04 December, 2016

Magical Christmas Traditions

A few nights ago, we were gathered 'round the tree in jammies, Christmas lights twinkling away, snow falling outside. I pulled out a big book of stories and began reading a tear-jerker about making sacrifices for those we love at Christmastime. About halfway through, I said through gritted teeth, "EVERYONE. SIT DOWN. STOP TALKING. YOU WILL ENJOY THIS STORY!" Then I caught Steven's eye. And had a good laugh at myself. 

Here is the post I wish I had read five years ago. I need a mentor! Are you a thirty or forty-something-year-old mom of many, who loves to make life magical and doesn't like to spend money? Whose husband's job is flexible but who has to factor in late work nights frequently, so plans have to be able to be accomplished with just one parent? A woman who believes in Santa, drinking hot chocolate, and keeping life simple? WILL YOU BE MY MENTOR? 

Anyway, if you are wondering about how to make Christmas magical (especially with young children around), here are some of the things that work for us. 


Our highest priority with the holidays is for our children to understand that we are celebrating the birth of the Savior of the World. It's too easy for me to get holly jolly and forget about how my kids don't remember the meaning unless I tell them. Here are some things we do to remind us every day:

Our advent calendar is a wreath that I bought from Target after Christmas last year. We used to have a handmade one, but it has fallen apart over the years. I put in three Andes Mints for each day and a little strip of paper with a scripture for us to study together as family in lieu of our usual scripture study. These scriptures have to do with Christ and either the story of his birth OR a miracle that he performed OR his attributes. We spend extra time just talking about Jesus instead of reading, and we all like that better ;). 

Every year my kids participate in our ward (congregation) Christmas nativity. They spend Sundays in December practicing Christmas songs and staging and come home talking about sheep and shepherds and Mary and Joseph. 

One thing I want to do is start an amazing creche collection. For now, I have two small nativities that are both child-friendly. I like to set one up kind of out of their reach, but if they do end up playing with it, no biggie. The other one ends up in random places every year, but the kids love playing with it and are always reverent with the baby Jesus piece. 

This is probably my very favorite tradition: you know that we sing together every night. Well, during Christmas time, we sing even more. I love it. Every evening after dinner, we gather around the piano and I bribe the kids to surround me on the piano bench. Steven holds Merit, and we all sing three or four Christmas hymns. Favorites are: Silent Night, Joy to the World, Far Far Away on Judea's Plains, and Dona Nobis. It is definitely a zoo sometimes, and ends with me pounding away with Steven singing his hear out, while the kids tackle each other, but more often than not, it is a sweet moment each day to remember the Savior.

We have had special moments around the Christmas tree, listening to Steven or me read a Christmas story from one of our books. Unfortunately, none of those moments happened this year - and they are 1 in like 20. But I HAVE A DREAM. A dream of my kids, snuggled up, happy tears streaming down their faces as I read "The Gift of the Magi". Maybe not this year. But someday. There is one story we all love in our Newbury Christmas Collection book about a family that gave up Christmas to pay off all of their debt for the dad, as a big surprise. We tried this year to get the kids feeling it, but it did not go well. I think the key to this for now, is to give up sitting around the Christmas tree, and just read the story during dinner. Give and take. 


We buy two inexpensive real trees each year. I think our living room tree was $30 and our family room tree was $18. They are both smaller trees but we love them. We decorate the living room tree with all of our red, gold, white, and glass ornaments, white lights, and white holly berries. It's kind of Mom's tree, except that I'm trying not to be weird about it. The family room tree is more fun, with all the ornaments we've made, a bunch of random ornaments from my childhood (like the Cap'n Crunch cereal box ornament from 1988), multi-colored lights, and random things the kids decide to throw on. Like pictures they've drawn or candy wrappers. I have a daily ritual of plucking random weird things off of that tree. Ha. Someday I'd love to have a dining room tree too, with no ornaments, just lights. Downside to multi real trees is that I always forget to water them AND we have major pine needle messes. BUT it's magical to have a tree in the two main rooms and I think the kids love having a "kid tree". 

