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Cultivating Family Holiday Traditions When You Feel Like You Don’t Have Any

My husband and I have been married for almost 7 years. Our anniversary is at the end of the month, followed up three days later by Thanksgiving and then our son’s sixth birthday two days after that. Exactly two weeks later my eldest son turns 14 and two weeks after that is Christmas Day. And then New Years the week after, of course. That’s a lot of events crammed into a short amount of time. Do we have anything special planned for them? Nope. Do we have anything planned at all? Uh…no.

Creating Family Holiday Traditions

You know how some families have these great traditions that happen each year on special events? I love hearing about these family traditions! Like a special birthday plate that has been handed down and is served on each year. Or an elf breakfast celebrating the first day of December. How about particular songs that are sung in celebration of a special day, certain meals that are prepared, specific decorations that are put up.

Yeah, we don’t have any of those. I feel like we really have no family traditions.

Perhaps I’m feeling a little guilty coming out of Halloween. While my kids had costumes (3 out of 4 handmade, thank you very much!) and they did go trick-or-treating, we didn’t go to the pumpkin patch and we didn’t even purchase or carve pumpkins. Despite several trips to the attic to look for the “fall box” my husband wasn’t able to find my autumn decorations so the house went un-decorated (to the disappointment of the kindergartener).

Is it lack of planning that I almost always find myself thinking a few days before a kid’s birthday, “Dang, we should have planned a party or something!”?

Is there lack of creativity (or sheer exhaustion) that I just don’t have it in me to come up with ideas for cute ways to celebrate when there is a special day?

Perhaps it’s lack of budget that with so many big events squished into a month, there’s no way we can do something grand for each special day?

But family traditions don’t have to be grand. Or cost anything. Or require a lot of planning, do they?

Why Have Family Holiday Traditions?

Why bother with traditions at all? Is it just a guilt thing, thinking my kids are missing out? Not at all. I know that participating in traditions is very important towards creating family bonds and childhood memories. Traditions create an identity and reinforce your family values. Having a tradition also means that people know what to expect. Expectation isn’t a bad thing. It’s something to look forward to, something to get excited about. Traditions are also special because it gives people something to teach, to pass down to others.

I had to think really hard about things that we do as a family that would be considered a tradition. Some years I’ve done things that might be considered tradition, the next year I missed the mark. I WANT to create traditions. I want to make things more consistent year after year. And with an anniversary, two birthdays and three major holidays coming up, the time to create traditions is now!

30+ family holiday traditions you can create with your family on a budget.

My son’s thankful list.

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Curating Family Traditions

So, how can you create family traditions? Fortunately the internet is a wealth of ideas that you can pick and choose from as they fit into your family. I intend to be more committed to coming up with memory-worthy family traditions that will bring my family and I closer. Creating and cultivating traditions doesn’t have to cost anything or be overly extravagant. As I created this list, I realized that my family has more traditions than I knew!

Thanksgiving

Seasonal Table Decor – From the tablecloth you spread on the dining room table to the glass candlesticks you place in the center, choose Thanksgiving table decor that you want to use year after year as a tradition.

30+ family holiday traditions you can create with your family on a budget.

Inviting Friends – What better way to show the spirit of Thanksgiving than by inviting others to your Thanksgiving table? Request that friends bring a dish to share that includes their tradition or culture.

Dinner Prayer – In our family, we always start each meal with a prayer. At Thanksgiving, we all stand around the table and hold hands. Each person says one quick thing they are thankful for to share with the group.

Traditional Foods – While turkey, gravy with mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie are pretty much every American’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner fare, what are the traditional foods in your family? I’ve heard of tamales, mac and cheese, ambrosia salad and creamed corn appearing at the table. Dig up one of grandma’s favorite old recipes and make it a tradition to prepare that dish each year.

Football – Whether watching the big games on TV or pulling out the football to play in the yard, do it together as a family.

