If you’re tired of the same old trip to the mall to see Santa, or the usual Thanksgiving Day routine, try some of these traditions that other readers have incorporated into their Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve celebrations. Whether it’s putting a new twist on an old tradition or creating a brand-new family holiday, you’re sure to find some inspiration from these great ideas.
The Gratitude Tree
In the fall, our family goes on walks to find colorful leaves. After collecting several of our favorites, we seal them in clear Con-Tact paper to preserve them. We put up our artificial Christmas tree on November 1 (without decorations), and every day until Thanksgiving each family member chooses a leaf, writes one thing he or she is grateful for, and hangs it on the tree. As the leaves accumulate, it’s easy for our kids to see how many blessings we have in our lives.
My husband comes from a rather large family, and many of his brothers and sisters live nearby. Every year, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the adults gather for a game of flag football—better known as the Turkey Bowl. The losing team has to wash all the Thanksgiving dishes. With about forty people gathering for the feast, the stakes are high and the game is always exciting!
Five Kernels of Corn
One of our favorite sermons by General Authority Sterling W. Sill involves five kernels of corn. On Thanksgiving, we would place five kernels of corn on each person’s dinner plate. During the meal, each family member took the opportunity to pick up a kernel and express gratitude for a particular blessing. We continued around and around the table until we had each shared five blessings we were thankful for.
Our favorite Thanksgiving tradition is our annual Pie Night.
About five years ago, we started inviting a few families over to enjoy several kinds of pie for dessert on either the Tuesday or Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. Our reasoning was that we really love a lot of different types of pies, and we would always make several for Thanksgiving dessert. Unfortunately, by the time we finished eating dinner, dessert just didn’t sound good anymore!
By having Pie Night a few days before Thanksgiving, we could all really enjoy those delicious desserts! Our tradition has grown each year to include a few more families. This past year we moved to the country with lots of space to spread out, so we had about one hundred people for Pie Night! It was a blast!
On the first Sunday in November, my children cut out construction-paper turkey feathers. With a little help from Mom and Dad, they place them in envelopes and mail them to all of their cousins and grandparents. Each person writes on a feather something he or she is thankful for and mails it back to us. After Thanksgiving dinner, our children take turns reading the feathers aloud and taping them on a piece of poster board with a turkey drawn on it. It’s been a wonderful way to help our family feel blessed and at the same time feel more connected to relatives who are not able to join us for the holiday.
On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, our family participates in what has become know n as “Giving Day.” I gather old clothes and shoes, and our children each fill a box with some of their toys to donate to the local women’s shelter. This is a great way to teach our children to think about others. Plus, you’ll clear some room for next month’s Christmas presents!
Christmas Eve Traps
When my husband was young, his parents didn’t put out most of the Christmas presents until Christmas Eve night after everyone was in bed. Naturally, the kids would try to sneak a peek at the gifts in the middle of the night. His parents, in an effort to get some sleep, began setting “traps” so they could hear the kids getting out of bed. This evolved into a fairly elaborate ritual involving hidden screwdrivers, etc.
When we got married and began our family, our children begged Dad to set traps for them like Grandpa had. Well, more than twenty years later, my married kids still return home to spend the night for “traps” to see if they can outwit and outmaneuver Dad. We enjoyed many nights of giggles as we listened to them out in the hall discussing and shushing each other on how best to proceed and what to watch for.
Over the years, the kids have always mentioned this as one of their favorite memories, and as they have moved on to missions and the military, they have cited this as one of the things they miss most about being away from home.
Goodies for Firefighters
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone gets to celebrate Christmas Day with their families. Since September 11, 2001, our family has taken Christmas goodies to the firefighters at the local fire station. There are usually only one or two people there, but they are always happy to see us, and we often end up sharing the goodies with them and getting a tour of the station. My boys love it!
We want our children to think about the birth of the Savior instead of Santa on Christmas Eve, so we have a “Jerusalem Dinner.” We dress in simple biblical costumes (bath robes, towels as head dresses, etc.), play music from The Messiah, and eat simple biblical foods by candlelight—foods such as fish, pita bread, hummus, cheeses, grapes, oranges, and grape juice. Afterwards, we read or re-enact the Nativity story in Luke 2. We look forward to it even more than opening presents on Christmas Day.
Every year for Christmas we take a trip. Our children are the ones who actually ask for this. They can never remember what gifts they received two years ago, but ask them what we did for Christmas of 2000 and they’ll say we went to San Diego with Grandma and Grandpa and fed the lorikeets at the wild animal park. In 2004, we went to Disneyland with our neighbors and played in the ocean with our pants rolled up. When we average out the cost of the trips, it ends up being about the same as what we would spend on Christmas gifts for our family.
Christmas around the World
Each year, as our four sons were growing up, we explored the Christmas traditions of a different country. Throughout the season we would read about what families in the country did to worship the Savior, who the “magical gift giver” was and what he did, how the families decorated for the season, how they celebrated New Year’s, etc.
