Soon after my husband and I bought our first house—a major fixer-upper that needed renovations in every room—we found out I was pregnant. I stood in what would become our living room with my feet covered in drywall dust, my hands caked with mudding putty, and I tried to imagine my home at Christmas time: eating freshly popped popcorn next to a crackling fire, the smell of apple pie baking in the oven, bulging stockings with a chocolate orange at the bottom.
It’s the family that makes the traditions, isn’t it? When I think of my own childhood, I see one long string of traditions and rituals: the Christmas fruitcake we “fed” for weeks with brandy so it was wonderfully moist; the gingerbread decorating contest we had on New Year’s Eve; passing around the Christmas cookies one last time, after dinner in the living room beneath the fairy lights that made our house feel like it was tucked away in the stars.
Did my parents just decide one year that this was going to be our tradition? What was intentional and what fell into place gradually, molded bit by bit until it cemented itself into my memory?
Today I look at my own two girls and feel daily the strain of how quickly time passes. Wasn’t my 3-year-old just a newborn who spent Christmas morning asleep on my chest, oblivious to presents or excitement? That same baby handed me a drawing today, which was a detailed map of where in the living room we would put our Christmas tree.
I had so many grandiose ideas about traditions before I had babies. I imagined an elaborately decorated house, homemade bûche de Noël on Christmas morning, setting up the model train set that belonged to my husband’s grandfather.
Mothering babies and toddlers have changed those ideas. My first Christmas with a newborn, I tried to make my bûche de Noël but failed miserably after trying to create it while bouncing her in my other arm. Both my daughter and I ended up covered in a cake batter that lacked several key ingredients and completely flopped.
This new tradition, which I thought would bring special memories to my family, was making me miserable. I knew I needed to adjust my expectations.
Maybe one day I’ll have both my hands back in the kitchen and my daughters will actually be able to help me bake a delectable treat. Maybe they’ll love setting up their great grandfather’s train track when they’re old enough to not swallow the pieces.
My traditions need to be flexible, and appropriate for the season in life where I’m at. When I allow myself to enjoy simple, age-appropriate traditions for the holiday season, I find so much more joy in them, and my children do, too.
However you choose to incorporate traditions into your holiday season, I think the most important thing is that it is fun. Traditions should enhance the holiday season and bring joy to everyone who partakes in them, including their maker. And I think the very best traditions are the ones that happen spontaneously out of spending time together.
Here are some ideas that are working for my family in this season, as well as other parents of young children.
Mini Cakes for Kids
My family is from England, which means that every November, my mom and I make an English Christmas cake. It somewhat resembles the American fruit cake, but is more dense, rich, and flavorful.
Every year, my mom and I play Christmas music, have a glass of sherry, and make our cake. Last year, my daughter wanted to join, so we gave her a tiny cake pan. She loved pouring the cake batter (made from my great grandmother’s cake recipe) into her own tiny dish, watching it bake in the oven, and feeding it with brandy with me throughout the Christmas season.
This is my husband’s favorite Christmas tradition. He happens to make his own gingerbread for our houses, so this treat is extra special.
Andrew makes the batter, cuts and measures the walls of the houses, and puts them all together at night. In the morning, my daughters walk downstairs to a beautiful, blank gingerbread house to decorate with peppermints, licorice, sprinkles, and buttercream frosting.
I think there is something really special about the house being ready for them when they wake up, but as they get older, I’m sure they’ll want to bake and build with their dad.
For parents of small children, for whom making homemade gingerbread isn’t fun or life-giving, pre-packaged gingerbread kits are what we used growing up and they were no less magical. The important thing was being together as a family to decorate.
Jennie Genders, mom of two girls, 5 and 3, says gingerbread people can be a lot more fun when you aren’t going for a Pinterest-style finish. “We usually use shape cutters, but last year my 5-year-old went freestyle. Decorating the gingerbread with icing usually keeps them happy for a while, too.”
Food Rituals That Keep Your Kitchen Intact
For those who find the holiday baking schedule a little less joyful and a lot more hectic, one mom of two toddlers has a trick up her sleeve.
“I really don’t like baking at the holidays,” she says. “It just feels like one more thing to do. In order to create meaningful memories for my family without feeling stressed, I buy fresh bread from the farmer’s market on Saturdays during the holiday season. I toast it for my kids when we get home and let them smother it with cinnamon and a little bit of sugar. It’s special for them, and fun for me, so we all win.”
“We love to drink hot chocolate while we drive around and look at Christmas lights,” says my friend Rachel Morehouse, mother of two, 11 and 8. Her family started this tradition three years ago. With the right travel mugs, it’s generally a fun, mess-free experience to share with the whole family.
Treats to Share
My friend and neighbor Martha Palmquist is a mother of three children, aged 8, 7, and 4. She wanted the holidays to be about special time with family, but also about reaching out to others. Every year, she makes pans of homemade cinnamon rolls and gives them to pastors, church staff, secretaries, and janitors.
“I always save one pan of cinnamon rolls and save them for our family on Christmas morning,” says Martha. “We sing happy birthday to Jesus at Christmas breakfast, and put a candle in our cinnamon rolls.”
It’s so good for kids to watch their parents give to others, and use the holiday season to bring others in.
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com