15 Religious and Secular Fun Family Christmas Traditions
Keep the Meaning of the Season
Need help getting your family to spend time together during the holidays? Sometimes the rush of presents and events gets in the way of the real point of Christmas. Here are some of the fun holiday traditions we've used to help our family of seven laugh together at Christmas. Help us by adding your own ideas in the comments!
Remember Baby Jesus
1. Family Live Nativity
At least once during the season, we gather whoever is in the house and grab some costumes and props to act out the Nativity Story. Of course, if you have some real costumes, you can use them, but we often improvise. Use a robe for Joseph, a baby doll (or younger sibling) for Jesus, and have Mary wrap a towel around her head while she rides to Bethlehem on a stick pony.
At the house of some friends, the kids tell the story using a wooden Nativity set, so that is a fun way to do it too. Sometimes we tell the story, or even use a Bible picture book, but usually we read it from the Bible, letting the characters say the lines if they want. Here are two good passages to use:
- Luke 2:1-20: Mary and Joseph Go to Bethlehem, Jesus is Born and Shepherds hear the news.
- Matthew 2: 1-12: The wise men come.
2. Watch a Nativity Movie
After we've acted out our version, we love to gather together and watch The Nativity Story movie and marvel at the courage of Mary and Joseph. You might want to watch a cartoon version of the story but we prefer this live action drama which shows the vulnerability of the young Mary and the courage of her husband Joseph.
While not completely accurate to the Bible since the movie has the wise me coming to see Jesus right after he is born, still the characters of the wise men are humorous and make their faith come alive for kids and adults alike. Certainly, movies like this help us to dig out our Bibles and check them again for accuracy and that is always a great family tradition!
3. Celebrate Advent
My husband and I did not grow up in a church which celebrated Advent, but we've come to appreciate the opportunity to sit down with our kids and talk about the meaning of the holiday. One year, I was asked to talk about Advent in my mothers of preschoolers group. I looked through many different guides but found many of them were geared at older children or adults. So I put together a guide of ideas of how to Celebrate Advent with Young Children.
Homemade Advent Wreath: My kids and I have made several different wreaths for the candles, often looking in the yard for some greenery and using red bulbs and ribbons to show it off. You can also use peanuts to remind kids that in the past a tree was decorated with oranges and nuts for treats.
Nativity Scenes: Another fun activity has been collecting unbreakable nativity scenes for the kids to play with. I love to hear them tell the story in their own words and to share the story of Christmas with friends who visit.
Count Down Advent: Of course, counting down the days until Christmas is also a lot of fun and giving a little treat for each day is a great way to celebrate together.
Giving to the Birds: As part of our remembering that this holiday is about God's gift to us and our giving to others, we like making gifts for wildlife. This year we strung popcorn and cranberries to put on the trees outside.
Advent With Preschoolers
One of my first online articles was "How to Celebrate Advent with Young Children" because I found that most of the materials available were too adult for my preschoolers. Keep it simple and your kids will enjoy it. The most important thing is to make the time fun for your kids and something they remember. Our Advent activities include:
- Light candle(s) (children can do this with supervision).
- Read a short Bible passage (or read from a children's Nativity book).
- Pray (often a different child is chosen to pray each day of Advent)
- Do a fun activity together relating to that part of Advent.
- Blow out the candles (my kid's favorite part!)
While doing the activity, my husband and I would use the time to try to talk to our kids a bit about that day's Bible story and also our own memories of Christmas.
4. Drive to See Decorations
Another favorite activity for us is taking a drive or walk around our neighborhood to see the lights and decorations that people have displayed. We especially love Nativity Scenes and we enjoy going to look during the day as well as the evening at some of our favorites. Of course, we also like to put up our own display, doing it a little differently each year and adding a new string or two of lights or a new part of our display.
Someday, I'd like to build my own Manger Scene, but until then, I found one used that I re-painted, and we set it up with star lights all around and several animal lights that are in a line going to see the Baby Jesus. Have fun making up a story with your kids about your own decorations or the ones you see. Sing some carols as you go or play Christmas music in the car.