We also experimented with recipes from that culture, made decorations to reflect what we had learned (which sometimes meant we didn’t have a Christmas tree), awaited visits from their “magical gift giver,” read stories unique to their country, learned to sing some songs in their language (which sometimes meant finding someone in the community who could teach us), attended other churches for Christmas Eve services, and included others from that country or of that culture in our celebrations.
We wanted to teach our family to respect and appreciate the diversity around us and throughout the world. We also wanted our sons to be able to enjoy that diversity as they served missions, no matter where they might serve.
Sleeping Under the Tree
Our family sleeps in sleeping bags under the Christmas tree on December 23. We’ve been doing it for thirty years now, and it’s great fun. Everyone looks forward to it!
Our family sets aside a day at the beginning of December to transform our playroom into Santa’s workshop. We all sift through the children’s toys and collect the ones that are in good condition but have not been played with in quite some time. We wash them with soap and water and do any minor repairs such as brushing a doll’s hair and putting in a pretty ribbon, or sewing a small tear in a hand puppet. When all the toys are ready to go, we either take them to Good Will or a local homeless shelter. Our kids feel good about sharing their toys with kids who are less fortunate, and we enjoy a little extra storage space—at least until Christmas morning!
When my husband Clint and I began having children, we realized the emphasis of Christmas was no longer about Christ, and it was saddening to us. We often pondered on ways to change the focus. Clint had served a mission in Belgium, where he was introduced to the holiday of Sinter Clauss (December 5th). This was our answer! We take that day, no matter where it falls in the week, to head to the hills in search of that perfect tree. Since we’re there anyway, a person with kids, not to mention a husband who is a kid at heart, (okay me too!) can’t help getting some long-desired sledding in.
That night, Santa brings us a stocking full of goodies and three gifts, which represent the gifts from the Three Wise Men. After the gifts are opened, we tell the story of St. Nicholas, who was a good-hearted man that left some of his wealth and blessings in the windows of the less fortunate. I can’t tell you how extra special my kids feel when people who don’t know our tradition exclaim in surprise, “Santa came to your house already?”
On Christmas Day we find opportunities to bless others by caroling, shoveling snow, bringing Christmas breakfast to older neighbors or grandparents, etc. This treasured tradition has blessed our home and strengthened our testimonies.
Every year I buy each child an ornament signifying what they had an interest in for that particular year. One year my son loved playing a card game. For his ornament, he had a card decorated with a string! Once my children marry, the ornaments go with them.
Christmas Eve Books
When I was a fairly young mother, this quote by Strickland Gillilan struck me deeply:
You may have tangible wealth untold; Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be— I had a mother who read to me.
I, too, had both a mother and a grandmother who read to me—something I cherished. With that in my heart, I determined that perhaps something I could do that would be more lasting than other trendy gifts at Christmas would be a specially selected book for each member of my family.
I would listen all year and choose a special book that perhaps focused on a hobby, told a story I wanted them to experience, or, many times, a specific book that they hoped for. Once it was chosen, I would sit on Christmas Eve day and write a personal note in the front cover that spoke of my impressions over the past year.
After the other traditions are carried out, the gift-wrapped books would be given and opened one at a time. Each person would then enjoy their title and read their note from me. Through the years, as my children grew, they began surprising me with a book of my own. It has become one of our most bonding and cherished traditions.
My husband and I decided before we had our children that Christmas would not be all about the presents they are receiving. So we started a tradition with our first child, and it has continued with the next two. We each receive three gifts to represent the three gifts given to Christ from the Wise Men. Not only does it cut down on expenses, but each Christmas morning we can remind our children of the wonderful night of our Savior’s birth.
St. Nicholas Night
My husband’s parents had always spent the holiday in Minnesota with his sister and usually left towards the beginning of December, leaving us little chance to celebrate with them. The German holiday, St. Nicholas Night (on December 7th), was just the answer we were looking for!
Now, we gather together on this evening for a simple celebration that brings us all together. As guests arrive, they leave their shoes outside the front door for St. Nicholas to fill with treats. Sometime during dinner the shoes outside are magically filled and we all get a treat as the evening winds down. St. Nicholas Night gives us a way to see each other before the real chaos of the holidays starts.
A Night of Music
The highlight of our empty nester holiday is when I invite about sixty people to my home to listen to the story and songs of The Forgotten Carols. We read an abbreviated form of the story and perform most of the songs, with a different singer for each. We always do it the first Saturday of December to set the tone for the rest of the Christmas season. Afterwards, we gather around the piano to sing Christmas carols and gather in the kitchen to enjoy my dessert bar.
A friend loved my tradition so much that she now does it in her home. I always invite the missionaries, too, and they help me serve punch. Neighbors, business friends, clients, and Church members from three congregations in the area attend, so we have lots of opportunities to share our testimony of the Savior. Our guests often remark about how they feel the Spirit, and we even see people shedding tears during the performances. We love it and find it helps us to start the holiday season right!