When I think about Christmas and the feelings that it brings, I love to reflect on the decorations, treats, parties, gifts, shopping, and visits with family, and my heart brims with the memories. Even the smells and flavors of the season can trigger the emotions of years past: pine needles, cinnamon and cloves, sugar cookies, toasted pecans, baked apples and pumpkin. I love to get out my favorite ornaments my family has collected over the years. As I unpack them, all the memories that flood to mind with each one. My husband and I were married in December so we have a lot of “first Christmas” ornaments. We have “baby’s first” for each of our kids, and each year we make a new ornament to add to their collection to take with them someday when they have their own Christmas trees. When I was a kid I never could have imagined the legacy of Christmastime magic that would carry into the hearts of my own children.

I am the sixth of seven kids so I was one of the last people in my family to hold onto the magic of Christmas. While everyone else in my family had given up on Santa Claus, I would stay up late helping my mom wrap gifts. I could never really give up the idea of giving and getting that perfect gift that really meant you cared for each other. One tradition my family held onto the longest was our Secret Santa gift exchange. On Thanksgiving, we drew a name and got a gift for whomever we picked. One year I did the twelve days of Christmas for an older brother. There is one gift I got from my brother that stands out as something that was super thoughtful. In high school, I got into classic rock and became a big fan of Janis Joplin. I loved singing along with her albums. One Christmas, my brother stumbled upon an action figure of Janis Joplin, and he knew I would just love it. He was right. I never actually opened the package or played with the doll as a toy, but it showed me that he was paying attention to what I was interested in, and that he really cared. Christmas really came to mean to me a symbol of caring and paying attention, and trying to figure out what the other person would treasure.

Traditions are as unique as the families that observe them. They may come from our parents and grandparents, or they may come from societal norms. Our traditions become a part of our family stories that give us strength. Now that I have my own family, I often reflect on the traditions I grew up with, and which ones I want to perpetuate, or create, with my kids. I reflect on the meaning of holidays, whether I want our traditions to be about the history or origin of the holiday, or if we want to create our own meaning. I sometimes wonder at the twinkly lights and wreaths, and all the wonderful things I described earlier. These may be man-made constructs of the season, and may seem superfluous to some. Yet, all of these things lend to the feelings that help make this holiday more memorable and meaningful.

Consider the story of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The message is that Christmas is not about the toys and decorations. There is a deeper meaning that needs to be felt rather than seen. But where do those feelings come from? That answer will depend on your family. As adults, sometimes it feels like Christmas has lost its magic. Our traditions may only be contrived to build excitement for that morning when our children wake us up before the crack of dawn to rush down and tear open the wrapping paper to their gifts, but those traditions are exactly what creates that magic. When traditions are formed by default, they may dissolve into indifference. But when they are formed conscientiously and deliberately, they might perpetuate for generations and become the “unifying narrative” that strengthens our families.

These family traditions are a big factor in developing a family culture. Traditions define what your family norms and expectations are around a particular event. These traditions can develop over time by default. Another way is that families can come together and form family intentions around how they want their family traditions to look and feel like without forcing them or simply doing what is expected. Those feelings, those stories and traditions, are what strengthen our families and form our identities that create resilience. An article titled “The Stories That Bind Us” from the New York Times discusses a study about creating resilience. It showed that kids who know their “unifying narrative” – stories, history, and traditions – have a sense of being a part of something bigger, have a better-defined sense of identity, and have better coping skills. “The ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress”

“Any number of occasions work to convey this sense of history: holidays, vacations, big family get-togethers, even a ride to the mall. The hokier the family’s tradition, the more likely it is to be passed down.

“The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”[1]

To create a family intention, parents need to first discuss what default traditions and habits are already in place. Even if you don’t think you have default traditions, that is the default. Start recording those stories, traditions, and customs. A pattern will begin to emerge. Of those patterns, decide what is working, and what is not. Begin to form ideas around what is not working that can be improved. Write them down. From those ideas, begin to form values around what is important to your family, who you are as a family, and how you envision your family to be in the future.[2] One day you’ll be gathered around that Christmas tree with your children and their children. Envision how that could look. Describe how it looks and feels. What do you smell and taste? Write that down. Begin to imagine what kind of intentions[3] you can form around the patterns and behaviors you want to see in your family.