I mentioned this before, but I am big on Hygge. I try to keep things comfy, cozy, and magical. I use LOTS of lights on the inside of the house, LOTS of cozy blankets and pillows, and LOTS of greenery around the house to make it really magical. 

We make decorations every year. Last year we made a wreath for the garage. This year we made mistletoe and a cute little holly garland. 

It's funny cause I make a pinterest board with all of my Christmas decoration dreams, and when I'm done, my house does not look like those pictures. BUT part of Hygge is keeping things simple. At least, that is what I tell myself.

I try to have candles lit often, especially at mealtimes. Fire hazard with a two year old? Yes. But we are careful. It just makes things feel more intimate and cozy. 

I also wait until halfway through December to buy some real wreaths for half off and hang them IN the house to make the house smell even more pine-y. 

Movies and Music

When our kids are older, I want to make the Nutcracker a family tradition. When I was growing up, our small town in Alaska put it on every year and nothing makes me feel more Christmassy than the dance of the sugar plum fairy. 

BUT there are some good alternatives. We have two or three Christmas movie nights every December. After dinner, we tell the kids to go change into jammies, grab their blankets and come downstairs. We turn on the movie, turn off the big lights, turn on the twinkle lights, light a few candles and gather round to watch one of our favorites:

Miracle on 34th Street (on Amazon Prime)
Jingle All the Way
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Frosty the Snowman
The Santa Claus
Arthur Christmas
A Muppet's Christmas Carol
Mickey's Christmas Carol
Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas
Christmas With the Kranks

(We used to love the Home Alone movies, but I can't handle how mean Kevin's uncle is, and how many bad words are in those movies! Stupid. Jerk. Hell. Damn. Too many swears for us).

I aaaaalllllwwaaaayyyys have Christmas music playing. From the beginning of November to January. Non-stop except when we are sleeping. I love Mormon Channel radio because it's free, no ads, and a huge variety of classic Christmas music. 

I also love Harry Connick Jr. and Sarah McLaughlin. I think her version of Silent Night is the prettiest. But give me a good jazzy saxophone rendition of any Christmas song, and I will melt into a puddle of sentiment. We do a lot of dancing and singing, piano, guitar, and concertina accompaniment, and caroling around here. 

Activities and Trips

In October, Steven and I have a planning meeting to make sure we get everything on the calendar for December that we want to make sure happens. As small as - baking cookies or as large as - have a huge Christmas party with friends. We put EVERYTHING on, even if we don't necessarily end up doing it that day. For example, we love doing gingerbread houses, so I put it on the calendar for yesterday (the 3rd) but we didn't get to it. But I do have everything to make them, so now, when we have a spare evening we can just pull all the stuff out and go for it. I try to make one big grocery shopping trip right before Thanksgiving so that we get all the supplies we'll need for Christmas time. Things like, extra glue-gun sticks, M&M's (buy a bag from Costco and let your kids sort out the red and green and brown ones for Christmas cookies. It's cheaper that way, and fun for the kids. You can make a game like, for every ten Christmas colors you sort out, you can eat one yellow one). I'll post a picture of our calendar below so you can see the kinds of things we schedule. 

On that topic, we are doing the Light the World project where we as a family and individually are trying to do one act of service every day in December leading up to Christmas. So we also had a planning meeting to write down what we wanted to do for that each day. The calendar looks cluttered and stressful, but it's really not. 

We have done the last four Christmases just our family, here in New York. And we have loved it. I don't think we will ever travel for Christmas again, until our kids are grown. BUT we do love being around friends that feel like family often during the holiday season. So we make sure to schedule in advance one or two big get togethers at our house with friends. This year we are hosting a caroling night and a small dinner party. In addition to our church Christmas party, other friends' parties, and last-minute moments of inspiration (come drink cocoa with us! things like that), we usually end up with friends once or twice a week until Christmas. It's fun for our kids to have friends their age to play with and fun for us to socialize and wear our Christmas sweaters :). I can sometime do a separate post on what kinds of things we like to host and how to do it with small kids.

