Category: Fresh Approaches to Traditions

some thoughts about family memories

Canada mintsOver the next few weeks, many of us will be spending time at gatherings with extended family and friends. These events, loaded with emotion and expectation, can overwhelm in the best–and worst–kinds of ways. While we plan and pack and think through contingencies and brace ourselves and gather ingredients for a favorite dish, I want to suggest taking a moment to shift the focus, and reflect on memories from each of our own family gatherings as kids. And what were – and can be – the components that lead to lasting memories.

When I was young, we spent some holidays at my grandmother’s small house in Braintree, MA where my mother had grown up. One of my most lasting memories of those times was Granny offering us orange soda, which she called “tonic.” At our nightly table it was always “water or milk,” we didn’t have soda at home, and probably it was an indulgence for the holiday for Gran as well. Too-sweet orange soda has always since tasted like my grandmother’s attention and my parents relaxing with family. I’m glad now that my parents weren’t being the big bummers saying, “no, you can’t have that, it’s not healthy, there’s too much sugar, etc. etc.” A reminder that there may be no better time than the holidays to say yes when you can.

My other favorite memories from times at Granny’s all came to be because, well, the grownups were ignoring us. We kids had that funny thrown-together time when we just hung out with one another and figured out stuff to do, both as a group and, in quieter times, each on our own. I remember a cousin finding a pack of off-brand cookies in the pantry and sharing them with all the kids in the garage; lining up a shell collection in a hundred different ways from the baskets on my grandmother’s porch for hours; eating pink wintergreen Canada mints from a bowl in Gran’s bedroom–like 20 at a time with my brother–so that we walked around smelling like Ben-Gay; reading through old dusty children’s picture books we found in a shelf; trying to tune our aunt’s discarded guitar we discovered in the back of a coat closet that only had 5 strings; and spying on the adults, thrilling at snippets of overheard grown-up conversation about taxes, travel, or employment until we got bored and moved on.

These days, there is often so much focus on the children. This over-focus on the kids–what they are doing, how they are doing–takes away these kinds of opportunities for them. More good reminders for us parents taking on family gatherings with children: to embrace possible boredom, let discovery happen, and let them make their own fun. -t

a christmas twist

craft beerLast week Nina shared her family’s Hannukah ideas as they bust out their bags to gear up for the holiday. This week it’s my turn to share a holiday gifting twist from our house. (For those with very young children, this may be an idea better tucked away for few years down the road.)

The idea that I share today is that of Categories. Here is how we did it: we began with a brainstorm and then settled on 5 categories. Each person would receive one gift from each of the categories (5 total) from a single other person. We randomly drew names to determine who gave to whom. Where someone got stuck, or if someone else had a great suggestion for another, we helped each other out. Sure, there were some pricey prezies – like winter bike tires – but mostly we spent more thought and creative energy than money, and on Christmas morning, it was so much fun to watch a gift being opened and see how each giver interpreted the category and adapted it to fit the recipient.

Last year our categories (and some examples of gifts) were:

  • Begins with “B” (brunch, blue pants, bandaids)

  • Something foreign (a novel in translation, gift card to an asian restaurant, Japanese candy)

  • Comes in a bottle (favorite roadside beverage my daughter found on a family vacation, bubble bath, a craft beer)

  • Something round (small hoop earring for a single piercing, bike tires, cd)

  • Something printed (a book, money, a framed favorite photo)

We’re now in the process of determining the categories for this year…Something fuzzy? Comes in a pair? Grew out of the ground? Ah, the possibilities are endless!

I will add here that some in our family thought 3 categories might be a better number than 5, which we may shift to. This could also be a fun twist (with a single category) for a yankee gift swap at work or a larger family gathering. -t

Take this idea, make it yours, let us know how it goes. Speaking of gift ideas, it’s time for our Annual Holiday Survey.  For those who didn’t participate last year, it’s simple: you share your kids’ favorites in the survey, we compile ideas, and share them back in the coming weeks.

gearing up

gift bags for hanukkahHanukkah is very early this year, starting the night before Thanksgiving, just two weeks away – eek! Today I have two ideas to share for those of you gearing up for a flurry of gifting. First, to save on wrapping (and time) each of my kids has a gift bag that we reuse nightly. It has become their Hanukkah bag year after year, a friend for the season.  Secondly, select a theme for each night.  Now an annual and much beloved tradition in our family, our kids eagerly anticipate the announcement of the themes. (For those of you that were reading last year at this time, you’ll remember that I shared the idea of creating a theme for each night of hanukkah.)

