14 fun family Christmas tradition ideas to help you start your own.
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I love Christmas. Some of my happiest childhood moments were at Christmas time and I have such great memories of the family Christmas traditions we did at our house. Family traditions for any holiday are important, but Christmas traditions bring an extra special magic.
When I got married and started my own family, I knew that having our own Christmas traditions was very important to me. I couldn’t wait to establish those traditions for our little family, but I wasn’t really sure how to do it or where to start. Over the years we have established several wonderful Christmas traditions that our children look forward to and have (I hope) created happy memories for them.
Whenever I hear the word “tradition” I immediately think of Tevye walking out on the stage at the very beginning of Fiddler on the Roof and attempting to explain his traditions and where they came from. But he can never quite explain why they are there. “It’s just…tradition!” he says.
And it’s true. It isn’t always easy to figure out where certain traditions came from—we just do them because they are a tradition and tradition is important. Traditions help us feel connected, they give us something to look forward to, and they bring more meaning into our lives.
I love thinking about our Christmas traditions and where they came from. The Maestro and I are celebrating our 15th Christmas as a married couple this year, and it’s really fun to look back and see how our family traditions have developed and evolved in the relatively short amount of time we’ve been married. The most interesting thing to me is the many different ways that traditions can start.
And no matter how it started, once a tradition is established, we don’t let it go! Mostly because the girls are huge into tradition—they won’t let me drop things even if I’m feeling like I want to—because they have found that connection and meaning in our Christmas traditions. It’s pretty amazing how that works.
Here’s how our family Christmas traditions started:
We used the Christmas traditions from our own families of origin.
1. Christmas pajamas
Christmas pajamas are a good example of this. When I was growing up, we always got new pajamas for Christmas. My mom often made them, though that’s one tradition I haven’t carried on as much as I would like to.
My favorite Christmas pajamas were from the year I was 6 or 7 and my mom made me a red flannel nightgown with a nightcap! I just loved wearing that nightcap, though I’m not entirely sure why. That was the year that I sang If Santa Were My Daddy (a la Jimmy Osmond) with a few other girls who were the daughters of the ladies in my mom’s singing trio. Her trio used to perform all over the place on Christmas, and that year we little girls got to perform along with them, and we all wore our Christmas pajamas. And nightcaps to match! (That was my very first professional singing gig, by the way—I got paid in Lifesavers.)
We always got pajamas, but I don’t remember that we always opened them up on Christmas Eve. I just had to text my mom to ask her, and she said we started out that way, but then we kids didn’t want to open them on Christmas Eve, so they let us open one gift under the tree instead. I do remember opening one gift on Christmas Eve, and maybe because it wasn’t always jammies is why I don’t necessarily remember it always being pjs. But man, I do remember looking forward to opening that gift on Christmas Eve, jammies or not! And I always loved my Christmas pajamas, no matter when I opened them.
2. Open a gift on Christmas Eve
Joel’s family didn’t do Christmas PJs, but they did open a gift on Christmas Eve—so we are, in a way, continuing this tradition from both of our families by opening pajamas every Christmas Eve. And even though my children figured out a long time ago that the Christmas Eve gift is always, always PJs, they are still ridiculously excited about it every single year.
When it comes to family and holiday traditions, getting married feels a little like marrying someone from a foreign country with an entirely different culture. Joel and I had vastly different holiday traditions when we were children, and though we’ve tried to implement the ones that are most dear to us, they don’t always hold on for whatever reason. It takes a bit of compromise to figure out how you are going to keep your favorite traditions from when you were growing up once you get married. (Unless, of course, you were lucky enough to have the exact same traditions.)
3. Act out the Nativity on Christmas Eve
Our current Christmas Eve tradition is an example of this kind of compromise. In my family, we always acted out the Nativity on Christmas Eve before bed. I always looked so forward to dressing up in a white sheet with gold tinsel on my head to be the angel who announces the birth of our Savior to the shepherds. My parents were usually Mary and Joseph, and my three brothers were shepherds and wisemen. I remember vividly the year my grandmother came to visit for Christmas. I was sad because she got to be the angel, and I had to be Mary instead. That right there proves just how important tradition is to children!
