Why it’s worth adopting (or inventing) family traditions

Ever since my first child was little, the kids have put out their shoes on the night of December 5 for St. Nicholas to fill with sweets and gifts, just like my brother and I did when we were kids.

That may sound like a long-held family tradition, passed down through the generations, so let me tell you the less-romantic story of how my family of origin happened to adopt the St. Nicholas Day tradition. Because “adopt it” is exactly what we did.

When my brother and I found out our cousins woke up to find Reese’s cups in their shoes on December 6, we wanted in on that action. We begged our parents to petition St. Nick to come to our house, too, and they obliged. It was a borrowed tradition: we did it because my cousins did.

Now that I’m a grown-up, these family traditions don’t come easily to me, but we’ve managed to find some anyway. Some are firmly established, like grooving out to the Beatles for every family birthday. Some are newly adopted, like special breakfasts. My kids love them, and love that these things make us us.

And so every year on December 5, we read The Gift from Saint Nicholas, and each child puts a pair of shoes in the hallway on their way to bed. They wake up to find them filled with candy and gifts. We’re talking small, small things: chocolate coins, candy canes, matchbox cars, holiday ribbons. The first few years, while we were still building our Christmas library, everyone would get an Advent-themed book.

But it’s not about the gifts: I truly think my kids would be happy–if a bit perplexed–to wake up to find their shoes filled with sand. They love the story and the ritual, the sense of anticipation, and the little bit of magic–not the stuff.

I’m convinced these family traditions are worth finding, whether or not they come easily to you, whether they’ve been passed down through the generations or pulled out of thin air. I love the traditions we’ve made ours, and I’m constantly on the lookout for new ones. What will make us us?

We could all use a few new ideas. Tell us your family traditions, your individual traditions, or traditions you think sound amazing but haven’t actually implemented in comments. 


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  1. Growing up, my mom always did an advent calendar of some kind, with candy, and later with cash (woo hoo!), candy, tiny staplers, rubber bands, bandaids – yep, small stuff. πŸ™‚ Now that the five kids are grown, I’m the only one who still requests an advent box each year, but it’s only fair since I fill one for my parents as well. πŸ™‚

    A personal tradition that the hubs and I started was opening one gift a week, in the December weeks leading up to Christmas. I always begged to open a gift early, but my parents never relented. Once we were married, we realized, “Hey! We’re adults! We can open a gift early if we want to!” πŸ™‚ So, for example, since Christmas falls on a Wednesday this year, we opened our first gift last night. It helps spread it out over the month and gives us something to look forward to each week. If kids come into the picture, we plan to continue the tradition so Christmas morning isn’t overwhelming.

  2. sheila says:

    We get out of Dodge every year between Christmas and New Year’s. This may sound big and extravagant, but it is our family gift to each other. We rent a tiny house on the marsh at the closest beach to us (5 hours away!!). I always read the next mystery in my favorite mystery series (by Louise Penny). The boys watch too much college football on tv. We take lots of walks on the beach with our dog. We order pizza, eat tons of shrimp and go to bed early, early, early every night. It has been a wonderful way to end one year and start another. Just us.

  3. Jillian Kay says:

    My son did a project on St. Nicholas this year. I should do this as a surprise. They’ll be so excited. Thanks!

    Our family tradition is cutting down our own Christmas tree, which even though I love hiking I am dreading because my husband drags it out forever!

  4. Karlyne says:

    We go to the woods the Friday after Thanksgiving and examine every tree in it until we find the perfect one! My husband has always thought I was insane, but he’d howl if we did it any differently (and the kids would be devastated!).
    I used to make my daughters nightgowns and pjs for Christmas Eve opening, but now that they have kids of their own, I buy them all at the Family Dollar Store. I thought they’d continue this tradition on their own, but it is apparently mine forevermore! And they still expect new pjs, too…. Some things are never outgrown?

  5. Tina B says:

    For me, it’s choosing a live Christmas tree every year. That’s what I grew up with and, despite the needles and the “hassles,” for me it wouldn’t be the same with artificial.

    The tradition that I “share” is that I buy each of my 5 nieces and nephews an ornament each year, most selected to match their age and interests that year. The oldest is now 28 and she has 28 ornaments from me to do with as she pleases. Hers range from Sesame Street to horses and now books. With my first great-niece on the way, I look forward to carrying on that tradition with the baby.

