Families Share Their Beloved Holiday Traditions

December 20, 2018 Updated: December 20, 2018

The holiday season truly is a magical time of year. It’s at this time when we tap the brakes on our busy, work-a-day lifestyles and hone in on the true stuff of life: love, family, faith, and celebration.

Christmas carols remind us of altogether bigger ideals, card and gift exchanges ignite our sense of kindness and generosity. Our focus on charity widens, and we count our blessings.

The lights twinkle, the smells of cooking and baking warm our hearts, and sometimes snow gently blankets the landscape, magnifying the overall sense of peace and stillness that this season brings.

It’s at this time of year that we hold tight to our family traditions. For some families, the retelling of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” before tucking the kids into bed on Christmas Eve is a must-do. For some, baking Christmas cookies to share with loved ones while enjoying holiday songs is a time that everyone looks forward to. For others, attending an annual performance of “The Nutcracker” or a local holiday concert makes it feel like Christmas.

As Johnny Mathis once said, “These wonderful things are the things we remember all through our lives.”

Magic. What else would you call the fact that, no matter what’s happening in our lives or in the world at large, we all conspire to maintain the beautiful traditions of the holidays each and every year? It seems like magic to me.

Of course, all families are different and enjoy their own specific traditions—certain elements that make the holidays feel just right to them. Some families were kind enough to share their favorite traditions with me below. 

“We have a Disney Monorail around our Christmas tree. In fact, we have three. We put them up after Thanksgiving and each year we add something. We now have a model Contemporary Hotel, The Polynesian, the Tree of Life, and other pieces. My wife’s birthday is Christmas Day. We celebrate Christmas in the morning and her birthday after lunch.”

—John Crossman, Orlando, Florida, father of two daughters and CEO

“It’s the most simple things. All Christmas stockings have an orange in the very bottom. I’m from a big family (8 kids) and on Christmas morning the youngest goes first and gets to pick a present to give to someone, and it goes all the way up to the oldest, then repeats. We’re also Christians, and it wouldn’t feel like Christmas without a humorous attempt at acting out the Bible story on Christmas Eve.”

—Bekah Congdon, San Antonio, Texas

“When my first daughter was born, my husband and I decided to have two Christmas trees. One for us and one for our children. We let them decorate it when they got old enough with their ornaments and things that they made at school. Our friends and family bought them ornaments each year, and now that they are adults it’s so nice to see their tree too! The best part about it is we have picture ornaments on it of them and get to enjoy looking at each year and how they changed. Also, and the main reason why I did this, is because when they get married, at their shower, all of their ornaments will be given to them for their tree.”

—Carolyn Barbarite, Smithtown, N.Y., mother of three and business owner

“One of my most beloved [traditions] is setting up the Christmas tree with my kids. We put on Christmas music and spend a couple of ours getting the artificial tree in place and then placing ornaments. We put out other decorations, such as a snowman candle globe around the house as well. We (also) have family movie night every Sunday as a relaxing start to the week. In December, we watch nothing but Christmas movies. It’s a great way to get into that holiday spirit and do something together.”

—Wendy Miller, North Central Florida, mom of two and coach

“My favorite holiday tradition is the Yankee Swap. Everyone gets so excited about what gifts are in the bags, and opening them is always a riot. You learn a lot about people by seeing what they want. Another favorite tradition of mine is going home to my family and eating a fresh holiday ham smothered in pineapple. It’s the only time of year we have a meal like that. The smell of ham always reminds me of home.”

—Ashley Default, North Attleboro, Massachusetts, writer

“Here are our most beloved Puerto Rican family holiday traditions: The day of the Three Wise Men (or Tres Reyes Magos or Three Kings) is a celebration of a biblical event where the three wise men visited baby Jesus bearing gifts of myrrh, gold, and incense. In Puerto Rico, it’s celebrated on January 6. The night before, children collect grass for the Wise Men’s camels—since they traveled on camels—and place it under the Christmas tree together with a bowl of water (some families place the water and grass at the foot of the children’s beds). The next morning, the kids will find that the Three Kings brought them gifts. They’ll also see that some of the grass and water is gone, since the Wise Men needed to feed their camels.

We have adopted the Santa Claus tradition in Puerto Rico, so children get two sets of presents every holiday season. In many families, kids get the biggest presents from Santa Claus, which they find under the tree on Christmas Day, and stocking stuffer type gifts for Tres Reyes Magos day.

Because of this tradition, the holidays in Puerto Rico last until at least January 6, with families keeping their Christmas tree until then. We also make special food and drink, including pig (lechón) and an alcoholic drink called coquito. Coquito is somewhat similar to eggnog, and made with rum.”

—Miguel Sure, Miami, Florida, attorney and blogger

“I’ve created a kindness challenge that puts the focus back on others for my kids this season. In a season of give, give, give, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in ourselves. This kindness challenge is very manageable and each day is something very little that the kids can do to show kindness to others. Examples include holding the door for a friend, giving someone a compliment, or baking cookies for the community firefighters.

Growing up I had the same breakfast every Christmas morning and I’ve done the same with my own kids. My dad makes eggs Benedict and I make homemade cinnamon rolls the night before. We have special Christmas dishes, and my family looks forward to this meal every year. I love the idea of keeping the meal the same. It adds a special comfort to the day. Having a routine also helps keeps kids grounded in a super overwhelming, overstimulating day!

I’ve got two favorite Santa traditions. The first is keeping all the letters my kids write to Santa and saving them in a special keepsake book. I also add the Santa picture from that year to the page. The kids love looking back and seeing their letters each year. It’s fun to look back and remember what they were into and also to see their literacy development grow!”

—Alison Carter, mom of two and business owner

“We honor our ancestors once a year. It’s usually held mid-January. My grandpa created a huge book with our family genealogy and family tree. We do this once a year prior to Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. During Tet we honor our ancestors, teachers, parents, and children. All family members gather together to support one another.”

—Alexandra Tran, Seattle, Washington, marketing strategist

“For the last five years, my husband and my mom and I have adopted families for Christmas. We buy them toys, gift cards, and even food and deliver on Christmas Eve or the day before. This is the best part for me—to brighten the lives of families who are struggling. My mom’s corporate work department adopted us one year when I was 12 years old—my mom raised me on her own and that year was tough for us. I will never forget this and I always said someday I am going to pay it forward and do the same. This year I’m organizing the Shop it Forward Gift Guide where a portion of sales will be donated to adopt more families! I’m excited.

We are not Italian but my mom makes the best lasagna—we have this with salad and rolls for dinner and lots of goodies. I have my mom’s lasagna once a year and it’s awesome!”

—Tasha Mayberry, Windham, Maine

One holiday tradition that I look forward to each year is baking Portuguese sweet bread with my family. This recipe was handed down to me from my mother and my loved ones can’t get enough each Christmas. My nieces and nephew have helped me bake the bread over the years and we’ve created many memories together. Christmas is not complete without freshly baked sweet bread and reminiscing about all the wonderful memories formed each Christmas throughout the years.”

—Bronwen Smith, New York, N.Y., celebrity floral and event designer

Follow Barbara on Twitter: @barbaradanza