Not all traditions are major events that include the whole family. Some are smaller, more private interactions that act like a secret language between parents and kids. These shared rituals can happen during the holidays or every day and offer something to not only look forward to now but also look back on later. In a chaotic and confusing world, sometimes, a little consistency can be exactly what we all need. Here, then, are 35 small traditions to consider starting with your family.
1. Tell A Story Every Night
Storytelling — the act of piecing together characters and plot and settings from thin air — is a skill that is woefully underemphasized. Put it back in the curriculum after the lights go out. Before sleep sets in, weave a narrative that has vivid details, plots, and morals — or settle on one that wanders aimlessly and falls into absurdity. The point is to make it up, take the narrative where your imagination leads, and enjoy the places it takes you.
2. Have a Winter Novel
Every winter, hunker down and bust out a family favorite chapter book — The Hobbit, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are all solid options. After all, when the light wains and the cold days set in, there’s nothing better than a warm book.
3. Give Your Kids Duct Tape On Their 13th Birthday
Duct tape is very useful stuff. By the time your kid is on their own, they should know this.
4. Celebrate Santa Coming to Town
“We don’t pay much attention to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — until the very end, when Santa comes to town. We turn up the volume and the whole family will whoop and yell to celebrate Santa’s arrival, yelling ‘Santa!’ Then we put on the first Christmas movie of the season — Miracle on 34th Street (the 1947 version), which starts with the parade and Santa coming to town.” –Christine H., Connecticut
5. Give Your Kids Spare Change
You know those machines with the bouncy ball? The weird horse outside the supermarket? The Salvation army bucket? Let your kid in on the action. Always carry spare change and don’t hesitate to hand it over. You’ll get a smile out of it — and it won’t cost you more than 50 cents.
6. Visit a Christmas Tree
A giant sequoia in Kings Canyon National Park was dubbed the Nation’s Christmas Tree by President Calvin Coolidge in 1926. If you’re in the Sierras, drive up to the park, get hot cocoa from the visitors center, trudge around in the snow for an hour, and then go home. If you aren’t a mountain dweller, choose the most majestic wild pine on public lands near your home and do the same. Tell your kids the story of Coolidge’s sequoia. They won’t know that the tree before them is any less larger than life.
7. Leave A Birthday Voicemail
There are birthday gifts, cards, and then there’s the birthday voicemail. Because it’s recorded, it can be louder, goofier, and more joyous than a real-time phone conversation.
8. Santa Inspection
“Before coming downstairs Christmas morning, all us kids had to line up on the stairs. Dad told us we had to wait while he went downstairs to check to ‘make sure that Santa came last night’. He would disappear downstairs for a while then would return telling us that indeed Santa had come, and that we could proceed downstairs to claim our toys. Now that I’m a Dad, and I do the same thing, I know that he was just buying some time to start the coffee machine and get the beer bottles cleaned up for the pictures.” – Alex R.
9. Play Touch Football on Thanksgiving
The game is played around the country for a reason. A massive meal is coming, so get outside and play.
10. Have Dinner, Give Thanks
Having dinner as a family provides structure and a sense of community. Giving thanks expands on that idea of community and builds empathy. Given all this, why do we combine these two things only on holidays? Have dinner together every day, and give thanks before digging in.
11. Throw A Never-Ending Game of Wiffle Ball
“I have been playing what is ostensibly the same game of Wiffle ball against my father and my childhood neighbor since 1995. We try to play at least a few innings every year. We all have bad shoulders.” –Andrew B., New York
12. Plan a Ditch Day
Every holiday and day off of school is planned, to a fault. Make room for your kids by setting aside a day where you take them out of school for the fun and bonding.
13. Make a Takeout Night a Thing
Takeout night should be something everyone looks forward to. Rotate who picks the restaurant, set the table in a certain special way, and make an event out of it. Oh, and to make it properly special, make sure you only get takeout once a month. It’ll save you money too.
14. Have Good Luck Dumplings on New Year’s Day
“My wife is Italian, but this is a Polish tradition (by way of Pittsburgh). It’s the simplest meal ever — basically you dump a bit of dough in a boiling pot of kraut and that’s that. But it is just right — the only meal to have on January 1. It cures hangovers, warms cold hands, is beloved by kids and adults, and will scream to the neighbors, “We’re cooking kraut over here!” It’s not the meal I would have made or that either of us inherited it from deep family roots, but it’s the one we’ll always cook.” — Tyghe, New York
15. Pajamas and a Movie
Every year get everyone in the family a new set of pajamas, some specialty snacks, and either buy the Blu-Ray or digital download of a movie. Now use them. Make it a pajama movie marathon.
