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Creating Family Traditions That Stick

Creating Family Traditions That Stick

I firmly believe in family traditions because I believe in fun. In addition to the fun, they bond families together and give them things to look forward to. Plus - my favorite part - you don’t have to think of new things to do and reinvent the wheel every year. I like anything that makes my life easier. :) A friend uses a great phrase - “tradition builds security”. Much like my kids, I thrive on routines, whether they are daily, weekly, or yearly. The holiday season is an especially fun time for traditions, so today I’m giving you my best hints for building them in your family. My family are Christians, we celebrate Christmas, and we do Santa Claus with our kids, so our traditions this time of year stem from that background. I will talk about what my family does, but that leads me straight to my first point...

1. Every Family Is Different

The thing about family traditions is that they’re just for your family. They don’t have to wow your friends on Facebook, or make your mom group think you've got it all together, or impress your in-laws. They don’t even have to fit a list of rules a random mom-blogger tries to give you. ;) Your family has its own unique blend of beliefs, age and number of family members, schedules, and resources. Trying to force other people’s traditions into your family is not going to be fun or meaningful for anyone. You do you, friends.

2. Consider the Big Picture

My husband and I believe it’s important to teach our kids about Jesus’ birth and what it means for us today, so we try to maintain that focus through all our traditions. We talk about the season of Advent - waiting for Jesus to come - as we open our calendar each day and recreate the story with our nativity scenes. We listen to Christmas hymns in the house and the car and participate in seasonal activities with our church. When my son asked about Santa’s naughty and nice list, I replied with “Yep. Santa only brings toys to kids who are good. That’s not like Jesus, is it? Aren’t we thankful that we get His gift even though we’re not always good? Santa is awesome but even he’s not as good as Jesus!” So think - what is your goal this season? Teaching your kids about Jesus? Family time? Giving to others? Just getting through? You don’t have to have a “serious goal” (said in my most serious voice, of course) for everything you do, but when you’re overwhelmed, stop and think, “What am I trying to accomplish here? What’s the best way to do that?”

3. Keep It Simple

Listen. Traditions are great because you do them every year. That’s why they’re traditions. So if you start a complicated, time-consuming, lots-of-prep, Mama-ends-up-doing-all-the-work tradition, you’re going to have to find the energy to do that every year. Even years when you’re pregnant or sick or have 3 science projects due or are renovating your house or your friends have moved in or your kids are going through one of those sullen stages or you haven’t slept in 6 years. I’m just saying, think about the future. Are you going to want to do this every year ad nauseum? Recently, my kids have gotten over their fear of the Elf on the Shelf so he’s begun visiting us. About 80% of the time he moves around in the house and that’s it. (The other 20% are the times I forget to move him and have to come up with a story about how he must have fallen asleep because he was so comfy) This mama has no artsy Pinterest skills and trying to stage elaborate scenes would drive me out of my mind and our elf would end up doing that “he broke his leg and can’t move for a week” thing and then it would probably be, “He’s worried about malaria so he has to stay in this tent until Christmas” or something.

Every year my kids and I drive around and look at the Christmas lights. It started when I only had toddlers and it was dark and I needed to get OUT OF THE HOUSE. We don’t go anywhere special, just get in the car and drive around to see what we see. Then one year I discovered that at Starbucks you can get a kids’ hot chocolate, lukewarm, for $1 so we added that to our trip. Another year I found a “light scavenger hunt” online where all I had to do was print it out and hand my kids a pencil. Added. It’s fun, we can fit it in anytime, and it requires little to no prep or clean up from me. That’s an O’Dell kind of tradition right there!

4. It Should Make You Happy

Whoever is in charge of the traditions at your house, your attitude is the most important factor in making it a success. So if you love it - do it. If you don’t - trash it. Yes, I know, the point of traditions is that we do them every year. But if it’s stressing you out and making your life harder, let it go. Consider this your official permission. We have limited space in our lives - use it to do things that matter to you. Traditions should be fun, not just work.

I have friends who, unlike me, are super creative and love staging elf scenes. Do it! I love baking cookies and am an extrovert who loves getting to know people. So we make cookies and deliver them to the neighbors. Before I started, I had no idea how much work this was going to be. This is my FB post detailing the process the first time we did it, 3 years ago (at the time I had 3 boys - 3.5, 2.5, and 1 month):

First of all, while shopping for supplies at Target while wearing an infant, keeping a two year old continuously supplied with lollipops, and talking to a friend with car issues trying to figure out how to help, I was distracted. So I didn’t notice that the cards I bought had this (cheesy) (lame) message inside. Our neighbors are going to think we are weird. But it’s not worth spending money and taking those children back out to get new ones.

It hasn’t gotten easier, but we’re learning. I’ve decided it’s important enough to power through - my kids are learning to give to others and we get to know our neighbors. Plus, we do it early in the season (we include an invitation to our church’s living nativity, which always happens the first weekend in December, so it has to be done before that) and it gets done before most of the craziness sets in.

5. Pick One

Some great traditions are a lot of work, but worth it. My advice is to pick ONE work-heavy tradition you feel is important and focus on it. That’s what I’ve done with the neighbor cookies. Make your other things super simple. Or, if you’re lucky, get help. My kids open a wrapped Christmas book every day in December, which is a fun tradition. However, they only get to do it because my mom buys the books throughout the year, wraps them, and hands them to me at Thanksgiving. (Yes, my mom is amazing. No, you can’t borrow her. Trying to keep me straight is a full-time job for her) If you really want to try multiple big traditions, then pick one new thing per year. The first year of trying something is always the hardest because things NEVER go exactly as you expected, right? You don’t have to create all your traditions at one time.

In our social media world, it’s easy to feel the pressure to do ALL THE THINGS and make ALL THE MEMORIES and create ALL THE MAGIC for our kids. That’s crazy. Christmas, childhood, families...they’re plenty magical enough all on their own. We’re better off when we step back, relax, and enjoy the season together. Your traditions should make the holidays better, not more stressful. Remember that no one is keeping score of how many things you do (not even those friends “liking” your pictures on Facebook, I promise), but your kids are noticing when you’re genuinely enjoying being with them. That’s what makes them feel loved and secure. Merry Christmas everyone!

Sarah O’Dell spends her days taking care of her four small people (3 boys and 1 spoiled rotten baby girl) and trying to come up with creative responses to “You sure have your hands full!” As an extrovert who spends most of her time at home with little people, she is frequently found on Facebook sharing the details of her less-than-Pinterest-worthy days to make other moms feel a little more normal.


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