5. Dress Up Your Car
When my sister-in-law sent us this "Rudolf" outfit for our car, I wasn't sure how it would look for me to pull into my parking lot at the University with a red nose and antlers on my van. Soon, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the smiles I saw everywhere I went. My kids loved having the car decorated and soon we began to see other automobile reindeer and elves. Another simple idea is just to use a wreath in the front of the car. I've also seen people with Christmas lights so I looked up the video to find out how. Maybe I'll get ambitious to try it next year!
6. Sing Carols Together
You don't have to play or sing well in order to enjoy singing Christmas songs. Ever since our kids were little, we would take out some rhythm instruments (or pots and pans with spoons) and have everyone make some joyful noise while we sang "Deck the Halls" or "Jingle Bells." In the midst of waiting for things or driving somewhere during the holidays, it can be a great tension release to sing "Rudolf" or get in the mood of the meaning of the season by singing "Silent Night" or "Joy to the World."
If you do have someone who can play an instrument, a family sing-along gives them an incentive to practice. However, you can also have a lot of fun singing along with a recording. One of our favorite sites Christmas Carols.net has a collection of carols with music and words to help you sing along. Or try YouTube to find videos of some of your favorite silly songs like "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," my youngest daughter's favorite this year.
7. Have a Dancing Party!
Get out some energy and enjoy the holidays by holding a family dance party. We put the music on high and turn out the lights for "dancing in the dark." The "dark" part is fun for the kids and less embarrassing for the parents!
For years this has been one of our favorite family activities and you can make it even more fun by getting glow sticks or even a strobe light or disco light. For younger kids, you can even get out some pot and pan lids or musical instruments to hit along with the beat.
8. Play Holiday Games
Use the extra time together as a family to play games. We love UNO, Scrabble, Yahtzee, and Ruckus. Here are some we play every year:
Bingo: Kids always love Bingo and it is a lot of fun to play a bingo game using real Christmas objects. Google "Christmas Bingo Printables" for some Bingo Cards and then collect the objects to match them from around the house. We like to use Red and Green M&Ms as markers, or you can use marshmallows or other candy. This can be fun to play with a class at school, a party at church or with a family gathering.
Pass the Parcel: There are different versions of this game but we like to play by wrapping up a gift with many layers. Inside the layers, you put something for the person to do like whistle a song, a joke for them to read or a candy to eat. Like in musical chairs you pass the package around a circle while music is playing and whoever is holding the package when the music stops unwraps the next layer. The last person to unwrap the gift gets to keep it, although it can also be fun to have the gift something that can be shared.
9. Read Holiday Books Together
Every year, I buy another book to add to our Christmas library and I try to read one book to the kids every day. Often, to add some variety, I'll get some books at our public library too. Sharing the same stories every year becomes part of the holiday memory. Moreover, I try to add books that give the true meaning of the season to keep us all on track, along with ones that are funny. Sometimes, I will try to tie an activity along with the book, like baking gingerbread men when we read The GingerBread Baby. Here are some of my favorite books:
- Room for a Little One by Martin Waddel
- Tale of the Three Trees
- The Crippled Lamb by Max Lucado
One new favorite book for me is Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck. It is a story told by an older man about growing on a farm with many chores and a hard, spare life. The young boy's parents love him in a quiet way but there is not a lot of open affection in their family, nor a lot of extra money to buy gifts.
Wanting to do something for his parents that year, the young body comes up with the idea of getting up early and doing all the chores before his father gets up on Christmas morning. He sneaks back in bed just in time to hear his father come in to wake him up. The quiet joy of the boy at the surprise his father has at having all the chores done is wonderful. This tale of giving time and showing appreciation is especially wonderful for older elementary school kids.
Holiday Cooking Traditions
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10. Holiday Baking
Nothing is more anticipated at our house than baking our traditionally favorite treats. You might even want to dress up in some special aprons and hats to make it more fun like my kids do.
