Bundle up, tote some hot cocoa, and spend a day at a Christmas tree farm. On the way, talk to your kids about the type of tree you want. Once you're there, kids will love hunting up and down the field for that ideal find. For a tree farm near you, search the National Christmas Tree Association's database at www.realchristmastrees.org.
Instead of a traditional Advent countdown, use a December calendar page with boxes large enough to write in. Cut around three sides of each box from December 1 to 25, leaving the top intact to make a flap. Glue the page to poster board, being careful not to glue the flaps down. Then, underneath each flap, write a different family activity -- for example, play board games, visit Santa, make popcorn, or watch Miracle on 34th Street, and so on. It's fine to include items from your to-do list too, such as writing out Christmas cards or baking cookies. If you do these activities together, they'll seem more like family rituals than chores.
Use an inexpensive table cover at your holiday meal, and pass around a permanent marker so the guests can write their names, ages, and a brief Christmas wish. Younger guests can draw a picture. Each year, as you add to it, you'll enjoy looking back over previous years and remembering who shared your table.
When I was growing up, my siblings and I could count on a new pair of pajamas to appear under our pillows. We'd put these pj's on for our Christmas-morning photo. The same elf must still be on duty, because for years my own children have found pajamas under their pillows, and I expect he'll still be working when they have children of their own. Consider inviting this elf to your home for the holiday season.
On each of the 12 Days of Christmas, beginning on December 25 and ending on January 5 (Twelfth Night), pick an activity your family can do for someone else. Bring groceries to the food bank, serve at a soup kitchen, donate toys to a local drive, collect coats for the homeless -- there are endless ways to give. The important thing is to do this as a family, so that your children see that they can make a difference in the world.
All of us come from diverse backgrounds, so it's fun to pick one cultural strand and celebrate a tradition from it or prepare a special food for the holiday dinner. If you're of Dutch origin, for example, you could get wooden shoes for the children to place outside their bedroom doors on the eve of St. Nicholas's Day, December 6 (St. Nick comes by and fills them with chocolate and candy). If you're Irish, you and your children can decorate your home with holly, which grows wild in the south of Ireland. Or you can head to the library or go online to look up the meaning of the Mishumaa Saba (the Seven Candles) of Kwanzaa. You can also appreciate the customs of others by researching different cultural traditions with your children. For links to other ethnic holiday traditions, see www.familytreemagazine.com/ancestornews/holitraditions.html.
Do something nice for our furred and feathered friends on a cold winter's night: Hang a tree with popcorn and cranberry chains, slices of apple, and pinecones spread with enough peanut butter to make birdseed stick. Tuck some peanut butter sandwiches underneath for the squirrels and field mice, and put out fresh greens for the bunnies. There's an old tradition that on the night before Christmas, from midnight to dawn, the animals are given the gift of speech. Maybe late on Christmas Eve, if you're very quiet, you'll hear a small chorus of thank-yous coming from the woods.
Start a family cookbook. Have relatives send recipes that have been passed down for generations, mixed with a few of their new favorites. Ask everyone to include a helpful tip or fun fact for each recipe, such as who created it or where the recipe came from. Divide into categories like appetizers, main courses, and desserts, and make copies for everyone. Compile into a three-ring binder, or simply bind with ribbon. Don't forget to add new ones each year.
Consider working on your genealogy as a project for the season. It's the perfect time: As you write out Christmas cards to your cousins in Peoria, you can request names and dates from their side of the family and include them on the family tree. Do an update each season.
Every year, get out the video camera and interview the children, one at a time, in front of the Christmas tree or menorah. Ask questions about things they've experienced during the past year -- vacations, what they did last summer, school, their hobbies, best friend, and of course, their favorite gift and why. It's a wonderful year-by-year chart of their development, and each holiday you can enjoy watching previous years' tapes.
Copyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the December 2003 issue of Parents magazine.