    • Karlyne says:

      I forgot to mention that I do ornaments for all the kids, too, but I put them on the tree(trees, now that they have their own) when they’re not looking. It’s fun to see who discovers them first!

    • wanda says:

      I have always love this tradition. I started doing it when my three sons were very small. I now buy one ornament for each family because the daughter’s in law wanted to do it for there children. Now that the grandchildren are married I buy them a family ornament.

  6. Allie says:

    I think this tradition my family does might be right up your alley πŸ™‚ My dad buys us all (my mom, my sister and me, and two sons-in-law) books based on our interests. He wraps them unmarked, and on Christmas Eve we all take turns guessing whom each book belongs to until each book is with their rightful owner, then we open them. He always does a good job picking out the books, and it is fun to look forward to every year! We call it “The Book Game” Here’s more info if you’re interested: http://daysliketheseblog.com/post/68631699410/abookloverschristmas

  7. Jeannie says:

    The tradition my husband and I have kept since our pre-kid days is to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” on Christmas Eve. It is such a funny, touching, inspirational movie. It used to be televised yearly, and often we’d come home from our Christmas Eve service and catch it about 1/4 of the way in. Since we bought our own DVD of it, it’s become our habit to put our kids to bed, watch the movie with a glass of wine and some treats, and open our gifts to one another. But now our daughter is 15 and doesn’t go to bed as early anymore — so this past Christmas she joined us, and we watched the movie over 2 nights instead of one. So we’ve adjusted our tradition to fit better with the reality of our lives — but we’ve kept the wine and treats!

  8. Anne says:

    Oh, gosh, we love St. Nicholas’s feast day here! It has become a tradition in our house very easily that neither my husband nor myself experienced growing up. Many of the things we have started as “ours,” so to speak, relate to our faith: finding the Christ child under the tree with gifts so we know He is our greatest gift, singing Happy Birthday to Jesus, celebrating different feast days in Advent, Advent prayer calendar (our version of the countdown), Advent book countdown (beloved!), Jesse Tree (I did have that growing up but only as part of CCD program, not at home), putting the tree up during the pink week of Advent, and something else I’m forgetting. I am creating an O Antiphon craft this year that I hope will become a regular Advent tradition. Oh, I forgot that we’ve started lighting the Advent wreath and singing the first verse of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel before we hang that day’s Jesse Tree ornament. The boys seem to love it! It all just tickles my soul. πŸ™‚

  9. Karlyne says:

    And the Happy Birthday, Jesus cake! Usually I do a couple of different layers with dried cherries, cranberries, etc., and brown sugar icing. We put candles on it and sing, the whole works!

  10. Beth says:

    My favorite family tradition is Christmas breakfast. We live close to my grandparents, who always did dinner on Christmas day around 4 PM. Because you don’t really need a heavy lunch right before that, my parents decided to do Christmas breakfast.

    So, what this looks like is getting up early (7-8 at our house usually) to open gifts. And then when we’re done (or when everyone’s tummy starts growling if it was an especially prosperous and gift-filled year), we cook breakfast together as a family. Eggs, sausage, ham, gravy, two kinds of biscuits (picky eaters), two kinds of gravy (regular white gravy, and chocolate gravy, which is a Southern favorite and an only-on-Christmas delicacy), sometimes pancakes, coffee, OJ, AJ, hashbrown casserole, and fried apples. It is amazing. Then, we skip lunch and are ready to eat again when we get to my grandparents’. Everyone has a certain dish or two that they’re responsible for from year to year, and we have a really good time.

    Another favorite tradition was that every year my parents would let us open one present on Christmas Eve, which they would pick out. It was always new pajamas, which we would sleep in that night, and wear the next morning as we opened the rest of our gifts. Even when we got older, this was still special and sweet to have new pajamas to wear Christmas Eve night. πŸ™‚

  11. Lacy says:

    Even though we don’t have kids yet, my husband and I have started doing stockings St. Nicholas day (a bit of a twist) rather than Christmas Eve in order to really be intentional about both the Advent Season (offering some celebration amidst a time of waiting, birthing, and anticipation) and the Christmas season (where I intend to full-on feast for 12 days!). We’ve been using Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s book “To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration” as our guide, and have been loving adopting and creating new and meaningful traditions and dreaming what it will be like to share them with our future family. On that note, I’ve also been scouring Amazon for the perfect St. Nicholas book, so thanks for the suggestion!