When the kids were small, we started with basic, descriptive themes (e.g. Books, Music, DVDs, Games, Puzzles, Socks). Now the themes have evolved: “Create”– art supplies, crafts, legos; “Think”– puzzles, brain teasers, 3D puzzles; “Play”–a session at a batting cage, a round of golf at the local 9 hole course, a board game; “Share”– make a small donation to a charity of their choice, “Design a Day”– where ever and with whomever they choose (within reason, of course).  As the kids have grown, the themes and gifts within them have become more abstract. I share this again, because in our very planned, often prescribed and busy schedules, taking some time to put a creative twist on something–here, our holiday traditions–is so much fun and makes them more uniquely ours.-n

create memories & storytellers

kid telling storySummer is often about family time, perhaps long drives, train rides, or other waiting times where a good family activity is just the ticket.  Kids are often captive audiences of grownup stories, “when I was little, “ “ my grandmother used to…”, etc..  Help to solidify their own memories of your family adventures by asking each person to share a favorite outing, funny story, part of a trip, or other family event from the summer.

This helps kids develop their voice and create their own memories and stories.  It gives them practice in figuring out what are key elements of a good retelling, and builds their confidence in sharing with others. It identifies and keeps important elements of family lore alive, which will create bonds that will reach far beyond this year’s long summer days. You might start by telling stories in your immediate family, and then see if they’ll share a funny moment or new experience with an aunt, cousin or grandparent. -n

gift ideas: especially for you

Gift their name in cookiesToday’s post highlights some favorite gifts that get personal. Amid the many, many customizable gifts that are available in our highly customizable on-line, one-click world, it is the effort and time that infuse these with such a special flavor. In the quiet glee that bubbles through a project for someone you care about, you just might find in them a gift to yourself as well.

1. Cookies in Your Name – How fun to receive cookies that spell your name? Simple or decorated, this project is a fun way to spend some time thinking yummy thoughts of someone you love. (We’re also quite fond of ye olde pancake version of this – even just a single letter, YOUR letter, on the breakfast plate is so sweet!).

2. A jar full of …  – For those who have followed our blog for a while, this project was “a jar full of memories” for Father’s Day. Fill a jar with colorful and thoughtful specifics: compliments, reasons you love someone, a couple of photos, hopes for them or for you together. Very special to “unpack.”

3. CD / playlist – What songs from the year will bring to mind the road trip, the spontaneous silly dancing, the beach day, cooking together at Thanksgiving, oh, and that song that just had to be played again and again and again? My husband, for each of the kids’ birthdays, would make them a CD of the songs they loved that particular year.

4. Photo book – for a young child with family far away, their first “photo album” is a great choice, whether you go an on-line route or fill a small album with old-school prints. When my daughter was 2, we lived across the country from pretty much all the rest of our family. One of her favorite “picture books” was a small photo album that had pictures of each of her grandparents, their houses, pets, her cousins, aunties and uncles. Simple straight-on snapshots are best, when the faces are clear: think “head shot” rather than “grandpa standing at the end of the pier.”

5. Personalized stationery  – OK, so this one is on-line and made-to-order, but was such a hit we had to include it. For kids there is something really magical about seeing their names in print. And it could well be the gift that comes back to you in a lovely and unexpected way.  A few that we thought were simple and sweet: here and here.

And for those of you who are still shopping, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite games.

Happy gifting,



Ideas for Nights of HanukkahAt our house we celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. A few years ago, in order to add a bit of fun to the nights of Hanukkah, I introduced the idea of a theme for each night’s gifts. It began with pretty basic themes: books, music, DVDs, games, puzzles, socks. The following year, the themes got a little more abstract: “warm and cozy” (hats, gloves, or footie jammies), office supplies (Staples products they are always asking for – paper, tape, glue sticks), and this year, we’re taking it to yet another level, sounding a little like categories on jeopardy: “It’ll Make you Think” (ken ken, crosswords and sudoku), “Design an Outing” (plan a day with a parent for some one on one time), “Giving to Give” (gifting money for the kids to donate to an organization of their choice), and the clutch game category, “All Fun & Games,”  since to me adding a few new games to our family collection is a highlight of the holiday season…and the year ahead. -n

ornament sourcing

In our book we talk about the richness of establishing family traditions. This week we share traditions from 2 families about what hangs on their Christmas trees: Tara’s, and a guest writer, Sarah Baker.  One catalogs miles and memories, the other sets the holiday mood that delights in seasonal indulgence. Let’s trim the trees!