Eating the Leftovers – You’d better hope there are leftovers! We actually try to make a LOT of extra food, planning that there will be plenty of leftovers. Leftover apple pie for breakfast, turkey sandwiches for dinner and full Thanksgiving dinner again at night! My friend’s family makes tacos the next day by stuffing corn tortillas with mashed potatoes, a beaten egg, chopped leftover ham, cheddar cheese and green onions (they close the tortilla and fry it in oil – delish!!)

30+ family holiday traditions you can create with your family on a budget.

Enjoying traditional Thanksgiving foods as well as our family favorites.

December

Advent Calendar – My mom had the cutest Advent calendar made of felt. She’d pull it out each December and I loved using it each day as a kid. There are some really cool calendars out there now, counting down the days to Christmas. Certainly helps to build anticipation for the holidays.


Donating Gifts – Our church collects gifts each year, as does our kid’s school and the dentist office. We try to donate something to each one. It’s a perfect tradition to share with the kids that shows it’s better to give than to receive. This year we’ve already purchased a bunch of goodies to create boxes for Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child.

Movie Day – Choose one day (maybe a snowy or rainy one) where everyone gathers together and watches traditional Christmas film favorites.

30+ family holiday traditions you can create with your family on a budget.


Hot Cocoa & Egg Nog – Give these two seasonal drinks a grand entrance and make it a special occasion. Offer them after a neighborhood walk to see holiday lights or while snuggled in front of the fireplace.

Volunteering – Despite the busy season, many of us still squeeze in volunteer work. Whether it’s at the local food bank or with your church, volunteering yourself as a tradition really expresses your family values.

Holiday Lights – Here’s another one that we actually do. I never thought of it being a tradition, but it totally is! Take a drive in the car or a walk through the neighborhood to admire the holiday light displays. Bring a traditional snack like popcorn or cocoa to make it extra special.

Bake & Decorate Cookies – For many this tradition can be a chore! Take back the joy in holiday baking by only making your most favorite cookies. Include the kids and let them decorate (don’t worry about perfection – the kids just want to have fun and eat their creations!)

30+ family holiday traditions you can create with your family on a budget.

Christmas

Decorating the Tree – I have a confession. I used to decorate the Christmas tree by myself when the kids were in bed! I was always worried about broken ornaments and strange placement. And then I got over that. I remembered when my parents would play Christmas music and my brother and I would pull each ornament out of the box, oohing and aahhing with the memories of each one. I want my kids to have that tradition too.

Wrap Together – Last year I stopped wrapping all the Christmas gifts alone. I started enlisting the help of each child individually to get them more involved in the holiday. I allowed the younger one to wrap gifts (lots of tape was sacrificed!) for his older brother and sister. He loved keeping the secrets of the gift and the anticipation of them opening it on Christmas morning.


Christmas Music Sing-along- Turn on the music and everyone join in, you know the words! Now it’s time to teach the lyrics of your favorite Christmas songs to the kids too.

Christmas Morning Breakfast- While we don’t have a traditional meal per se, we do always indulge in a big Christmas morning breakfast before gift opening. Sometimes we have French toast. Other days, it’s pancakes. But there is always bacon!

30+ family holiday traditions you can create with your family on a budget.

Bacon for Christmas morning is our family holiday tradition!

Collecting Ornaments – In writing this post, I realized that THIS is a tradition of mine! My grandmother would purchase my brother and I ornaments from Avon each year and those are my most cherished collection. I’ve been purchasing the Hallmark Beauty of Birds Series for my own white tree display.

I used to buy my eldest son a Hallmark ornament of his own each year that reflected something he’d loved that year. Unfortunately with four kids now, the cost of buying each of them a pricey ornament is out of my budget. But perhaps I can take them to the store and let them each choose something inexpensive.

Church – While we attend church each Sunday together as a family, participating in a traditional Christmas church service has it’s own feeling.

New Years

Ring in the new year with family-friendly celebrations that keep you close at home, creating memories together.