  12. Gina says:

    We keep finding new traditions with our family. We read ‘The Night Before Christmas’ every night before bed from the first of December, we do the advent calendar and at least one Christmassy thing every day – plays, parties, movies, crafting. We have Christmas food every dinner time, not turkey and the works but soups, pates, baked camembert, mince pies, baked ham etc. So that everyday feels like Christmas. I used to be the person that decorated the tree but last year my husband and children did it as a present to me, so that is a tradition now. We visit Santa and his reindeer. This year my daughter (only 8 and very young for her years) asked for a bit of the North Pole from Santa, so between us and the Grandparents we have come up with a few ideas and I suspect this will come out each year. My children are baking a birthday cake for Jesus this year. We quite like Christmas, can you tell? Next year we will definitely do the shoe thing. That sounds delightful. Merry Christmas!!!

  13. Erin says:

    I just saw your nice post from last year. I grew up celebrating Saint Nicholas day, and have celebrated it each year with my own family. As I did, each of my girls receives a special Christmas ornament in their shoe along with some candy treats. Saint Nicholas day really kicks things off in our house. The first gifts after the start of Advent. We also celebrate Saint Lucia Day on December 13th. This is my adopted holiday. I longed for wreath of candles for my head when I saw a picture of Saint Lucia in our elementary school music book. My childhood efforts to craft my own one failed. But I didn’t forget this beautiful holiday. My daughters take turns each year bringing the family a tray of baked goods and coffee/hot chocolate wearing a long white nightgown, red sash and battery operated candle wreath on their heads. Since Ikea opened up nearby our holiday is more authentic with the addition of some Swedish foods. I am a tradition junkie and these are just two of our many Christmas traditions. Children love holiday traditions. They are a great base for making family memories.

  14. Doing research on how to start traditions for our baby boy Nicola. Thanks for your post!

    From our American/English friends living in the Netherlands: “Don’t forget to write a poem (gedichtje in Dutch) that says what he has been up to this year. The poems are usually funny and they tell little stories about when he has been good and naughty. They always end with Sinterklaas saying he’s been a good boy and gets a little gift.”

    That, and some candy, will surely be a part of every St. Nicholas Day going forward!

  15. Leslie says:

    My daughter and her husband have collected a nice selection of Christmas books and DVDs. They wrap them all up each year to look like presents. During the month of December( or they may start the day after Thanksgiving),the children get to chose a book to read or “movie” to watch before bedtime.Usually on school nights it is a book, for obvious reasons.=)

  16. Kayla says:

    We’ve really embraced the idea of St. Nicholas day being for gifts and Christmas for church and family. We have our own “Christmas” as close to St. Nicholas day as possible, with gifts and stockings, a special breakfast and just a whole day to hang out as a family. It’s a nice start to the busy holiday season and spreads out the gifts the kids receive. As an introvert I appreciate the quieter atmosphere and time to just be present. The extended family celebrations are such a bustle of meal prep and noise, definitely not my favorite time of the year.

  17. Amy says:

    We eat dinner by candlelight during Advent. And I’m from Louisiana, so after Christmas Eve service, we come home and eat gumbo.

  18. Jennifer Geisler says:

    One tradition we dropped: since I was a child, my mother made oyster stew for Christmas Eve. Her family is NOrwegian and this was a tradition in her South Dakota farm family. My husband and I continued it until my parents could no longer participate. Guess what? Neither of us really liked oyster stew! So we agreed to stop.
    One tradition we saved: since I was a child, my mother and my sister and I worked together to make time-consuming butterhorns, filled with meringue and finely ground pecans. We then ate them during gift opening on Christmas. I’ve faithfully continued that tradition with my (now adult) daughter. I would have given it up some time ago, but it turns out that it is a tradition that my daughter dearly loves, so it is a fun bonding and memory recalling time for the two of us.

  19. Joanne says:

    We also have always celebrated St. Nick with candy and BOOKS! Since my kids were little (they are now 24 and 21) they received a book from St. Nick. In later years this entailed mailing a package to their College dorm so that it would arrive on time with their book and candy. Most recently, my son, who now lives on his own assured me that he had the books and candy covered for him and his girlfriend! Warmed my heart. We also do Advent calendars with goodies ranging from socks, stickers, nail polish, hair ties and more recently to small bottles of alcohol πŸ™‚

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