A collection of memories Our tree holds collected ornaments from family trips and events — pink handprints on a glazed ceramic ball with “Olivia – 1997” written along one side from the year our daughter was born; a carved wooden loon from a 2000 summer cottage in Maine; a Fleur-de-Lys from Montreal in 2006; a special rock with a glue-gunned fishing line hanger from a river camping trip in 2010; a tacky Santa-driven cable car from the vacation to San Francisco in 2002… Sometimes purchased, sometimes made, sometimes found, each has a year scrawled on it – in black Sharpie, fancy metallic ink, engraved or stamped by some artisan or offshore factory. Unwrapping the worn-soft tissue from around each ornament when we trim the Christmas tree is a gift in itself, an annual journey through our shared memories of family adventures over the years. – Tara

Getting in the spirit Every December, my husband and I and our two kids pile into our station wagon and drive 20 minutes west to Gerard’s, the farmstand/boutique on busy Route 2 in Lincoln, MA. We zoom past the shop on the left and make a u-turn about a mile up the road. We pull into the parking lot, giddy with anticipation. For it’s our Christmas family tradition, that the children get to pick one decoration each—ornament or accessory–every year. And Gerard’s gets us into the spirit.

My husband scouts for a Frazier fir while the kids and I race past the cedar garlands and refrigerator filled with mouth-watering homemade fruit pies into the little store. Inside we find the impractical and often pricey Christmas decorations that we have come to treasure. After all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about? A little indulgence? There are red currant scented candles, sparkly reindeer wearing faux-mink collars, oversized antique etched glass ornaments. Gerard, originally from Belgium, and his wife, Amy, have had the shop for 18 years. Antique and new finery, much of it from Europe, fills their shelves inside. Local products including decorated wreaths and apple cider can be found outside. We come for both.

So after the kids find their treasure and my husband our tree and wreath, we pile back into the car filled with Christmas spirit and ready to decorate. Oh, and we all get one of Gerard’s homemade chocolate turtles, conveniently located next to his cash register, to eat on the drive home. Now there’s a tradition! – Sarah Baker

Read more Indulgence on Route 2

gift ideas: no additional stuff!


parent child outingToday’s post highlights some favorite gifts that won’t add to clutter or landfill.

1. An outing. Block out a day and let your child choose an activity with a parent. Ice cream sundaes, Sturbridge Village, kayaking, bookstore browsing, hiking in the woods, baking bread, a bike ride, an aerospace museum… We love this for many of the reasons we mentioned in our post titled one to one.

2. Tickets to an event. A play, concert, movie, dance performance… One contributor creates a package which includes a DVD, CD, t-shirt or other items related to the show or event.  How fun!

3. A class. Art, dance, video games, gymnastics, cooking, rock climbing, fishing… Who knew you can help feed the seals at the Aquarium!?

4. A chance to do good. Give money for kids to donate to a charity of their choice, such as Heifer International, Horizons for the Homeless, or Barakat.

5. For the family. If a grandparent asks, why not a membership to a science museum, a gym where everyone can swim or climb, or a nature conservancy?

the truth about santa

reindeerHere in the northeast, there is suddenly a chill in the air. There was frost on the grass this morning, and the shorter days hint at the holidays just around the corner. In the spirit of the coming season, I share the following story…

My youngest child has a friend who grew up in a proud and pragmatic family free of fairies and magic. For them, there was never any Santa. One evening we were sitting around the dinner table and my son, then 5, asked directly, “Is Santa Claus real? Because Ethan told me it’s just your parents.” A silence came over the room as everyone – including my older children and my husband – waited for an answer. At that moment, taken off guard, there was no choice really but to tell the truth. “Santa is real,” I replied, “but when kids stop believing, it’s pretty sad, so then their parents usually do take over.” Everyone – with relief and what seemed like renewed hope – happily returned to their dinner. -t

4th of july breakfast

4th of july breakfast for kidsHappy 4th from fftp!  In our book, we advocate creating traditions unique to your family.  Today we share one from ours – a 4th of July breakfast tradition: flag toast and patriotic pancakes.

For flag toast, toast piece of bread, provide each child with a small dish (their “palette”) of blueberries and a dollop each of cream cheese and red jam.  Let them “stripe” the bread, red and white and add blueberry stars in a corner.   Not an exact replica, but fun to make!
For patriotic pancakes, ours our blueberry pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream on top. A simple and fun way to get in the mood for a day that ends in fireworks! -n

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