Start a new tradition: anything that makes memories is a good idea, experts say

Melissa Erickson

From cookie baking to game night, read-aloud storytimes to chopping down your own Christmas tree, family traditions create memories, teach values and bring a sense of belonging and connectedness.

Think of them as the glue that keeps families together from when children are small and as they grow, leave home and start their own families.

“A tradition can be something simple that happens frequently, such as going to get a hot chocolate after a sports practice or a game. Other traditions may only take place once a year and are more elaborate, like the large family dinner at the holidays that is always at a certain grandparent’s house,” said Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa Heffernan, co-founders of Grown and Flown, an online community for parents of teens and young adults.

“Traditions evoke memories that are multi-sensory, such as how the turkey smells at Thanksgiving or how hot the sand feels at a favorite summer beach vacation. These memories of family traditions may represent some of the very happiest times in a family’s life and serve as reminders of family closeness,” said Harrington and Heffernan, co-authors of “Grown & Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family and Raise Independent Adults.”

Starting a tradition may be easier when children are small, when parents are more in control of the family calendar, Harrington and Heffernan said. As they grow kids and teens can take part in planning new traditions.

“For example, board games are very popular with teens and young adults now and, if they want to begin a tradition of playing a game with you after Thanksgiving dinner, give it a try to learn the game and carve out time to play it with them. Nurture the tradition of time together,” Harrington and Heffernan said.

Many family traditions revolve around food.

“Food feels like family. It’s what we first know. It’s what surrounds us: family, love, comfort, security, home,” said Jorj Morgan, author of cooking, entertaining and lifestyle books including “Fresh Traditions: Classic Dishes for a Contemporary Lifestyle.”

“We pass down family traditions because we want to surround our children and grandchildren with the feelings of love and security those traditions gave us,” Morgan said.

If your family wants to create a new family tradition include a bit of humor, said Morgan, who shared a bit of family lore.

Many Thanksgivings ago, Morgan’s family walked into her mother’s home and instantly knew something was off.

“There was no turkey smell. It was the year grandma forgot to cook the turkey. She had trimmed it and put it in the oven but forgot to turn it on. Then she was busy getting ready for all of us to show up and never noticed. So instead we ate ham sandwiches for Thanksgiving dinner with all the sides. Now years later we have a baked ham in addition to turkey as a tribute to grandma and as a laugh,” Morgan said.

To keep traditions alive families need to be flexible, especially as children grow up and apart as kids leave home.

“If traditions begin to feel restrictive rather than celebratory, it may be time to examine how to continue to embrace the spirit of the tradition while making small adjustments to the practice,” Harrington and Heffernan said.

If you’re not already doing these, here are some fun traditions to start: 

1. Use an Advent calendar or DIY calendar to count down to Christmas.

2. Write letters to Santa.

3. Visit a Christmas tree farm.

4. Trim the tree as a family.

5. Start an ornament collection.

6. Have the kids make a decoration each year.

7. Set up a hot cocoa bar on Christmas Eve.

8. See holiday lights in different neighborhoods.

9. Bake cookies with the kids.

10. Wear matching holiday pajamas.

11. Take a holiday photo at the same time each year.

12. Research other cultures’ holiday traditions and try one.

13. Volunteer.

14. Ask everyone to contribute to a holiday playlist.