Special Foods – After the indulgence of Christmas, my family always chose to go a different route for New Year’s Eve. Appetizers like a cheese and cracker platter, fresh cut fruit and nuts served with a glass of wine are a perfectly acceptable dinner! We’d follow it up with the big box of chocolate and peanut brittle that someone always seemed to gift us each year!

Dress for the Occasion – Choose the theme for your evening – Is it glamorous? Then dress up to the nines! Or casual and cozy? Then have everyone wear their pajamas and snuggle in blankets.


Stay Up Till Midnight (Maybe) – I admit, we haven’t made it past midnight in several years (having little ones and no party plans does that to you!) No need to stay up till midnight in your neighborhood though. Choose midnight in a different time zone and celebrate your New Year at 8 pm if you’d rather the kids stick to their normal bedtime!

Games All Night – When I was younger, my family would pull out several board games to play together. We’d play cards, Yahtzee, Clue and put together a puzzle until the clock struck midnight.

30+ family holiday traditions you can create with your family on a budget.

Birthdays

With four kids, birthday parties aren’t always in the budget. But small traditions are so important when celebrating each child’s special day.

Breakfast In Bed – Serve your child’s favorite breakfast to them in bed. What a fun way to wake up!

Kid’s Choice – Give kids the choice of activity on this day and you might be surprised what they choose. For my son’s 5th birthday, his one request was a play date at the park with his preschool bestie – easy and done! Plan ahead and ask them their choice for dinner as well so you can prepare it on their birthday.

A Birthday Letter from Mom & Dad – Write a letter to your child with notable thoughts on the year past. Save the birthday letters in a special box to be gifted to them when they’re an adult.

Cake Served on a Special Plate – I bought a pretty vintage white cake platter the year we were married. It was going to hold our wedding cake but the cake ended up being too wide. However this cake plate makes a special appearance for each birthday!

30+ family holiday traditions you can create with your family on a budget.

Anniversary

My anniversary, I’ve got nothing. We went to dinner on our first anniversary and since then, we’ve always just treated it like any other day. No gifts, no cards, just a regular day that includes the phrase, “Happy Anniversary, honey”.

I don’t want to blow off our wedding anniversary anymore. I want to create some traditions that show my husband (as well as my kids) that we treasure our marriage with a celebration. Doesn’t have to be expensive or over the top, but it should be something!

30+ family holiday traditions you can create with your family on a budget.

A blurry cell phone selfie is better than nothing!

Same Restaurant – Do you have a special restaurant that you dined in while dating? Return each year for your anniversary (or another restaurant in the same food theme).

Love Letter – Given that I’ve never even received a store-bought card, this one isn’t really in my husband’s wheelhouse but there are some partners who love to share their thoughts and feelings on paper.

Give Traditional Gifts with a Twist – You know those “traditional anniversary themes” for gifts, like paper for the first year and gold for the 50th? Add a twist to those by setting a budget each year. For instance it’s my 7th anniversary this year and the theme is wool or copper. If we set a budget of $20, we could buy a copper bangle, a wool scarf, Moscow mule mug or a wool felt ornament. The point is to actually purchase something that is perfect for your partner, not just anything to fill the quota of a gift.

Wedding Album – Pull out the wedding photos and guest book to look through it together and reflect on the day.

Get Away for the Big Days – Though we might not have it in the budget to have a get-away each year on our anniversary, we’re already planning our 10th anniversary with a big holiday vacation.

And what if none of these traditions feel right for your family? No matter, try only what feels right. What’s most important is gathering together. And the memories you make!

Meaningful Holiday Traditions – Budget-friendly Ideas to Make the Season Bright!

Meaningful Holiday Traditions - Budget-friendly Ideas to Make the Season Bright!

The best things in life are free…that’s what they say anyway! When it comes to holiday traditions however, I fully believe this. Traditions aren’t intended to be fancy or over-the-top: Traditions inspire, spur creativity and create lasting memories. Keeping up traditions doesn’t have to cost you anything extra so don’t worry if your budget is already over-taxed.

