It was my first Christmas as a mom, and even though my daughter was only 4 months old, I was feeling the pressure. I wanted to make this holiday season special, as special as she was, as fantastic as this being-a-new-mom thing made me feel.
And it wasn't just this Christmas, I thought frantically (postpartum, I was frantic about pretty much everything). What about the next December, when Zoe would be 1? Or the preschool years, when she'd leave cookies for Santa and carrots for his reindeer? And what about when she became a mom—what would I have to pass down to her?
I didn't have a lot of ideas or a lot of money. I didn't even have a lot of my own family traditions to draw on. But I wanted to do something special that would carry us through the years, something tangible that would be meaningful to our family.
My eureka moment happened in a discount store. I found little silver-painted wooden picture frames, each hung from a ribbon. Inspiration hit: I had a bare tree, but a very cute baby. Why not hang her picture on the tree—but also buy enough frames so I could hang a new photo every year? Thinking that I'd have at least one more child, I bought 50 identical frames, and for $100, I had a tradition in the making.
Six years later, my two daughters cover our tree: Zoe is featured in seven frames, each bearing her name and the date, and Abby's face ap-pears in five. (Even better, I have enough frames to last us through college.) When we unpack the ornaments each year, the girls love to hold each one up and say, "Tell me about this Christmas!"
There's something so reassuring about a tradition that you can hold in your hands. When there's a physical object—an ornament, a cookie cutter—to take out year after year, it gives you a sense that the occasion is truly being marked and that it won't be forgotten. Ways to create those mementos for your family:
One year, Sian Zelbo, a mom of three in New York City, took a bunch of candids of her kids at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. The photos were so sweet that she snapped shots at every traditional New York holiday pastime that year and put the best ones in a scrapbook. She makes a new, similar book every year, and the images of all their fun outings—not to mention the kids' wide-eyed excitement—inspire the family to make each year as special as the last.
Have your favorite photos of the kids with Santa transferred onto plates (easy to do at an online photo site), then use them to leave Santa's snack on Christmas Eve.
If lighting the menorah together is an important ritual, snap a family picture every year on the eighth night of Hanukkah, candles aglow, then transfer each photo to a mug, better to be used for holiday hot chocolate.
Lisa Tucker McElroy is the author of several children's books, including, most recently, a biography of Chief Justice John Roberts.
Alison Julien, a mom of two in Greendale, Wisconsin, carries on a family tradition that her mom started when Julien was growing up. Each season, she searches for ornaments that reflect her kids' interests that year. For 4-year-old Olivia, who loved zoo camp, she might choose a zebra ornament. Charlie, who at 2 loves to ride his battery-operated Jeep, might receive a minicar. Plus, whenever the family takes a trip, they choose a souvenir ornament to add to the mix. When the Juliens decorate their tree together, they talk about all the fun things they've done and all of their interests and hobbies.
Meredith Jacobs of Rockville, Maryland, founder of Modern Jewish Mom, helped her kids make a menorah out of flowerpots. When Sofie, 9, and Jules, 7, "plant" their candles in the menorah each year, they remember how much fun they had making it—and they get to hold on to their own special piece of the holiday. The family also collects dreidels. "Taking all of the dreidels out really gets the kids into the spirit of the season," says Jacobs. "They inspire us to enjoy the religious and family aspects of Hanukkah."
Have a pile of construction-paper-and-paste snowflakes and snowmen? Take favorites to a copy store and have them laminated into place mats, great for holiday breakfasts or cookie making. If you send out cards, save one each year: Have everyone in the family sign it (your kids will love to see how their handwriting changes over the years) and display them tied together into a garland or taped to the door frame.
Every family has its treasured recipes, but Cathy Fischer of Brighton, Michigan, has something extra to go with hers. When Fischer was young, her great-great-aunt Ida was the family baker, making hundreds of icebox cookies each Christmas. Fischer's sister managed to actually write down the famous recipe (after watching Aunt Ida use teacups and spoons instead of regular measuring cups). Then, after Aunt Ida died at the age of 95, Fischer inherited the cookie cutters she'd used. Every year she and her daughters take them out and make Aunt Ida cookies with the decades-old, rich-with-tradition Santa, reindeer, bell, and more.
Don't have a Great-Aunt Ida in your family to inspire your holiday baking? Try hosting a holiday cookie swap: Ask each guest to bring a cookie cutter, a batch of homemade cookies, and a stack of cards with her recipe on them. After feasting on cookies, everyone goes home with a recipe, some holiday treats, and a new cutter.
If you already have a special unity cup for your Kwanza feast, make sure your child has a hand in getting it ready, something he can do each year. He can draw a special red, black, and green mat for it to sit on, or help you fill it with grape juice.
Trees that last
From the time my husband was a little boy, he's empathized with Charlie Brown, who always picked out the tiny, lopsided tree that no one else would buy. At Steve's insistence, our family never selects the perfectly symmetrical, six-foot pine to grace the corner of our family room. Instead, we buy a live tree in a planter just after Thanksgiving, decorate it on Christmas Eve, then help the children care for it until spring, when we plant it in a corner of our backyard. Perhaps I'm being optimistic, but I hope that this concrete evidence of our family's years together will make the girls even more excited to bring their own families home for the holidays in the years to come.
If you prefer a cut tree, you can still save a natural souvenir, says Beth Walterscheidt, a mom of two in Elgin, Texas, and president of the National Christmas Tree Association. Before you put your tree in the tree stand, cut off a slice of the trunk. Your tree will stay greener longer, and you'll be left with a "cookie," or the wooden disk you removed. Each year, your kids can decorate the cookie in indelible marker (be sure to add their names and the date). You can use them as decorations year to year, or as game pieces (take turns tossing them into big bowls or empty gift boxes).
For a memento that takes up even less room, cut a small branch and make a crayon bark rubbing with your kids. (Place a piece of paper over the branch, then rub a crayon over it.) If you keep the rubbing—dated, of course—with the ornaments, and use the same sheet of paper over the years, you'll wind up with a colorful reminder of all your family's trees.
Whatever your keepsake tradition, it can be a wonderful way to spark family stories and start a season full of cheer.