The importance of family holiday traditions

Christmas cookies
CC BY 2.0 Marco Verch

You don't need decades of history for a tradition to feel established. Start now, and start with food.

When you think about your family's holiday traditions, what do you picture?

I think immediately of my parents' home, nestled in the snowy forest of Muskoka, Ontario, where I've spent every Christmas of my life, minus four. We attend a Christmas Eve service at the tiny local church, and it always ends the same way, with congregants singing "Silent Night" by candlelight. At home, we eat tourtière and cheese fondue, hang our stockings, and listen to Alan Maitland read Frederick Forsyth's haunting story, "The Shepherd", on CBC Radio. If these little things didn't happen on Christmas Eve, it just wouldn't feel the same.

There is great value in creating traditions for families. It creates meaningful memories, especially for children, and gives them something to look forward to year after year. The actions become associated with emotions, which in turn make the event even more special.

But there is a tendency to assume that traditions need to have been established years ago in order for them to be real traditions. That's not true. In the words of Jenny Anderson, writing for Quartz, "You don't need centuries of history to create Christmas traditions for your kids." Every tradition is born at some point, which means you can start the traditions you want for your own family this year.

It doesn't take much. Some of the most powerful traditions are extremely simple, but they acquire meaning through repetition. It could be the simple act of giving a book every Christmas Eve, as the Icelanders do, or giving a new pair of pajamas with a Christmas-themed movie, which my friend Kristin's family does. It could be a group hike with family and friends before a Christmas Day meal. It could be baking the same cookie recipe year after year, decorating a gingerbread house together, going on a sleigh ride, or going out for hot chocolate after the Santa Claus parade.

Christmas dinner© K Martinko -- A big Christmas dinner is an annual tradition in my family.

If you're confused about where to start, begin with food. Everyone loves to eat good food, especially their favorite foods, and special occasions are the best opportunity to make the dishes we crave or don't have time to make on a daily basis. If a holiday meal was a success, take note and make the same thing next year. Before you know it, you might be like Jenny Rosenstrach, who has made the same Christmas meal with her husband and in-laws for two decades:

"It includes cranberry-marinated beef tenderloin, curried carrots with pecans, and Sybil’s Salad, a creative take on a Waldorf salad. 'I like that there are recipes that conjure up a feeling of warmth and family and Christmasness'."

Rosenstrach is the author of "How to Celebrate Everything," which Anderson reviews in her Quartz article. The cookbook is a testament to food's ability to mark both special occasions and the passing of ordinary days, something that has become more important to Rosenstrach as her children grow older.

"Rituals help me answer the questions that are central to my life as a parent: How do we help our children recognize things that matter? These rituals have a way of stopping time."

gingerbread house© K Martinko -- Making a gingerbread house with my kid. The candy was leftover from a local fundraiser event, hence the embarrassing plastic bags! (I prefer to use reusable containers at Bulk Barn for candy hauls like this.)

My own children are still young, but I love the idea of establishing family rituals that we will repeat for years to come. We started a new one this year -- a trip to see the 5,000 candles at Sainte Marie among the Hurons -- as well as entering the annual gingerbread house competition held at our library.

Do you have established Christmas traditions that you can't live without, and do they feature food? How do you mark holidays with the people you love most?

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