Create Some Family Traditions: Start your own baking tradition by making some treats you remember from childhood, or trying some of ours. Every year we bake some of the same treats like our Gingerbread Men to give out as presents to lots of our friends, teachers, and neighbors.
Bake Food Gifts: Once a friend asked us to tell our favorite activity and I had to answer, "making gifts for other people." I love coming up with small gift ideas to make each year that my kids can make for teachers, friends, neighbors and other people who deserve a "thank you."
My kids love thinking about new people to give gifts to, like the mailman, their Sunday School teachers, their bus driver, and the office workers at their school. While we could buy a gift, a homemade a gift is always more meaningful because it represents your time and effort. I think learning to make gifts for others is a great way of teaching kids the meaning of giving.
Special Desserts: Because we have 3 December birthdays in our family, we also have some special birthday cakes we often make like a Candy Cane cake. That can be a fun cake for a Happy Birthday Jesus party too. Another family tradition we have is to freeze the last batch from our blackberry patch and then make a pie from that for Christmas. It is a wonderful way to revive our summer memories and talk about the fun we've had all year.
Quick and Easy Gifts: Sometimes, we don't have a lot of time to make a gift. That is when I turn to 3 favorites which always are enjoyed as special but actually just take about 15 minutes: Candied Pecans and Peppermint Snowflakes and Microwave Fudge.
Making and wrapping these gifts and writing thank you notes on them is an especially important part of our tradition. In fact, now my kids ask me when we can start our gifts and we have to be ready with a few extra gifts for people that they think about at the last minutes.
11. Make a Gingerbread House Together
Growing up, I always thought a Gingerbread House was an elegant holiday decoration. Since my mother wasn't quite that ambitious as a cook, I had to wait until I could make one on my own when I was in High School.
Gingerbread House Kit. These days, you can easily buy a kit to make a Gingerbread House or even a Gingerbread Train. We usually do at least one of these over the Christmas season. Often they are on sale and the kids can do them all on their own.
Individual Gingerbread House from Graham Crackers: Another way to make an easy no-cooking Gingerbread house is to have the kids use Graham Crackers. For a small house, we use 3 crackers (1/2 cracker for each side). If you use empty school size milk cartons for the base, the kids can just "glue" the crackers on with frosting (buy canned to make it easy). If you don't have milk cartons, you can make cardboard bases out of cut up cereal boxes. Add lots of frosting and candy and the kids will have a ball.
Real Gingerbread House: For the more ambitious, you can try making a real Gingerbread House using a mix, or a recipe for Gingerbread. Either buttercream or Royal Meringue icing can be used to put the house together. Hint: big houses are also easier to keep together if you make a cardboard under the base to support them.
Family Gingerbread House Contest: Whatever type of house you build, you can have a family contest and give out prizes for the most beautiful, the most unique, the most delicious and the craziest house!
Silly Gift Exchanges
12. Host a Silly Gift Exchange
While everyone enjoys opening the "gifts we've always wanted", I think that some of the gifts our family has remembered the best have been ones we've gotten in some of the silly gift exchanges we've done with each other and friends, like the talking stuffed parrot, the flag which did not come from any country we could find on the Internet, and the leftover mannequin head from the local barber's college which we gave to my son as a joke.
White Elephant Gift Exchange
I have wonderful memories of my parents coming home from their Sunday School class party with crazy gifts that I often got to keep. So I love that my Sunday School class does this every year and last year we decided to do it with our family and some of the kid's friends. It was a blast. Here is how to play:
- Have everyone wrap up a funny used item and put them in a pile.
- Write numbers on pieces of paper for each person and put them in a hat (or basket) and have everyone draw one out.
- Number one goes first and chooses a present to open. Being dramatic or making jokes about the present is the best part of the fun.
- Everyone after that can take a present that has already been opened, or choose an unwrapped one from the pile. Stealing another person's present is allowed!
- Better yet, a person has their present taken, can steal one from someone else or unwrap a new one.