Meaningful Holiday Traditions - Budget-friendly Ideas to Make the Season Bright!

For children, something only has to be done once to make it “tradition” (ie: “We always have waffles on Christmas”, only because you served them last year!) Ask your children what traditions are their favorite. My parents and grandparents were very big on Christmas traditions and it made the holidays extra special. Each family member painted a winter scene on their front windows using tempera paints. Christmas Eve night was spent at church, holding candles and singing songs. Santa’s gift was always assembled and unwrapped under the twinkling tree. Christmas Day our entire (very large!) family got together for lunch and to open presents in our wild gift exchange…it was an all-day event! It’s a tradition we hold today. Those are incredible memories that I hope I can create in our own way for my children.


Here are a few ways you can incorporate traditions into your holidays this year:

FOOD

Do you have a traditional food that gets prepared each holiday? In my husband’s family, his aunts get together and make tamales that we can enjoy in the new year. For our family luncheon, my aunt brings an ambrosia salad (a sweet treat with marshmallows and canned fruit). It was something that my grandmother used to prepare and my aunt carries the tradition.

Meaningful Holiday Traditions - Budget-friendly Ideas to Make the Season Bright!

Last year I made this Christmas Cranberry Cake, which was a hit!

A friend of mine started a cookie decorating party several years ago for her nieces, nephews, cousins and friends. She makes the sugar and gingerbread cookies, I make the royal icing and we all gather for dinner and decorating. Everyone enjoys it, young and old alike. I recommend using squeeze bottles for the icing (which makes decorating and clean up so much easier).

Meaningful Holiday Traditions - Budget-friendly Ideas to Make the Season Bright!

As a child, my mom always prepared a Bisquick coffee cake to eat on Christmas morning. Many times I’ve prepared an overnight French Toast that I can make the night before and pop in the oven while we unwrap gifts. If you don’t have a traditional food think about what your family favorite is and serve it over the holiday week. Or find a new favorite in a holiday-themed cookbook, like this one, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: A Year of Holidays.

Meaningful Holiday Traditions - Budget-friendly Ideas to Make the Season Bright!


MUSIC

Certain holiday songs can take me back to a place and time in my childhood and I’m sure there are songs that do the same for you. The Little Drummer Boy for me is sitting next to my dad in the church choir and hearing his deep bass pah-rump-a-pum-pumming out the beat of the drum. Hearing Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You puts me back to the 90s while out Christmas shopping with my brother. Whether it be Josh Groban’s Noel album, Mannheim Steamroller’s acoustic A Fresh Aire Christmas or The Chipmunks Christmas Don’t Be Late, these songs put us in the holiday mood.

For me it’s not Christmas until I’ve heard Whitney Houston sing Do You Hear What I Hear. Goosebumps every time! Think about your favorite seasonal music and play it at home or in the car. Sing the lyrics, teach your kids and let the music put you in the Christmas spirit!

Meaningful Holiday Traditions - Budget-friendly Ideas to Make the Season Bright!

At my son’s school Christmas Concert


VOLUNTEER

Volunteering your time to a cause is beneficial not only to the other person but to your spirit as well. With the extra events going on in communities this time of year, extra volunteers are always welcome. Check in with local shelters, soup kitchens and churches to find out how you can pitch in. With three young children, my time is limited and finding someone to watch our children so we can donate our time to a cause can be a challenge. Find out if there are volunteer opportunities for your children to participate in as well. My husband and son have gone out with our church to deliver sandwiches to the homeless and it was an eye-opening experience that he’s never forgotten. If your time is limited, consider donating your gently used clothing and toys to a local thrift store or shelter.


PHOTOS

Capture the moment in time with a snapshot of your child in front of the Christmas tree with their favorite gift of the year.

Meaningful Holiday Traditions - Budget-friendly Ideas to Make the Season Bright!