With the holiday season approaching, it’s like kids just know they can start asking for stuff. Instead of enduring their “gimmies” all season, or waiting until the last minute to figure out what they want, I have a little trick. When we are out, my kids will always see something that sparks their interest. At first, they would ask if they could get it. Of course, I cannot get them every little thing they ask for, but I also don’t want to have mega tantrums every time we go out. I learned an important lesson in the book, How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk: when kids say something like, I want to fly to the moon, you say something like, wouldn’t that be so cool, instead of, don’t be silly. Or when they say, I wish I could get all the toys in the whole toy store, you say, Wow, what would that be like! Just last week, my kids had all their Halloween candy in a big pile on the floor, and I announced I was going to eat all the candy, and pretended to ravenously shove handfuls of candy in my mouth. We laughed and laughed at how silly that idea would be! So, when my kids bounce up to me with something that makes their heart sore, I tell them I will add it to their list, take a quick pic of their beaming faces holding the thing, and they happily put it back on the shelf.

One of the traditions I am working on creating in my home, is that Christmas doesn’t have to be all about toys, toys, and more toys. While it would be very easy to go to the nearest super-mart and pick up any number of toys to fill my kids’ heads with excitement, I’m trying to make our gifts more intentional to serve our family mission. I don’t want a pile of toys in the toy box that get played with once and then forgotten. I want to create memories and meaning that last beyond Christmas morning. I started to think about what kinds of gifts would encourage our family values. I want Christmas to be about family, and service. My family also values education, relationships, health, creativity, and development. Some toys may foster creativity and relationships, so I won’t discredit their value entirely. Still, I’d like to avoid too much materialism and clutter, and try to make the gifts have a little more purpose and meaning. Besides, our kids will get toys, or they have enough toys that they really won’t be neglected on that front. Gifts from mom and dad can reflect what we value. So, I started to brainstorm the types of gifts that would serve our family intentions, and I came up with a list of six categories. My family likes to choose one item from each category per child for our shopping list:

Section 1: Books

Section 2: Puzzles, Games, and Projects

Section 3: Sports and Physical Activity

Section 4: Music and Art

Section 5: Experiences

Section 6: Non-Toy Favorite Character Gifts

Notice: Many of the links provided are affiliate links. See my disclosure page for details. If the link says “nonaffiliated” it means I just like their stuff, but I am in no way being compensated.

Section 1: Books

The first gift we chose to give is books. Because we value literature, stories, and want to encourage our kids to read, giving them a book gives them ownership an excitement for reading. We choose books that will spark their interests, and get them excited to read. They don’t necessarily need to be educational. In a article by Oliver DeMille of A Thomas Jefferson Education, children who are encouraged to only read certain kinds of books read less than kids who read for pleasure without regard for whether it’s an exceptional author or book.[4] Books, or gifts that encourage literacy, are a great way to grow your library and encourage the importance of reading. Some of these gifts will encourage modeling from parents or loved-ones who also love reading. Giving books is a great way to foster a love of books, and grow a personal library. Imagine if a child receives a book every Christmas, birthday, and Easter for even ten years, they would own thirty books. What a privilege to have such a treasure! Consistently receiving books may instill a sense of importance in the value of literature and reading. Below is a list of gift ideas to inspire young readers and grow their personal collections.

Section 2: Puzzles, Games, and Projects

Puzzles and games are a great alternative to toys. In our family, we love spending time together. I also want to encourage doing things that challenge our minds and develop skills. This category is all about strengthening the mind with logic, analysis, and creativity, with a bonus of fostering relationships. There are so many kinds of games and projects that encourage learning through play! Here are a few ideas:

Section 3: Sports and Physical Activity

With so much emphasis on electronics and gaming, I wanted to add something to our list that would encourage movement and athletics. We want our kids to value their bodies and their capacity and strength. Getting a piece of equipment, or signing up for lessons, or going to watch a sporting event could instill a sense of excitement for doing those activities. There is likely an activity to fit every child. Lawn games, equestrian, mallet sports, team sports, water sports, bowling, tumbling, dancing, or just physical play will all encourage getting up and getting their hearts and muscles moving.