4. Read Luke 2 on Christmas Eve
Joel’s family did not act out the Nativity on Christmas Eve—they read it straight from the Bible instead. I just texted him to verify this, and the text I got back said, “Read it. Never act out, NEVER.” Which pretty much encapsulates his feelings on the subject, and is the reason why our little family now reads it straight from the Bible with no whiff of acting—not a bathrobe is in sight as we read of the shepherds in the fields. Which is fine, really, since we don’t have enough children to play all the parts and they would all be fighting over the angel anyway.
Compromise. (We still act it out with my family if we are ever there on Christmas Eve.)
We copied our Christmas traditions from other people
5. Listen to Amahl and the Night Visitors on Christmas Eve
I only spent one Christmas as an LDS Missionary, and my companion at the time had a really cool Christmas tradition from her family that I have now stolen. I remember when she got her Christmas package from her parents, it held a recording of the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. She told me that her family all laid around the Christmas tree in the dark every Christmas Eve and listened to the whole opera, which is only about an hour long. Since I am an opera singer, I was already familiar with the opera, and so I immediately loved this idea.
That year my companion and I turned out the lights and gathered around the tiny little Charlie Brown tree in our Romanian apartment (okay, so it was way too small to “gather around”) and listened to the opera. I swore right then and there that when I had children of my own that I would implement this tradition.
And I did. We didn’t start it right away, but I always talked about it. It didn’t really make a lot of sense to do when the girls were still super young, though. Plus, The Maestro wasn’t so sure about the idea. But then one Christmas, while he was still working on his doctorate, he conducted a stage production of Amahl and the Night Visitors and became familiar with the music. After that, he was on board.
The first year we did this I was so excited! Sophia was a little more than a year old, and if you know Sophia at all, you know that she had trouble sitting still, but that year Bria loved it. She was 8 years old, and she got it. Last year, Bria and Chloe both told me how much they love listening to Amahl every Christmas Eve and it made my heart swell. It’s definitely become one of my very favorite traditions.
6. Read a Christmas book together every night in December
Another tradition we copied from others is reading a Christmas book every night. We’ve only been doing it the last few years, and it’s because I kept seeing it all over the internet and thought it was a great idea. I already had several Christmas books I had acquired over the years, and I have continued to buy a few more each year.
In fact, I now have enough Christmas books to probably read 2 or 3 each night in December. But the kids look forward to getting them out and it’s nice to have a big selection to choose from (though we do have our favorites!).
We thought of some Christmas traditions all by ourselves
7. Watch the same Christmas movie together each year
The Maestro decided about five years ago that we should make it a tradition to watch the movie A Christmas Carol (the one with George C. Scott) every year. Because we already had Christmas Eve traditions in place, we chose to make Christmas Adam (that’s what my girls call December 23rd) the night to watch it.
The first year was amusing, because the girls were terrified by all the ghosts—most especially Jacob Marley and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Sophia even had bad dreams about “the black ghost” for several months after we watched it. But, the next year they asked about when we’d be watching it again, and the tradition has stuck.
8. Put on a family Christmas music recital
We’ve thought up other traditions over the years that didn’t really stick. It’s okay if they don’t stick—your kids will make sure the really good ones stick anyway and you can only do so many!
One year we did a family music recital on Christmas Eve. Each of us played a Christmas song on our own instruments. It was really fun, but we haven’t done it again since. I’m wondering if I should dig it up again and see if it sticks this time now that the kids are older and have more musical ability than they did then.
9. Fill Christ’s manger with hay
Another year, we tried to do a tradition where we put a piece of straw into a basket every time we did something kind for someone else. We had fun with it, but I think it’s one that we should have started when the kids were a lot younger in order for it to stick. Plus the “straw” I bought was full of glitter and made a huge mess, so it didn’t encourage me to do it again the next year.