- Generally, we follow the rule that a present is "frozen" once the third person gets it.
- Sometimes, we allow the first person to have a last chance to take any "unfrozen" present that they want.
Stocking Gift Exchange
Another way we make gifts fun is to have all the kids, no matter what the age, get stocking stuffers for each other. When the kids were little, we used to bring them to the dollar store and let them buy one thing for each person in the family. Some of the gifts they chose were very funny! Now the kids like to shop carefully for each other and think a lot about how to come up with the craziest gift. Favorites from last year were bacon flavored gum and a chess set you make out of ice (you have to play fast before your king melts!).
Other Gift Exchange Ideas: You may want to start a "Who can give the silliest gift" tradition in your family, or start a tradition of always giving dad a crazy pair of underwear, or giving the kids crazy socks, or buying something for a pet.
13. Photo Album of Year to Share
Christmas is a great time to put all the year's photos together into a family scrapbook, photo book or slide show.
Kids Scrapbooking: Sometimes I have the kids make a mini-photo scrapbook like a paper bag scrapbook, or we put together a special travel scrapbook using license plates from the state we traveled to as covers.
Make a Year Scrapbook: Most years, I make a scrapbook or a photo book to give as a family gift. These days, we take so many photos but don't often print them off. A photo scrapbook, a slide show or an album is a way to help us remember. In fact, I think a lot of the time the photos become our memories.
Make a Calendar: I've used Shutterfly to make a calendar using the photos of the past year. You can do this using the kids artwork too. It makes a great gift for grandparents or other relatives as well as a way for the kids to relive their own memories.
14. Watch Slideshow and Videos
With digital cameras and phones, most of us take hours of movies each year. Do you take the time to watch them together? We don't. That is why I'm planning a new tradition this year of having the family sit down after Christmas dinner and watch some home movies. Here are some ideas:
Movie of the Year: I'm actually planning to take the pictures I put in this year's scrapbook and put them on slideshow view. I'll probably include a few videos in the mix as well. If I have time, I might actually put all of the pictures and videos into Windows Moviemaker and add some music and a few captions.
Old Home Movies: Once we get started on watching this past year, I may break out the old home movies. I did have all of our own tapes digitized a while back. Now we need to watch them!
Phone Photo Sharing: Our kids all have lots of photos and videos on their phones and iPods, and so do we. How about having everyone get out their phones and share their photo galleries with one another. Two people could view together, or you might be able to connect them to a monitor to share with the whole family.
15. Tell Family Stories
Christmas is a great time to remember why you love one another.
Write a Family Newsletter: Fewer people send out yearly Holiday letters, but I think this is an important tradition to continue because it is a chance for everyone to reflect on what happened in the last year and to think about what they have done. It is easy to send these letters by email or post them on a website so that they don't cost anything, or you can still print them out and mail them. Let each person in the family write their own short description of their year to make it more meaningful. Read the letter aloud to one another to spark a discussion about memories from the year. Usually, I use this family letter as part of the family scrapbook.
Talk about Family Memories: Make sure that you give time during all your holiday activities to remember other years. I spent one year making a scrapbook of the season which I pull out every year to help spur discussions and remembering.
Make a Family Memory Game: I followed these directions for a Family Board Game from a magazine many years ago and was pleased to find them still posted online to share with you. This is a great way to get people to talk about memories and share the past. It is especially wonderful to play with grandparents and other older relatives because it spurs them to tell the stories that you want them to pass down.
One final tip is that when the holidays get everyone a little crazy, take the family outside to let off steam! Since we live in the South, getting outside during December is usually not a matter of getting that dressed up. We love to take a walk in our local park woodlands in the afternoon on Christmas, or even just a stroll around the neighborhood.
Getting outside during the holidays may be more of a chore if you live in the snow, but it also may be even more fun. Being outdoors gets us away from media and makes us more likely to talk with each other and have fun. Better yet, it helps us work off some of those very tempting Christmas goodies!