Photograph by Marko Geber / Getty Images
Photograph by Marko Geber / Getty Images

Kids need holiday traditions—no matter how untraditional this year is

Plus, creative ideas to help families celebrate safely this year

There really is no place like home for the holidays this year. With coronavirus cases in the United States skyrocketing in recent weeks, infectious disease experts tell us the safest way to celebrate is at home—and only with the people who live with us.

That doesn’t mean the pandemic has to be the Grinch that steals your family’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or other midwinter holiday, though. In fact, experts say that maintaining or modifying traditions is particularly important for kids this year.

“Most people are starting to doubt that life is ever going to feel normal again,” says Dawn Huebner, parent coach and author of Outsmarting Worry: An Older Kid’s Guide to Managing Anxiety. “Traditions provide comfort, security, and a feeling of continuity to children. Keeping what you can and then adapting to our COVID reality helps children feel like life isn’t totally unrecognizable.”

Why we have traditions

Finding comfort in traditions isn’t new. Ritual celebrations have been around since humans first walked the Earth, which, according to William Moore, director of Boston University’s American and New England Studies Program, tend to take place when transitions are happening in our life cycle (think coming-of-age rituals like quinceañeras or bar mitzvahs) or in the world around us.

The classic example in the calendar cycle is the midwinter ritual. Says Moore, “It gets darker and looks like the world is coming to an end, so you have to have a ritual to assure you that the sun is going to come out again and spring is going to happen again.”

And it’s no coincidence, he adds, that holidays are placed on these seasonal transitions. “We’re always looking for certainty, and holidays give us that,” Moore explains. “Holiday rituals help assure us that the future is going to be the same as the past.”

For families, holiday traditions also acquire a meaningfulness that makes people then want to repeat them, says Rhys Williams, director of the McNamara Center for the Social Study of Religion at Loyola University Chicago.

“When things are done intentionally and over time—particularly if they have this quality of ‘we do it this way’—there’s a sense that we are being connected,” Williams says. “The part of the tradition that’s ritually meaningful is the element that, if you removed it, wouldn’t feel right.”

Maybe the holiday movie marathon wouldn’t be the same without Nona’s peppermint bark sprinkled on the popcorn. Or perhaps Thanksgiving would be just another Thursday without the annual cousins’ skit.

On a practical level, figuring out what makes a holiday tradition so important to your family helps you adapt, Williams says. If you’re unsure what traditions need to be preserved in some form this year, ask your kids which are most important to them and what makes those traditions meaningful.

How holiday traditions benefit kids

Whether silly (Ugly Sweater Contest) or serious (Christmas Eve Midnight Mass), family holiday traditions can make a positive difference in a child’s life.

“Rituals and traditions help children build their own sense of identity and give them a secure base from which to learn and grow,” says Robyn Brookshire, director of the Early Learning Center for Research and Practice at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; the center represents families from a diverse mix of racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Brookshire explains that maintaining traditions is especially important for families of color and immigrant families, since those children are likely to experience stereotypes about their family’s cultural or racial identities.

“Kids can feel marginalized when their teacher is celebrating Christmas, for instance, and that’s not what their family celebrates at home,” she says. “Children of immigrants and of color need to know that they come from strength and a place of rich tradition because the world is going to tell them otherwise.”

For all parents and kids, holiday traditions also help build family unity, often across generations and geographic lines. This year, says parent coach Huebner, building that unity will be hyper-local—within the immediate family—which isn’t a bad thing.

She explains, “When kids can access memories of having fun with their own family, that can help sustain them through rockier times in life, whether that’s adolescence or a societal crisis like right now.”

Eight ways to retool holiday traditions

No matter how your family celebrates the season, you’ll likely have to adapt some traditions or adopt new ones this year. Let kids know, Huebner says, that the holiday isn’t cancelled—you’re just changing some of the ways you celebrate due to the pandemic.

“Don’t anticipate the kids are going to be devastated by this,” Huebner adds. “Often kids are going to get swept up into the excitement of holidays regardless of what they are doing.”

When you do need to adapt something, Heubner suggests trying to link the modified activity to a more familiar holiday tradition. For example:

If you traditionally send a paper holiday card, create a digital one. Avoid trips to the post office by sending paperless greetings through an e-card service. Design the card with your kids using uniquely 2020 snapshots, such as the kids video chatting with grandma, masking up to walk the dog, and “going” to school in the dining-room-turned-classroom.

If you typically travel for vacation or to visit relatives, take winter wonder walks. Since not shopping in stores leaves more family time, use the bonus hours to “travel” together by walking in your neighborhood or a nearby park. Take turns discovering something new each time, like spotting gnarly branches, woodpecker holes, wildlife, and other wonders kids can’t see when trees are green. Make extended family part of your travels by sharing cool discoveries through video chat.

If the kids always get together with the cousins, hold a virtual holiday movie party. Cue up a holiday classic like Home Alone and invite the cousins “over” to watch streaming movies through a co-watching app. Unlike in theaters, kids can freely talk, and some services let you upload photos using built-in chat functions.

If a cookie swap or gingerbread house contest is a holiday habit, have a to-go cookie party. Sweeten social distancing by hosting a virtual cookie party. Pack gift bags with the basics: sprinkles, icing, cookie cutters, an easy sugar cookie recipe. Enclose an invitation to make and “share” cookie pics (via text or social media) by a certain date. Use contactless delivery, such as hanging bags on front doorknobs, to invite guests. (Get kid-friendly instructions for making cookies in a jar.)

If gift-giving is a tradition, say “thank you” with video voicemail. Kids can create short video messages for gift givers with different apps, or parents can film them opening gifts to send later. That way Aunt Wanda doesn’t have to wake up at 3 a.m. to watch your kid open the Lego set she sent.

If you usually gather with extended family, make “the dish.” Few things spark fond holiday memories like food. And not attending the annual potluck could mean your crew will miss that traditional favorite like sweet noodle kugel or fried plantains that someone else always brings. Prepare the recipe with your kids to feel more connected to extended family.

If your kid usually goes to a holiday party, host a BYOB (bring your own blanket) holiday hangout. As Norwegians say, “Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlig klær!, or “There is no bad weather, just bad clothes!” If health regulations permit, invite your child’s best buds over for a backyard or local park visit. Ask everyone to bundle up and bring blankets to sit on (six feet apart and safely away from any outdoor heat source). Distribute individual snack bags and hot cocoa served in gift mugs the kids can keep. Incorporate familiar holiday traditions, like playing seasonal music, singing carols, and stringing popcorn. (Use dental floss instead of thread to make the kernels slide easily.)