  • Classes
  • Lessons
  • Sports Equipment
  • Tickets to a sporting event with you
  • Gym/Playground Equipment
  • Take me bowling(kidsbowlfree.com nonaffiliated)
  • Gym Passes
  • Playhouse Passes
  • Arena Passes
  • Pool Passes
  • Park Passes
  • Meet My Favorite Athletes
  • Camping Gear/Hiking gear
  • Lawn Games
  • Surf board, bathing suits, swimming gear
  • Winter sports gear
  • Take me to a skating rink
  • Take me to see a competition, like a dog show, equestrian tournament, skateboarding, etc.
  • Bike/Roller Blades/Skateboard
  • Equestrian Lessons
  • Lessons/teams through local YMCA or county recreation centers

Section 4: Music  and Art

Art and music are all about creation, and self expression. This is our way of connecting with ourselves, and nature on a deeper level. This is about the education of the heart, on top of the literature and play already being encouraged. Along with athletic gifts, artistic and musical gifts are designed to help bring out the inner gifts and talents that are waiting for an outlet for expression. Having these supplies and resources available will make it that much easier for my kids to experiment and develop the music that is inside of them.

Section 5: Experiences

Each birthday and Christmas, I want to give my kids something they can truly treasure: memories. Learning and building relationships happen when we get out there and do things together. This list like the beginnings of a “bucket list” of experiences to gather with my children while I can to create memories and valuable experiences we will reflect on over and over again. These experiences have a residual benefit because you collect pictures, connections, and passions that you might not have known about before. These are what creating your family stories is all about. My children will remember the times when we did some great thing together, and it will create a sense of belonging, and identity. They will one day tell these stories to their own children, and the family narrative continues.

  • Video of you telling a story about you or our family
  • Video of you telling a story about me
  • Video or collection of images of my ancestors
  • Concert Tickets
  • Zoo pass
  • Circus tickets
  • Museum pass
  • County Fair
  • Sporting Event
  • Classes/Lessons
  • Academic or Art Camps
  • Travel Tickets
  • Restaurant Giftcards
  • Date Night with You
  • Theme Park Tickets
  • Historic Site-Seeing
  • Journals for Kids
  • Monthly Project Subscription(cratejoy.com, nonaffiliated)
  • Solve a Mystery subscription box (cratejoy.com, nonaffiliated)
  • com Lessons
  • College Tuition
  • Curriculum
  • Nice Clothes
  • Factory Visits
  • Family/Individual Photo Shoots
  • Skill Lessons
  • Movie Theater gift cards
  • Be my pen pal
  • Help me with my projects for school, church, scouts, etc.
  • Help me build something
  • Stocks and/or Bonds (don’t forget to teach me about them)
  • Hiking or Camping with me
  • Teach me to build an Ecommerce business
  • Start a Blog Together
  • Breakfast Date
  • Nature Hike
  • Photo journaling excursion
  • Photo Scavenger Hunt
  • Start a Young Statesman/Stateswoman Program with me (tjed.org, nonaffiliated)
  • Start a Hope Chest Journey with me (mentoringourown.com, nonaffiliated)
  • Work on The Strenuous Life with me (https://www.artofmanliness.com, nonaffiliated)
  • Help me with my Scouting requirements
  • Help me with Personal Progress, Faith in God, or Duty to God Requirements (LDS.org, nonaffiliated)
  • Mini Golf, Lazer Tag, Go-Carting, Tubing, Water Parks
  • Surprise Mini Vacation
  • Take me shopping
  • tinkergarden.com(nonaffiliated)
  • TicketClub.com

Section 6: Non-Toy Favorite Character Gifts

These are gifts that have your child’s favorite characters on them, but aren’t action figures or toys. It may be inevitable that kids just have favorites. Our media and entertainment are so prevalent and pervading that it’s impossible to avoid. Still, I think some of the things my kids get the most excited about are not necessarily toys and dolls of their favorite characters, but other objects with those characters on them. I love these because they are useful things that my kids will value and treasure. These are things they may need anyway, so why not get it with a cool character on them!

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html

[2] https://homeandfamilyculture.com/2017/11/episode-001-nicholeen-peck/

[3] https://homeandfamilyculture.com/2017/11/episode-014-mary-ann-johnson/

[4] https://www.tjed.org/2014/08/beware-antireaders-weekly-mentor-oliver-demille/