In A Bad Moms Christmas, Mila Kunis plays a mother who nearly ruins her kids’ joy when she gets into a screaming match with her over-the-top mom, who has taken Christmas too far. Her mother’s traditions are forced on the family. They will be made to enjoy the holiday, whether they like it or not.
Kunis cracks. She yells at her mom. She kicks her out of her house. They literally fall to the floor fighting over a Christmas tree.
While I don’t relate to this in terms of my relationship with my own mom, I do recognize that this is an inner struggle within myself. I imagine a Currier-and-Ives Christmas in my house, with my kids gleefully sitting by a fire, sitting on wassail, while someone plays carols on the piano or we listen with rapt attention to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
But no one in my family knows how to play Christmas carols on the piano. And my kids would much rather watch SNL Christmas skits than listen to me read Dickens.
So how can I create meaningful traditions my family will actually enjoy, without wearying myself with exhaustive tasks like coming up with mischievous adventures for an elf every day? How do I not waste my limited budget on experiences that create Instagram-worthy photos but no real connection with my family? Am I focusing on “memories” my kids don’t care about? Have we lost the importance of advent? Is it all just too much?
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I started thinking about the popular “want, need, wear, read” formula parents use to buy gifts. It’s one that my husband and I loosely follow, because our kids’ grandparents absolutely spoil them every year. But I wondered, could there be a similar formula for celebrating our traditions?
So, I came up with a new method for choosing Christmas traditions: “Make. Read. Give. See.” This simplifies the overwhelming number of options (from baking to caroling to elves on shelves to secret Santas, and more) into four categories. I think it helps us focus on what helps you connect with your kids. Allow them to help your family choose what to prioritize, so everyone’s interests are heard.
The idea is to pick one thing from each category for a well-rounded mix of Christmas magic, but you can obviously choose more if you just can’t cut some traditions out.
Choose one thing to make together.
The experience of making together is ultimately more important than what you make, but here are some ideas: from-scratch gingerbread house (or use a kit). String garland of popcorn and cranberries for your mantle. Make and send Christmas cards. Bake Christmas cookies. Create new adventures for an Elf on the Shelf. Try a weird traditional recipe, like plum pudding, that you’d never make any other time of year. Jar up spice tea mix, or paint homemade ornaments for the tree.
Spend hours putting together a favorite Christmas puzzle. Sit down together and make an epic Christmas breakfast menu that you’ll prepare together leading up to Christmas. Mix up mugs of hot chocolate to take to your kids’ bedrooms on Christmas morning, for them to drink before they come downstairs to open gifts.
Also think about how you’d like to do it: Will you play Christmas music in the background or watch Elf together while you craft? Make it fun and light and easy.
Choose a book (or, books) that you read together every year.
When my kids were little, I read them The Best Christmas Pageant Ever out loud at bedtime. They loved it so much, they asked for it again the next year. And now, as teenagers, it’s still something they (reluctantly) admit they’d like to do together. It’s one of my favorite traditions we have.
Other ideas could be wrapping your children’s Christmas books up and opening one each day of advent, or for each of the 12 days of Christmas. Gather as a family around the candles to do advent readings each week, or read Luke 2 before you open your presents in the morning or on Christmas Eve.
Do something together that gives back.
“By this will all men know that you are my disciples: by your love for one another.” I try to keep this in mind during the holidays, which can be so focused on my own family’s enjoyment. Your Christmas tradition could simply be sitting around the dinner table and choosing one way to give back each year. Or, you may decide to support the same groups year after year.
Some ideas: sign up for a time slot to ring the bell for the Salvation Army, or choose a child from their angel tree to buy gifts for. Serve food at the mission. Leave surprise gifts for a family in need. Call your local school or utilities company and pay off someone’s past-due lunch or water bill. Send your kids door to door with their wagon, and ask them to collect pantry staples to take to a food kitchen.
See something or someone together.
When your holiday calendar is filled up with Christmas parties several nights as week, the must-do visit to see Santa, and trips out of town to visit grandparents (in a normal, non-pandemic year, that is) then it can be hard to set aside special time to make a tradition for your family only. But this doesn’t have to be complicated.
One of our favorite family traditions has been surprising the kids at bedtime with hot chocolate and a car ride to see the lights in our PJs. You could see a favorite Christmas movie together, and maybe even make special Christmas popcorn to snack on. Zoom with grandparents or cousins and play a board game together. Go to your church’s late-night Christmas Eve service and light candles while you wait with anticipation for Christmas morning.
It’s not too late to start.
Hey, even if your kids are teenagers now, you can create new traditions that you’ll continue once they’re grown. Just because you didn’t start when they were babies doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. And recognize that some traditions will change over time. As your kids grow their interests will change, or organizations and events you loved supporting may change too. But taking time to make something, read something, give back, and see things together during this season will help increase your connection as a family, which is where the Christmas magic is actually found in the first place.