We plan ONE special Saturday trip to one of the many fun Christmas festivals in our area. Last year we did both the It's a Wonderful Life fest and the Dickens fest. The year before we took a trip to New York City. This year we are probably going to do the Dickens Festival and the Lights on the Lake. We noticed that if we planned too many Saturdays away from home, we ended up losing time doing the projects that we love that really make it feel like Christmas. So instead, we just plan on spending one whole Saturday out, from early in the morning to late at night. This is not my very favorite tradition at this stage of our life. The big kids love it, but the young kids struggle with long car rides and then being jostled around all day in and out of strollers. BUT I do always have that special moment where I want to sing, "Silver bells, Silver bells, it's Christmastime in the city!" And that makes it worth it :).

A note on that: when our boys are teens, we are going to go all out for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Why wait until then? Who knows, we will probably go next year and I'll feel silly for posting this. But when we go, we want to really enjoy it and not be stressed about crowds, cold babies, and car time. So we are maybe saving that adventure for our teens, who can bring camping chairs and eat donuts while they save our spot while we get a reservation at a fun restaurant close by. Anyway. Just a thought. Have you done the parade with young kids? Think we should?

We go caroling every year, bring cookies to our neighbors and gifts to our close friends, and drive around to see the Christmas lights in the neighborhood. All are on our calendar so that there is no way we forget to do those very important things in the hustle and bustle of the season.


I don't think there is anything wrong with creating sentimentality with food. We have unofficially decided that the taste of Christmas in our home is the deliciously rich Andes Mint. They are the candies in our advent calendar, and the key component to our favorite Christmas cookie. There are other foods we love - pretzel cookies, Christmas M&M cookies, pop overs and gravy, peppermint hot chocolate, egg nog, cinnamon bread, olives, pickles, grapes, and of course mandarin oranges. All of these remind us of Christmas. But THE TASTE of Christmas is spoken for. We are busily indoctrinating our kids by never giving them Andes Mints during the rest of the year. Ha. It's working! 

My mom sends us homemade caramels that I hoard for myself, and of course we make my mom's family's famous French Chocolate drink for Christmas Eve. 

We usually have one or two major cookies baking days (yesterday was a major baking day, and there will probably be one day this week that we have another baking day) to make all of our Christmas cookies. We bring a lot of cookies to friends and neighbors, Christmas parties, and we also like to have them around the house for evenings when we play games or sing carols late and want Christmassy treats. Beyond that, though, we don't have a ton of food traditions.

Last year we did a Bethlehem dinner on Christmas Eve and a turkey dinner on Christmas. It was fun and all right, but we are going to change things up this year. 

A Note on Elf Stuff

A note and some money that Gage left out for a sweet elf named LuLu
I am not an elf-on-the-shelffer. I DO love it when Gage and Kjel leave little notes for elves around the house. I just have to make sure to ask them before bed where they put them so that I can direct the elves in the right direction in case they can't find them ;). Elves like to leave little notes in return with bits of advice and interesting facts about the North Pole. Who knows... some day elves may leave little footprints or cute little cheerio donuts... but for now, they respect our desire for simplicity and just leave notes. ;) 

You may be wondering how all of this works out with young children. The answer is: it is messy, and almost never what I pictured. I am a tragic optimist, though, in the words of Viktor Frankl, and I accept and appreciate that everything can still be beautiful, even with the inevitable tragedies of life. Be they spilled egg nog, scratching-face-fights between toddler, vomiting, croup, dad having to work late hours, or an exhausted budget far too early on in December.

Flexibility and a sense of humor are the keys to enjoying the holidays with young kids. If you are deciding between going for it and just cashing in, GO FOR IT! And if you are concerned about the holidays passing by without creating memories and traditions, then print off a calendar and schedule just a few things for a few days before Christmas. Small things that don't cost much or take a lot of time. Your kids will love coloring Christmas pictures, making Christmas things with play doh (a snowman, a star, a baby), or just dancing to Christmas music with you, next to the Christmas tree. Those are the things that make Christmas feel like Christmas!

And my very favorite quote from A Muppet's Christmas Carol:

email me if you want the .jpg file to print this off :).

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