8 Parents Share the Holiday Traditions they Treasure the Most

For people of all persuasions, this is a time for festive joy, peaceful comfort—and, as these eight writers will tell you, the meaningful celebrations that bind families together.

Sasha Sagan London travel couple
Photo: Courtesy of Sasha Sagan

Natural Wonders

When we were young, spontaneous, and not yet admitting to ourselves that we would one day marry, my husband and I moved to London. One year, we didn't go home for the holidays, forgoing expectations, instead hopping the Eurostar to Paris for sheer fun.

We spent Christmas week in a little apartment with a claw-foot tub and spotty Wi-Fi in Montmartre. We visited museums, drank champagne, and followed only our joy. In that freedom from traditional obligations, we explored what we felt was most worthy of celebration.

My husband's ancestors have mostly been Christians, mine Jews. We grew up with Christmas and Hanukkah, respectively. We love those rituals and had no misgivings about continuing them, but we yearned for something more, something equally modern and ancient, provable, and profound in its grandeur.

My dad was an astronomer, and my parents raised me with a sense of awe and wonder about the universe as revealed by science. My husband and I are not people of faith, but we do think something kind of miraculous happens each December: the winter solstice. Because of how the Earth revolves and rotates with its slight axial tilt, after this day we know with absolute certainty that in the Northern Hemisphere the days begin getting longer.

In Paris, snuggled up in the wee hours of the long nights, we—for the first time—discussed a vision of our future family and what we'd celebrate with children someday. Thirteen years later, we're not as young or spontaneous, but that family we imagined is now real. We have a 4-year-old and one on the way. And every year on the solstice, we light lots of candles, make a feast, open gifts, and explain a little astronomy to our daughter. She asks deep questions about why we do things the way we do. On the other holidays, I sometimes struggle to explain that these are the rituals of the people who came before us. I tell her we don't believe everything they believed, but we honor them because they led to her. But when she asks why we celebrate the solstice, my answers come more easily: It's because no matter what, starting tomorrow, little by little, the light will return. Spring is coming. This has been celebrated throughout the ages the world over. It's simple, splendid, and true, no matter what else you do or don't believe.

Sasha Sagan is the author of For Small Creatures Such as We.

Laura Fenton family dough bread
Courtesy of Laura Fenton

Festive Food

My mother has made two Christmas breads for as long as I can remember: stollen, a sweet, yeasted bread with currants and candied fruit, and a cranberry-orange nut bread from Betty Crocker's Christmas Cookbook. We eat them as the kids dive into their stockings. Throughout my life, stollen with butter has been the taste of the holiday—a constant amid so much change. For me as a kid, the taste meant presents. Now it's the flavor of my own kid's unbridled joy. Soon, that bite will evoke nostalgia for the days when my son believed in Santa. What started as Mom's easy way to feed excited kids is now a sense memory that bridges our past, present, and future. I'll bake those breads when my child has kids of his own, stitching a thread of holiday memories to the next generation.

Laura Fenton is the author of The Little Book of Living Small.

Kiera Carter pregnant winter woman
Courtesy of Kiera Carter

Slices of Life

Being Italian American, my grandparents had a tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve. But we kids hated any dish from the ocean, so my grandmother made us pizza. The smell of garlic and dough filled the house, and we'd convince her to let us open presents; she was easily persuaded by her grandkids. Homemade pizza holds a special place in my now adult heart. The mere smell of it baking reminds me of the way I felt the night before Christmas—part anticipation, part comfort, part togetherness. Last year, pregnant and without my family, I learned to make the holiday staple myself, with my mom advising over the phone. And so the meal brought my family together again—even if only from a distance, and even if my grandmother is no longer with us. It offered the comfort I needed while pregnant during a pandemic, celebrating without my loved ones. I started making pizza year-round, which is how it turned out to be the last thing I ate before going into labor in February. It was the perfect way to usher my daughter into the world. I'll make it again this Christmas Eve, of course, but also on my daughter's first birthday. After all, it's her tradition now too.

Kiera Carter is a journalist and an editor.

Sarah Aronson hot potatoes
Greg Dupree

Hot Potatoes

Latkefest became our Hanukkah tradition thanks to two picky eaters. When my kids were small, they tried new foods by stacking them on top of their favorite things to eat. One Hanukkah long ago, that favorite food was a latke (a potato pancake, for the uninitiated). They devoured what we coined the Meat Lover's Delight (grilled steak on a latke), and we began brainstorming other latke toppers.