16. The Family Handshake and Password
Having a family password is a simple secret that can keep kids safe. A handshake is more of an elaborate ritual that is just plain fun.
17. The Family Yard Game
Every family should invest time in a yard game like bocce or croquet that they perfect together. The family tournaments might get a little heated, but when outsiders show up, your family will unite to school them.
18. The Family Board Game
When it’s rainy or too cold outside, every family should have a board game or card game to turn to.
19. Upon Graduation, Give Your Kid A Half-Dollar
“It was a tradition in my dad’s family that every time a boy graduated high school, their father would give them a half-dollar, with a small hole drilled into it to fit onto a keychain. That half-dollar was from the year of their birth. When my dad gave it to me — the first time anyone in his family had given it to a daughter — he said it was so I’d ‘never be broke.’ He knows I won’t spend it; the sentimental value of it is tremendous, so that’s probably why I’ll never be broke. No matter what, I won’t part with the half dollar.” – Lizzy, Texas
20. The Grandparent’s Dish
Have a dish grandma and grandpa always make with kids starting young. Is it usually a dessert? Yes, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
21. Fried Bologna Sandwiches
“We make sure to do our share of charitable acts throughout the month of December. During the weekends, we volunteer at soup kitchens and at our church. Other than that, we have our Christmas Eve dinner. One year I burned our actual dinner, so we ate fried bologna sandwiches with Ruffles chips because that’s all we had. Ever since, that’s been our silly little tradition. We eat the sandwiches while watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story. My kids are now almost 18 and we all still do it. Last year, my son’s girlfriend joined us for it. It’s funny how it stuck.” — Jerome L.
22. Read Together For the Duration
Most families read together up to fourth or fifth grade — a time when a kid can read on their own and choose their own book, place, and pace. Try to keep the tradition alive with a book that you read together for as long as they live with you. Some nights, it will be a hard-fought tradition, but a worthy one.
23. Leave Santa a Cocktail
Milk punch would be an obvious choice here.
24. Give a Family Powerpoint
Everyone gets the wedding Powerpoint. But that particular presentation feels so … impersonal. Have a presentation every year, after a holiday meal. Get popcorn, have everyone participate (sending in favorite photos or videos), and set it to outrageously cheesy music.
25. Kiss the Last Page of the Book
Do it once and your kids will follow suit forever. There’s nothing wrong with showing some affection to a good book.
26. Stocking Scavenger Hunt
Once you turn stockings into a scavenger hunt, the whole thing becomes so obvious. While you’re making coffee and getting yourself ready for the day, the kids are running around chasing sticky note clues on the mirror, in the oven, under the couch … Twenty minutes later you are racing and usually somewhere in the parents bedroom you’d find your stocking and we’d all sit on the parents bed and open presents.
27. Family Sweater Day
No, you don’t have to have matching sweaters to make this work. Just have everyone wear a sweater for a special occasion. Even if you don’t match, everyone will look uniform and comfy — the perfect opportunity for a family picture.
28. Volunteer as a Family
A monthly volunteer activity that the family believes in is one of the most worthy traditions. This year, make it happen.
29. Watch It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve
The older they get, the more kids will appreciate this movie.
30. Go to the Movies on Christmas Day
While mom or dad cook the Christmas meal, get everyone out of your hair and take them to a movie.
31. Cookie Day Decorating
“Cookie day is a Sunday before Christmas but after Thanksgiving when my mother-in-law bakes about six dozen sugar cookies. All the women in the family meet at her house and decorate the cookies with colored royal icing, sprinkles, and colored sugar. After hours of decorating, we cap off the day with a contest where we all decorate a cookie of the same shape — a Christmas tree, a gingerbread man, or snowflake. The guys show up at the end of the day to judge the contest, voting for their favorite cookie without knowing who decorated it. It’s old school, sure, but it’s long been a safe space for the women in the family to talk about their feelings and lives. In other words, it’s as relevant as it ever was. ” –Anne, New Jersey
32. Family Karaoke Night
Singing songs off-key is a lot more fun than you think — and helps everyone learn to be a little less self-conscious.
33. Express Gratitude
Go around the table at family meals — holidays or not — and have everyone express their gratitude for something.
34. Buy a Yearly Ornament
It sounds silly to buy that a lobster buoy ornament you got on the trip to Maine that summer or the sparkly boot just because. But as you unwrap the box every year, you’ll reminisce about all the memories you shared as a family .
35. Have A Family Challenge
Maybe it’s a foot race. Maybe it’s a tennis ball throwing competition. Maybe it’s trivia. Whatever the case, a friendly family competition helps scratch a certain itch and helps everyone look forward to (and learn from) a yearly bout.
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