GET OUTSIDE

Enjoy an outdoor activity with your family that is appropriate for the season. We have never celebrated a “White Christmas” before so we make do with warmer temps and a hike in our neighborhood park. If you have snow, get out in it with the kids for a sledding competition, snowball fight or snowman building contest. Make it your tradition on one of the holiday nights to take a drive and see the Christmas lights. We have a neighborhood nearby with fantastic Christmas displays and lights and we make it a point to drive though it several times during the season and to walk through it at least once. Load up with cocoa and treats to snack on as you walk!

Meaningful Holiday Traditions - Budget-friendly Ideas to Make the Season Bright!

Christmas in San Diego – A morning hike at Mission Trails


PAMPER YOURSELF

No need to spend a ton at the salon this season when you can enjoy a relaxing “Spa-day” at home. The holidays can really take it out of you! Doesn’t a warm foot soak sound lovely? Do it up at home and you can rest in your pjs while you polish your toes or read a magazine while wearing a homemade facial mask. Pretty up with creative hair-dos for a holiday party. I bought some Jamberry nails this season and have loved how long they last (2 weeks on my hands and 4 weeks on my toes!) I have Midnight Celebration (the first image on the left) on my hands right now and think they are so fun & festive. Pampering might not fall under the free catagory, but staying home is certainly cheaper than going to a salon. Perhaps pampering yourself might also just be as simple as curling up in bed with a favorite book to recharge your holiday batteries. Make it your new tradition to take a break during the busy season and take care of yourself!


UNWRAPPED

For at least ten years there was a gift box shaped like a toy shop that was passed through our family. It was a delight to receive that box, no matter what was inside because it was tradition. Finally the box fell apart and had to be tossed out but it is a fun tradition to start in your family. Find a quirky gift bag or box and keep it around the family, gifting someone new each year.

I was shocked when a friend told me their Christmas morning of gift exhanging was traditionally over in less than 10-minutes: apparantly it was a frenzy of unwrapping, paper flying and “thank yous” thrown around the room. Our family tradition has always been to open gifts one person at a time and for the others to watch what they receive. That way the giver has the joy of seeing the recipient view their present for the first time. Our kids know that we take turns in our home too and the youngest child gets to choose the first gift. Some families have a Pickle Ornament on their tree and the first person to spot the pickle gets to choose their first gift to open. We all have pickle ornaments in our family too but that’s because our surname is Dill!

Meaningful Holiday Traditions - Budget-friendly Ideas to Make the Season Bright!


ORNAMENTS

9 years ago I started collecting these Hallmark ornaments in the Beauty of Birds series. I missed the first year! This was the offering in 2014, isn’t she pretty?

Image from Hallmark.com

I have all of my collection on a small white tree and traditionally have the tree set up on my dining room buffet. Collecting ornaments throughout the years is a beautiful tradition. I have ornaments on my tree that my grandmother gave me as a child. I adore pulling out my beloved ornaments year after year.

Meaningful Holiday Traditions - Budget-friendly Ideas to Make the Season Bright!

The handmade ornaments that my children have made over the years are a delight. A paper crayon drawing of an angel that my littlest made in Sunday school is my current tree topper.  Many Disney fan collect ornaments at the Parks as a memento of their dream vacations. If you have it in your budget, it’s a nice tradition to take the kids out and let them choose an ornament at the store each year. These would be ornaments you would send off with them when they are grown and have their own home! (from left to right, Tigger, Disney Parks Light Up EarsSorcerer’s Apprentice – images from Disney Store)

   


RELIGIOUS SERVICES

When I recently asked my older children what their favorite part of the Christmas season is they both answered the same: Church. We attend church every Sunday and they also attend a life group Bible study once a week. Church is a part of their lives on a regular basis already but I was still intrigued to hear that attending services is their favorite Christmas tradition. During the holidays people in general are more open to attending church service. If you don’t already have a “home church”, consider accepting the invitation of a friend to attend. And if you already regularly attend, reach out to friends and invite them to come with you to service.


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What are the favorite holiday traditions in your family? Please share them below in the comments! 

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