  • The Spicy Mama: a latke with hot chicken and pickles
  • The Beast: a latke with jalapeño peppers
  • The George (for George Washington—we're a family of history buffs): a slider patty on a latke
  • The Teddy (for Teddy Roosevelt): a latke smothered with grilled mushrooms and garlic spinach
  • The Sweetie Pie : a sweet potato latke and applesauce
  • The Green Machine : a zucchini latke with pea sauce
  • The Liz Taylor: a latke with caviar and crème fraîche

Now that the kids are grown, they eat everything, but Latkefest will always be our tradition, because fun foods bring people together. And for what it's worth, everything tastes better on a latke.

Sarah Aronson is the author of Just Like Rube Goldberg.

sophie brickman polaroid photo
Courtesy of Sophie Brickman

Dancing on Air

What I remember most are the itchy pink tights, the kind where the crotch inched down to your knees and the extra material bunched at your ankles, so you had to constantly hike everything up under your velvet dress and mince around in your very stiff patent leather shoes. This, to me, was my experience of going to the ballet as a child, which was made doubly worse by the fact that my mother had been an actual ballerina and adored sitting in an auditorium watching dancers twirl about. I went with her, grudgingly, to The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center each year. I spent most of the performance playing with the program and feeling guilty, wanting desperately to love what was going on onstage but actually waiting for intermission, when I knew I'd get chocolate-covered peanuts at the bar.

When my oldest, Ella, was born, I never forced ballet upon her. I figured she'd reject it, as I had, in favor of soccer or tennis or something more rough. But then, one summer day, my mother introduced her to The Nutcracker. And just like that, she was hooked. Within days, we were playing the score on repeat, transforming our sweltering apartment into a Christmas miracle. She sat, riveted, in front of a version of the ballet I found online featuring a young Macaulay Culkinas the prince, which she requested whenever screen time was allowed. One, then two Nutcracker dolls were procured, which Ella slept with every night, clutching them despite how hard and sharp and decidedly unfluffy they were.

When she turned 4, the age my mother deemed old enough to sit through a full ballet, we got three tickets for a matinee. And suddenly, I found myself, the mother, dressing my daughter up in tights and a velvet dress. Ella brought one Nutcracker doll along and sat between the two of us, her feet dangling above the red carpet, waiting expectantly for the ballet to start. As the lights dimmed and the opening bars of the music began, she whispered to her doll, "You're going to be on stage in a minute!" My mother and I both reached for each other's hand across her seat. The curtain rose, and we looked over Ella's head to find the other crying. After I'd wiped my eyes, I sat, riveted, watching the ballet unfold, and loving every minute.

Sophie Brickman is the author of Baby, Unplugged.

mom daughters Khama Ennis
Courtesy of Khama Ennis

All Together Now

My kids have always loved Christmas, a day on which they could reliably count on a captive audience of me and their father. They would wake up to gifts under the tree that weren't there when they pretended to go to bed. Breakfast faded into a whirlwind of tearing paper, the room a blur of happy chaos. Every Christmas of their lives, we had all been together.

My daughters were 6 and 9 when our divorce became final. We were heartbroken that our girls had to live in two places. But we promised them that they wouldn't have to decide between us for the holidays. Each year, we'd trade off hosting the festivities.

In 2018, my ex-husband opted to host at his parents' home, a five-hour drive away. He took the girls up, and I drove solo. I hadn't been there since our separation, and when I got close, I had to pull over to cry. I'd had a warm relationship with my in-laws, but divorce leaves deep wounds, and I didn't know how things would be. Tension built inside me; I thought about turning around. The last few miles were the hardest I'd ever driven. But the visit was lovely, and the girls had what they needed.

We've had a joint Christmas ever since. My ex-husband and I both like to sneak gifts under the tree on Christmas Eve. In the morning, the girls wake up and pretend they're not trying to figure out what's inside them. We have breakfast, open presents, and do all the things a traditional family does. Making this work has not always been easy or comfortable, but for us it has been worth it. Our kids' only complaint is that they don't get double the gifts, like some of their friends. But I consider our holiday get-togethers a definite coparenting win.

