Chatting about Christmas with some friends about 10 years ago, we started swopping stories about our families’ traditions at Christmas, those that we loved and those which we loathed. The loathed ones ranged from the dreaded sprouts and stiff socialising with aged relatives and ‘strange kids’ to hard pews at Midnight Mass.
Then we realised with horror that we’d picked up some of these traditions ourselves as compulsory for Christmas, and started imposing them on our little ones. While we’d grown to like some of the traditions as we’d become adults, we agreed that is no good reason to force our children to like them. After all, isn’t the mantra Christmas is for children.
So we talked through how we might make changes. We’d keep the Christmas traditions we loved (or had come to love) but not expect the children to join in if they didn’t want to. Instead we’d create new traditions of Christmas especially for our families, adults and children. Using feast days as our starting point, here are some Xmas ideas that we and our friends have made our traditions.
6th December, St Nicholas’ Feast Day Widely celebrated in Europe, we have made St Nicholas’ Day special to us by getting one of our friends to dress up as St Nicholas and, in the early evening, visit each family in the group. St Nick asks each child three questions:
What do you hope to get this Christmas? Depending on the response, this can be a good opportunity to manage expectations about gifts for Xmas sensitively.
What would you like to eat for the big Christmas Day meal? Asking this question gives us ample time to plan ahead and ensure that the meal isn’t a battle ground! Our view is why not go with whatever is requested? After all, it is a special day and a once a year occasion, so what does it matter if children want to eat coco pops and ice cream, spaghetti hoops and pizza? Last year we sat down to a mix of cheese on toast, ham pizza, bacon sandwich (children) and roast duck and all the trimmings (adults) followed by ice cream for all. It was a happy table!
What xmas games would you like us all to play over Christmas? We’ve found it helpful to prompt ideas to make sure that suggestions are practical and include older relatives if they are going to be with us over Christmas. Our favourites include Pass the Parcel with Challenges, Balloon Goal, Treasure Hunts, Picture Consequences and, of course, Charades.
24th December, Christmas Eve Whenever you and the children choose to decorate the tree, hide an important decoration: the Christmas fairy or a favourite bauble or Christmas ornament. Point out that it’s missing but don’t make a big fuss about it. Reassure the children that it will turn up. During tea on Christmas Eve, look up suddenly and ask: “What’s that noise? It’s coming from the room with the Christmas tree in it.”
Get the children to go and look. They will find a window slightly ajar, fairy glitter on the window sill and/or floor, the missing ornament on the tree and, beneath it, small presents each with their name on. The Christmas Fairy has visited you! It works year after year.
25th December, Christmas Day Lay a trail with wool, string or ribbon from each child’s bed to their Christmas Stockings – if you like to watch them opening them this can lead to your bedroom. This is a great way to reassure little ones who are wary about the idea of having Father Christmas in their bedroom!
A really good way to avoid the frenzy of present unwrapping is to hide the presents in a treasure hunt. We start with a note from Father Christmas (FC) saying that he’s feeling a bit mischievous this year (our children chorus: “AGAIN!”) and so he’s hidden their presents. To find them they need to solve the clues in the envelope that he has left. (When our children were younger we used to lay trails of foil stars to the presents rather than use clues.)
We generally let the children solve three clues, open these presents and enjoy them before moving onto the next batch. To begin with we put a present for each adult to be discovered alongside the cache for the children as they solve a clue. Now that they’re older (15, 12, 10 and 6) the eldest three spend hours writing clues for us in the days leading up to Christmas: the youngest still believes that it is all the work of FC. We tend to have around half dozen clues before lunch.
Lunch is what has been chosen with St. Nicholas on 6th December, followed by Picture Consequences around the table, before recommencing the ‘present hunt’ leading to the finale of finding the biggest presents last.
We love a walk on Christmas Day if it’s not teeming down, but found our children were less than keen before we introduced the Christmas Fairy trail. All this consists of are chocolates wrapped in bright foil to be discovered at intervals along the route. If you like this idea, and your walk is a popular one, remember to take enough sweets for the other children who are out and about. They will flock to see what’s going on like a bunch of inquisitive sparrows!
As the light fades it is time for our tradition of Xmas games, featuring those chosen on St Nicks Day. Lively favourites (especially if the weather has prevented a walk) are Balloon Goal, Balloon Challenges and Wrapping Paper Snowballs. Who Am I? Charades and Pass the Parcel with Challenges are also really popular with all the family, young and old. We always finish with Name That Carol, which involves someone humming a carol, everyone guessing what it is and, inevitably, singing it.
26th December, Boxing Day This is when we hold our traditional ‘Come As Your Shoe Size Not Your Age Party’ for family and friends, and have livelier xmas games that are best played with 12 or more people. Star of the show has to be the Treasure Hunt (yes, another one!), but also played with enthusiasm are Ladders, Murder in the Dark with a Twist and Relay Races (Spoon on a String, Balloon Batting, and many more. We dedicate one room to eating, drinking and making merry and another (with furniture pushed back and breakables removed) to playing games. It’s a hoot and children love it when the adults let down their hair and join in.
January 6th, Epiphany or 12th Night To end the Christmas festivities 12th night is celebrated as a day of misrule. We’ve adapted the French tradition of baking a cake with a bean in it. I make individual cup cakes as it cuts out the amount of cake that needs to be eaten, and whose turn it is to find the bean each year can be managed! I’m also flexible with the date ( a convenient tradition!) so that it falls a day or two before school begins again.
The cakes are served for breakfast, and whichever child finds the bean in their cake is king or queen for the day. They choose whatever they want the family to do together for the day and we all fall in with their plans. It is a lovely way to end the Christmas holiday.
My philosophy is that a tradition should only be followed because it is loved. No one needs to put themselves or their children through the stress of following what other people (and indeed the media) feel you should be doing or eat. You know your children best: do what they enjoy and create your traditions that they will treasure forever.