When my oldest daughter was three, she pointed to a mini-Christmas tree decoration at our local supermarket with excitement. “Can we get a tree?” she asked. “No, sweetie,” I explained, “we’re Jewish.” After further pleading failed to sway me, she wailed, somewhere around the cereal aisle, “I HAAAATE being Jewish!”
I was mortified. I was upset. But most of all, at that moment, I wanted nothing more than for her to stop screaming those words in the supermarket. So I grabbed a miniature tree and told her we were getting a Hanukkah Bush. On the drive home, I called my husband to warn him about what I was bringing home. I obviously had not thought through how to handle this incident and, as a result, committed one of my many rookie mistakes of parenting: I simply reacted in the moment.
What I realized that day, years before my daughter would ask me to re-tell the story of the supermarket scene, is that I needed to think through this holiday thing more intentionally. What did we want to teach our children about our heritage and our beliefs, beyond a Hanukkah bush?
Regardless of each family’s beliefs, holidays provide a unique opportunity to teach our children about our individual and shared family values and traditions. (Sometimes I forget this in my self-inflicted panic over the eight nights of Hanukkah.) By teaching children about holidays and brainstorming ideas for a plan together, the celebration evolves from accidental to intentional. It is not about making a logistical plan for who buys which presents for whom (although that can be useful, too). A family holiday plan is about intentionally making meaningful memories. It can be creative. It can be altruistic. It can be playful. It might include, among the endless possibilities:
• Creating a family holiday scrapbook or journal about the holidays with photos and stories that you add to every year.
• Having children record family members’ stories of the holidays using a simple phone.
• Baking together and giving the treats to teachers or others.
• Giving out certificates for experiences as presents, e.g., going on a picnic, having a pillow fight, helping to make breakfast in bed for a family member.
• Collecting unused household items to donate and delivering them together.
• Writing special cards or creating artwork as gifts.
• Putting holiday questions in a bowl in the center of the table for a holiday dinner, e.g., What are you thankful for this year? (to be passed around and discussed).
• Going caroling or visiting others who are in need of some holiday merriment.
• Having a family night to decorate for the holiday .
• Simply reading together by the fire with no electronics on hand.
Whether it is through meaningful themes and clues for a Hanukkah hunt, a holiday story for Christmas, a family trip to visit others in need…there is no magic to the specifics of a family holiday plan. But you will find that making the plan is itself magical. If children take part in creating the holiday plan, the focus will shift from presents to meaningful memories, with the kids enthusiastically leading the way.
Why not start the tradition of making holiday cookies together? Here are some recipes that will become family favorites – in the slideshow above.
By Katherine Eskovitz
Katherine Eskovitz is an attorney and writer, as well as founder of little BLUEPRINT, a series of personalized photo books to address new experiences and transitions for children. A native New Yorker, Katherine lives in Santa Monica, California with her husband and three young children.