How-To Trim Your Traditions

Holidays at our house are pretty low-key, until December rolls around. I have always been crazy about Christmas. Growing up, it was truly the most magical time of year when our home and life felt incredibly full. With a large extended family close by, there were parties to go to, service projects to complete, meals to share, gifts to exchange, lights to see, concerts to attend and all the other festivities we could pack in. I loved it.

When we moved far away from family, December was so lonely. The open evenings and empty calendar just made me homesick. I wanted my kids to feel that same intense excitement that I felt growing up, so I started all kinds of new family traditions. We did something every day of December and invited friends and neighbors to join in. While it was a ton of work on my part, it was worth it for the smiles and warmth that it brought to our home. It felt like Christmas again.

When we moved closer to family a few years ago, I was thrilled to celebrate the holidays like we had in the past. All of a sudden there were multiple events every night and so many places to be. I didn’t want to let go of our new traditions, so I tried to incorporate them too. It was a delicious whirlwind of cheer.

The next year I did the same, but the novelty had worn off and we were stretched so thin, there was hardly room to enjoy anything. My kids were getting older with lives and obligations of their own, and I found myself exerting serious effort trying to force people to be excited or to make time for “just one more thing.” I was disappointed, stressed out and a very grumpy Mrs. Claus.

Vowing to never have my favorite time of year spoiled by busyness again, we decided to trim our traditions. My husband and I sat down and thought about what things were truly important for us to do with our family during December and we made them a priority. They were planned and penned in on the calendar.

Then, we opened the conversation up so the kids could weigh in. I was a little surprised at which things they could do without, what they loved and what they were hoping to add. I must be honest, it was a relief to delete “Christmas Craft” from my December list.

Then, we simplified where we could. We spent a weekend in a hotel downtown and knocked out all the activities we loved in the center of the city. It was a fabulous family weekend. We cut the fluff out of our other favorites but kept the heart of the traditions intact. It made for a much simpler but still memorable time.

I let go of the idea that everyone had to be at everything, and enjoyed some of the kiddie traditions with my youngest while my older kids were at school or sports. I stopped getting my feelings hurt when friends were more important than drinking hot chocolate with a candy cane on a weekend night, and I shrugged off the guilt when we had to say no to what sounded like a great invitation. I realized that change and flexibility can be a really good thing.

And something happened for me last year. Christmas became magical again. It was still full and exciting, but there were quiet moments too. A morning together discussing the Book of Luke; a free evening to pop in a Christmas movie and an afternoon to buy gifts for dad.

There was time to remember what the holiday is really all about, and I gave myself permission to not only be the orchestrator of the moments, but to be a real part of them. My kids were happy to have me present, they didn’t miss all the extras one bit, and there was a content feeling throughout the month that had been missing for a few years.

It may seem a bit strange, but by trimming my traditions, I got my Christmas back.

Here are a few tips to help trim your traditions with some advice I got from readers:

1. Meet together as a couple before December and decide a couple of things that are really important to each of you (ours usually include service and spiritual traditions) and write those into your calendar. Remember, you can’t do EVERYTHING. Really talk about how you can trim your traditions.
2.  Decide which extended family events you will attend, keeping in mind that one day you will be a grandma or a great grandma that hopes your kids and grand kids will still participate with you. The holidays are for love and sharing, which often means compromise and some selflessness. But, you have to be realistic, no one can be everywhere at the same time.
3. Meet with your kids and ask for the one or two things that they look forward to each year and make sure you get those on your calendar. That way, everyone gets a chance to celebrate in the way they love.
4. Stop worrying about the things you AREN’T doing. There are a million amazing traditions that we have access to, but there is only so much time, money and energy each year. Feel content that you are doing what is most important to YOUR family.
5. Be okay with change. Christmas with teens will be different than Christmas with toddlers. The whole family doesn’t have to make it to everything in order for it to count or be special. If some have outgrown a visit to Santa, do that when they are busy with homework or out for the weekend without feeling like the world is ending.
6. Don’t get so locked into specific events. You can have a tradition of music without seeing the same concert each year or a tradition of service without always buying a gift from the angel tree. This leaves room to add new traditions into your family without feeling overwhelmed.
7. Give yourself room to enjoy each other! You are not only the creator and executor of the traditions, you are a part of them. Take time to stop and enjoy the moment instead of rushing to accomplish the next “to-do.” Happy, engaged parents are much more important than a Christmas check list! My favorite comment was from a reader who said, “Maybe the tradition is just being together.” I love this if you need a little more freedom with a changing family. We put this into practice last year when we headed to a college basketball game together instead of doing something festive. I was bugged, but it was probably my favorite night of the season because my boys were so thrilled to be there together.

Make no mistake, we will still do the gingerbread houses, rest home singing, family gatherings, secret Santa and lights, but trimming our traditions proved to me that the activity isn’t what is important, that flexibility has its rewards, that families change, and that the most consistent, rewarding tradition is just being together. Will you try to trim your traditions this year?

Family Traditions We Still Love

In talking about what family traditions to cut we realized there are still a lot of family traditions we do love! I’ve written about some of them here on the blog like our favorite Christmas salad, the annual marshmallow snowball fight, my favorite pomegranate recipe, our sibling dollar store gift exchange, giving the 12 days of Christmas to a neighbor, awarding the best lights award, listening to Christmas music, playing the candy bar game at parties, and making Christmas luminaries. If you are still in the phase of life where you are building new traditions instead of trimming them I hope you will try some of the ones we love.

This article was originally published in The Deseret News.