Khama Ennis, M.D., M.P.H., a Parents advisor, is the associate chief of emergency medicine at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, in Northampton, Massachusetts.

family christmas presents pajamas
There’s bliss in finding ways to celebrate that are uniquely yours. Bonnin Studios/Stocksy

Roamin' Holiday

About ten years ago, my husband invented a tradition he calls the Annual Christmas Walk. Shortly after our two kids open stockings, he says with exaggerated pomposity, "Children, it's time for the Annual Christmas Walk!" They troop to the car, he whisks them away, and they return flush-cheeked, giddy, and starved for breakfast.

For the first couple of years, I figured he was leading our former city kids on an exploration of the woods in our new town. Or perhaps he was taking them to the abandoned parcel of land across the train tracks where I, unlike their freewheeling dad, would never trespass. Though these are kids who've never done well with day-to-day transitions, I did notice that they always got their shoes on quickly. They even came up with a singsongy Gilbert and Sullivan–style chant: "The Annual Christmas Walk! The Annual Christmas Walk!" As the years went on, I idly fantasized that these jaunts were an excuse to buy me a last-minute gift, though, of course, they never returned with anything but mysterious grins. Whatever they were doing, I wasn't going to pry. I was usually so cantankerous by December 25 that this brief break was a bonus gift.

It was only a couple of years ago that the three of them finally invited me to join them on their fabled outing. We got into the car, and my husband drove us to a nearby nature preserve. We pulled into the parking lot. Then my daughter got out and switched places with him in the driver's seat. "Get ready, Mommy!" she squealed as she revved the engine and began to drive around the empty parking lot. After her turn, her brother did the same. Aha! No wonder they both loved this yearly adventure.

It's a good thing they hadn't told me, because I surely would have ruined the fun by making killjoy predictions of dented fenders. And I have to hand it to my husband: The Annual Christmas Walk will likely be one of their favorite childhood memories. It remains the best-held secret that they or their father ever kept from me. (As far as I know.) And it's one I don't begrudge them at all.

Catherine Hong is a Parents contributing editor.

Annie Sawyer family portrait
Sawyer (right) with her brother and mother in 1972. Courtesy of Annie Sawyer

What a Glorious Feeling

In the final 21 days of my mother's life, before she succumbed to lung cancer on New Year's Eve, we spent nearly every minute together. I'd moved away to New York City after high school, and though we talked on the phone weekly, aside from holiday visits, we hadn't spent much time together in the intervening 15 years. So much had never been said by this woman who preferred reading to conversation. My mother gave me a fierce love of books and a rabid fear of littering, and fostered independence by teaching me select impractical skills: how to embroider, carve a jack-o'- lantern, and catch shrimp at dusk. Now we were sharing a small apartment on Key Largo, Florida, avoiding serious topics and left with little to discuss besides the weather, her next chemotherapy appointment, and the heron that fished at the dock. I was terrified of losing her and helpless to stop it. Both of us were unable to articulate our fears or our love.

When she found out I had never seen Singin' in the Rain, Mom insisted on a trip to the local video rental store. We spent Christmas Eve snuggled in blankets on the couch, eating ice cream and laughing ourselves into tears at Donald O'Connor's ridiculous directive to "Make 'Em Laugh," Debbie Reynolds's exuberant joy at greeting the dawn in "Good Morning," and, of course, the ineffable and gorgeous Gene Kelly tapping his way into our hearts in the title number, "Singin' in the Rain." For those few hours we didn't need words.

Six years later, I became a mom myself. Motherhood is a bittersweet experience without your own mother to fuss and coo over your baby and tell you stories of your own infancy; to reassure you that you will get it right. I grew up, in a way, with my daughter, learning a new appreciation for my mother and the challenges and delights of raising a child. After the endless repetition of Disney princess movies and Studio Ghibli anime, I was excited to sit down with my daughter on Christmas Eve, cuddle in blankets, and laugh until we cried (or maybe I was the only one with tears in my eyes) as we watched Singin' in the Rain together. It's an annual tradition now, when she comes home from college for the holidays. But I am reminded whenever I watch the film that we never really leave our children if we give them memories to carry them through.

Annie Sawyer is a writer, playwright, and stand-up comic.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's December 2021 issue as "The Traditions We Treasure." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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