Making Spirits Bright: Keeping Holiday Traditions Fun for Teens, Tweens, and the Whole Family

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I grew up in a small family without a lot of traditions. I watched every holiday commercial and Thanksgiving or Christmas special longing to be a part of a large, boisterous, happy family who had lots of meaningful traditions that bound them together through the golden threads of joyful memories and a shared experience.

When my husband and I got married and had children of our own, establishing our own traditions and adopting the few already established in our families of origin became a priority for me.

The way I see it, family traditions ground a person, helping establish both a sense of where they come from, and adding to their own sense of identity. Once I left for college, I didn’t necessarily feel any sense of those ties binding me to what was left of my family…really just my mom. Yet, I came to love spending holidays with my husband’s family.

Over the years, the specifics have changed, and it has evolved into my husband and I, with each of his two brothers and their wives, taking turns hosting either Thanksgiving, or one of two Christmas dinners with their mom, or dad and stepmom. No matter in whose home we gather, there are always lots of cousins, sometimes cameos from aunts, uncles, neighbors, friends, and various pets. There are jokes about gifts of sweater vests and exclamations of “A Box!” that we have heard repeated for too many years to count, although I’d estimate it at around 17. The sweet baby niece I remember giving a copy of The Complete Winnie the Pooh with a stuffed Pooh Bear graduates from Auburn next spring and my own “babies” turn 12 and 16 shortly.

Even as we’ve all grown up and things continue to evolve ever so slightly year to year, I still see the value in keeping our traditions alive and relevant to my sons.

Sometimes that means altering them slightly or adding new ones as our lives change shape. If you feel you’re at a crossroads with your tween and teen children losing interest in family traditions and time spent together, resist the urge to give in, and instead, consider the benefits such traditions provide for teenagers who may be feeling the instability and alienation that can be a natural part of adolescence. Even as our teens are learning to break away and become adults, they still need the sense of security and belonging that family holiday traditions provide. Moreover, traditions deepen the sense of connection to siblings and other family members; create fun, shared memories; help define and establish family values; and remind your child that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

Thanksgiving is exactly a week from today and I am excited about gathering at my sister-in-law’s home in Georgia to share a meal. I can’t wait to hear all of the cousins laughing together and to eat my mother-in-law’s dressing and my sister-in-law’s broccoli-corn casserole and I’m reminded of the pineapple casserole my husband’s grandmother used to make and a little sad that neither of my children are old enough to remember it.

But what excites me even more is that on Black Friday, while everyone else shops, my sons and I will engage in my favorite holiday tradition – putting up our tree and starting our Christmas decorating. The one tradition my mother established when I was a kid was that the Christmas tree went up on the day after Thanksgiving and came down on the Epiphany or, as my grandmother called it, Old Christmas Day, so it could be enjoyed to its maximum extent.

I’ll also be putting together our Advent tree calendar, which contains a different holiday activity for each day. We switched over from candy in the Advent tree when we moved to Chattanooga and it just wasn’t as fun. Many of these activities were already established traditions that my kids look forward to even now. Doing small kindnesses for strangers like surprising them with a Starbucks card as they wait in line; collecting and putting together gifts for Operation Shoebox; driving around to look at Christmas lights while we listen to Christmas music; taking each boy to shop for his brother; and watching a different Christmas show or movie every night.

Of course, some traditions fell by the wayside as my sons outgrew them.

Pictures with Santa and riding the Rich’s/Macy’s Pink Pig (an Atlanta tradition) provided fun memories, but alas, no longer fit into the ways we express our shared Christmas joy! But now, we look forward to MainX24 and seeing the beautiful snowflake lights go up on the Walnut St. Bridge and along Market Street.

This year, I plan to add in a new tradition of holiday baking, one I’ve envied seeing friends who do cookie decorating parties. I stumbled on two recipes that jogged my memory and reminded me that perhaps there were a few more traditions in my family I had overlooked. One was my Aunt Lindie’s Blackberry Jam Cake with Caramel Icing. I found a recipe for this cake in Southern Living and can’t wait to make it (even though I don’t eat sugar). I also found a recipe for my mother’s favorite cake, in her handwriting, made, not for holidays, but whenever the notion struck her. My younger son asked if we could make this one for Christmas, I think in part to get a sense of the grandmother he never got to meet and have a better understanding of me and where I came from.

If your teens and tweens seem to resist your holiday traditions this year, don’t fret and don’t push them to do things that make them uncomfortable.

Do hear them out and look for ways to incorporate ideas they may have. Look for activities that might appeal to older kids or give them responsibility for helping maintain the magic of holidays for younger siblings. Consider allowing them to invite a friend to help decorate or come to your annual holiday party. Let them help plan the menu or cook a special dish.

My friend Lauren, who has two teens and a younger child, has her teens help fry the Hanukkah latkes and volunteer to help with holiday parties at their synagogue. She recommended the web site reformedjudaism.org which has some wonderful ideas for helping navigate the holidays with teens. From letting your teens choose a different theme for each night of Hanukkah (suggestions include kindness and learning); movie nights that focus on the fights for freedom others have faced;  or incorporating holiday food traditions from the diaspora that your children choose, there are lots of ways to keep your older kids engaged and excited about spending time with their families during the holidays.

My favorite suggestion on the site applies whether you celebrate a religious holiday or a secular one: Talk to your teens and ask them what holiday traditions feel meaningful to them. Take your cues from there to create and sustain beautiful holiday traditions everyone will treasure. 

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Hey, y’all! I’m Dawn – a native Tennessean who could not wait to escape the small town for the big city. After attending a women’s college in Atlanta, I took root there and stayed. One marriage, two homes, two kids, and 25 years later, here I am, back in Tennessee. My husband moved here in January of 2016 to start a new job while our two boys, Brendan (born 2003) and Beckett (born 2006), and I stayed behind to finish the school year and sell our house. We arrived in July 2016 and have been working to make a happy new home here since then. We love living on the North Shore and I am enjoying finding unexpected beauty and little joys throughout our new city. I am also mama to fur babies, Josie the Rhodesian Ridgeback/Lab mix, and Miller, a sweet orange and white tabby cat. I'm into art, movies, music, TV, pop culture, nerdy stuff like Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and I know more than my share about the DC Universe, Pokemon, Minecraft, Battlefield, and all things LEGO thanks to having two boys.