we put up the Christmas tree—always,” Schmulen Williams shares. “And the Elf on a Shelf shows up that day. We also watch Elf and drink eggnog.”

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If you’re searching for your own traditions, and eager to get your family excited to celebrate together, don’t despair. We’re here to help make the season merrier and brighter—even during COVID.

Find holidays traditions for your family

Erin Zopolsky—a Dallas mom who agreed to raise her children Jewish and then converted herself—started introducing Jay, now 10, and Hattie, 7, to their family’s holiday traditions when they were babies.

“My extended family celebrates Christmas, so we enjoy the secular parts of Christmas like the decorations, songs and Santa,” she explains. “But we focus mostly on Hanukkah in regard to its significance and history.”

Zopolsky and her husband made sure Jay and Hattie began to understand religious traditions and their meaning as early as possible—enrolling them in preschool at the Temple Emanu-El Early Childhood Education Center. “Now, both of our children enjoy displaying and lighting the candles on their own menorahs,” she says.

The Earlier, the Better

It’s probably easiest to establish annual customs when kids are little. Hanukkah celebrations have always been part of Jay and Hattie’s lives. Fort Worth mom Lauren Aves is also getting her traditions going for 8-month-old son Liam’s first Christmas. “I can’t wait to buy presents earlier this year, put the tree up earlier and decorate more of the house than we have in years past,” Aves notes. As the owner of Aves Photography, she’s naturally also looking forward to annual family pictures (in matching holiday PJs).

I tied a big red bow around my son in his first holiday photos; every year since, I have snapped a photo of him with that bow.

There are certain traditions that are great to start when your child is newly born. If you set up a Christmas tree, you could select an ornament to represent each year of your child’s life: a rattle for their first holiday, perhaps, and a train ornament when they enter the Thomas the Tank Engine phase. I tied a big red bow around my son in his first holiday photos; every year since, I have snapped a photo of him with that bow.

If your children are older, it’s not too late to find a signature celebration. With older ones, try getting some input about what would make the holidays special for them. “Letting my kids decide how they want to celebrate usually leads to more buy-in on their part,” notes Zopolsky.

Finding what they love

You could suggest a family hot chocolate night, making gingerbread houses or getting each child a small tree to decorate. They may enjoy eating chocolate gelt (candy coins associated with Hanukkah) or donning traditional African garb to commemorate Kwanzaa.

They might even come up with an idea all their own. Older kids can also begin appreciating the idea of giving back. They could clean out their toy boxes every December and choose items to donate before new presents roll in. Your family may decide to volunteer together or choose a North Texan in need from the Salvation Army Angel Tree.

You can also introduce your kiddos to something you enjoyed from your childhood: an old holiday movie, a recipe your grandmother made and so on. “When my husband Will and I were growing up, our parents made a special Christmas breakfast each year, so I’m sure we will do that with our son, too,” says Aves. “And we will let him open one special gift on Christmas Eve and read him the Christmas story out of the Bible that night as well.”

Consistency is Key

There are endless ways your family can mark the holidays—and consistency is key. But it’s not only about consistency in those seasonal activities. “You can’t announce on the holidays that you want significant family time and think that the kids will just happily set down their phones and tablets, if they’re used to doing their own thing,” says Schmulen Williams. “You have to train them to expect the togetherness and have fun with it.”

When she and her husband tied the knot, they established weekly game nights, movie nights and dessert nights, and required the children to use their devices only on the house’s first floor while enjoying each other’s company. “By the time the holidays rolled around, they expected family time,” Schmulen Williams explains.

Adapting holiday traditions to pandemic realities

While togetherness at home is easy to preserve during this unusual year, the challenges of a pandemic are changing the way many of us will spend the holidays.

For a number of families, air travel is out. Schmulen Williams’ mother and mother-in-law won’t fly in; they’ll instead FaceTime with Schmulen Williams as the grandkids open presents sent in advance.

The Santa chat will look different this year, too. A visit to the big guy is one of the most time-honored holiday traditions, and I love hanging each year’s pictures side by side to see how my son has grown and changed (from sleeping through the very first visit to apprehension in later years to, finally, a happy grin with Santa).

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The pandemic inspired a set of husband-and-wife entrepreneurs to create a service called JingleRing, allowing Santa and Mrs. Claus to connect with your kid via video call from the “North Pole.”

New holiday traditions for the family

“We think there will always be a place for in-person Santa visits, but for a lot of families and portrayal artists—Santa and Mrs. Claus—it’s a wonderful new way to experience the spirit of Santa,” says Walt Geer, one of JingleRing’s founders. “The family gets a dedicated time slot, spends more time with Santa or Mrs. Claus, and gets to personalize the experience.”

Parents who set up a JingleRing call can select their Santa’s ethnicity and faith, while providing info on their kids names, ages and wish list. Grandparents and other relatives can join the call; the session is recorded as a keepsake, and free pictures taken during the virtual session can be shared.

If you ask me, that sounds just as good or maybe even better than waiting in a line and meeting a Santa who doesn’t get advance intel on your child. Perhaps a new tradition is born.

Of course, plenty of seasonal activities can be done without sacrificing social distancing. You can look at holiday lights from your car while seasonal songs play.

As drive-in movies make a comeback, you’ll no doubt be able to watch holiday favorites such as The Santa Clause or Die Hard (yes, that’s a Christmas movie) without leaving your vehicle. The ugly holiday sweater contest with friends can happen over Zoom.

However you mark this season, those celebrations seem more important than ever. “The kids are missing their friends and their grandmothers and their normalcy in 2020,” says Schmulen Williams. “So traditions are bringing some of the normalcy back.”

Above all, don’t let the constraints of the pandemic dampen the joy of the season. “We’re learning to be flexible and make the most of things,” says Zopolsky. “Maybe this is the year to perfect a latke recipe!”

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Safer Celebrations

Forging ahead with usual travel or holiday gatherings? Here are some recommendations from Dr. Miguel Benet, then division chief medical officer for Medical City Healthcare:

  • Travel: “Some types of travel pose less risk than others, including driving in your own car with immediate family members,” notes Benet. “Traveling by air can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces, since it requires time spent in security lines and airport terminals. Wear a mask on all forms of public transportation and at transportation hubs.”
  • Gatherings: “Be creative when arranging tables, chairs or other furniture so it is easier to stay six feet apart,” Benet advises. “Invite people to serve themselves using their own, unused utensils.”

This article was originally published December 2020.

Image: iStock