Sometimes the conditions just aren’t right for a new Christmas tradition to make it to actual tradition status. No worries—it’s still fun to try new things and plenty of other traditions will pass muster.
We take universal Christmas traditions and add our own twist
10. Leave cookies for Santa
Some Christmas traditions that we do are pretty universal. Leaving cookies out for Santa Claus, for instance. Just about everybody does it, but with their own twists. Some leave carrots for the reindeer, others put reindeer food out in the yard, some bake a special batch of cookies just for Santa, and others are fine with just leaving him some Oreos. But most people do some variation of this tradition.
11. New Christmas dresses
Getting a new Christmas dress for your daughters is a pretty universal tradition, I think.
My twist has been that they must match. Though I’m sure that’s not unique at all—it’s a mother of girls thing. I do love this tradition, though. I have so much fun shopping for the perfect Christmas dresses for them. And I love doing our Christmas card photoshoot in the dresses as well. I think the girls really like this tradition, too. Sending Christmas cards is another one of those universal traditions that I love doing, too, by the way.
Unfortunately, this year their Christmas dresses don’t match. I was a little sad about it, but I coordinated it as best I could. I guess once Sophia’s around 12 or 13 we can start doing the matching thing again, but by then Bria will be off to college, so the era of the matching Christmas (and Easter!) dress is probably over.
I fully admit to being so sad about this new development, that our 2013 Christmas card does not even feature their 2013 Christmas dresses, even though I really love their Christmas dresses. I felt that maybe it was time to start a new tradition for the cards instead of matching dresses all the time. Maybe next year we’ll actually do a family picture, which I haven’t done for years!
Our Christmas traditions just sort of happened
12. Silly Christmas socks
These are, in my opinion, the best sort of traditions. They are also the most unique.
Remember how we decided to watch A Christmas Carol every year on Christmas Adam? Well, two years ago, Joel brought home a gift from one of his colleagues on December 23rd. It was a stocking full of silly Christmas socks—one pair for each member of the family.
When the girls got home from school that day (yes, they usually are still in school on December 23rd), I passed out the socks and they immediately put them on because, wouldn’t you? They kept them on all afternoon and evening, so of course they were wearing them when it was time to watch the movie.
Last December, Chloe kept saying “I can’t wait until we get new silly socks and we watch A Christmas Carol!” In her mind, it was already a set-in-stone sort of tradition, so of course I bought new socks for everyone. And right now I have three pairs of silly Christmas socks hidden in a drawer, waiting to be worn on Christmas Adam.
2017 update: Four more years later and the silly sock Christmas tradition is firmly set in stone at our house.
The first Christmas Carol Silly Socks thanks to my iPhone. I didn’t know it was going to be a tradition or I might have taken a better photo!
13. Eat a special food for Christmas breakfast
Eating pannukakku (Finnish pancakes) for Christmas morning is another tradition that just happened. We decided to make it the first Christmas after we moved here (this area is the Finnish capital of the United States) and it has stuck. It’s something the girls look forward to on Christmas morning. And me, too! Especially since it works really well gluten-free!
14. Christmas morning scavenger hunt
Another one that just happened is a Christmas morning scavenger hunt. This one was born out of having bought suitcases for the girls because we were going on a cruise in early January and they needed them. I didn’t want to wrap them, and they weren’t from Santa, so I hid them and made clues for them to find them.
The next year was the year that I decided Santa couldn’t have all the credit for the amazing American Girl things they were getting, so we did a scavenger hunt for those.
Last year I didn’t make a scavenger hunt for the girls, but I made one for my husband. And I’m guessing that it’s become an expectation now, so I better decide what I’m going to hide and start coming up with clues!
We sure love all of our family Christmas traditions, and I’m sure a few new ones will continue to pop up before we’re through! As our children get older, it’s easier to add some of the more serious traditions in to our repertoire. What I love most, though, is how tradition is kind of like the glue that keeps us together.
Because, as Tevye put it, “without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!”
What are your favorite family Christmas traditions?
More of our Christmas Traditions:
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