Custom Made Christmas

Has your family changed? Try making new traditions that include everyone.

By Alina Larson

The holidays are full of traditions—about what we do, eat, say, pray, smell, wear, sing—handed down from years, even centuries ago. Some families go to church, others go caroling; some open gifts Christmas Eve, others Christmas Day; some use fresh cranberries, others use canned.

As children, we adopted our parents' customs. But our adult lives sometimes require new rituals. You might need to adapt for a spouse who comes from a different faith or ethnic background, a new child, divorce or remarriage. Try these ideas for making new traditions rich in both meaning and joy.

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Thankfulness Tree
What you'll need: branches, construction paper, scissors, ribbon, markers, vase
This idea is from New Family Traditions by Meg Cox. It's a wonderful way to include children or special guests. Trace leaves on colorful construction paper and cut them out (one for each family member and a handful more for visitors). Let each person write what he or she is thankful for on the leaves. Punch a hole in each leaf, and use ribbon to tie it to a branch. Arrange the branches in a vase and voila, you've got a hand-made centerpiece!

Merry Mazel Tov
What you'll need: bagel, clear varnish, paintbrush, Christmas ribbon, glue, silk or dried holly, sense of whimsy
If you marry someone of a different faith, what then? We asked Ron Gompertz, author of Chrismukkah. Gompertz, raised Jewish by a half-Jewish, half-Christian mother who decorated a Hanukkah bush with red stockings, married a Christian woman. He suggests you "deck the halls with lots of tchotchkes" like bagel menorahments or a matzoh bread house (a bit trickier than gingerbread), while you spin the dreidel under the mistletoe, eating fa la latkes and kosher fruitcake. You get the idea.

To make a bagel menorahment, varnish the bagel. Let dry. Glue on holly. Thread ribbon through the hole and tie. Hang menorahments on the tree.

Well-Blended
What you'll need: sensitivity, flexibility, sense of humor
In a blended family, decide which traditions are important to you, and be willing to compromise, says mediator Jann Blackstone-Ford, M.A. She worked with a stepfamily where each set of kids decorated half the tree. By their third Christmas together, their ornaments—and their lives—overlapped. Continue old traditions and make new ones. Acknowledge each others' pasts, and avoid undermining your exes. "It's all a work-in-progress," says Blackstone-Ford, who coauthored a series of ex-etiquette books with her husband's former wife.

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Find out what your kids want. If celebrating as they used to brings them down, come up with fresh rituals together—a new holiday CD, maybe, or different decorations or dishes. Volunteering as a family is sure to move the focus from your challenges to the joy of giving.

Past and Present
What you'll need: cultural knowledge, memorabilia, family stories
Look to your ancestry for inspiration. No matter what your background you'll find interesting ways to celebrate. If the holidays have changed due to the passing of relatives, honor them by bringing out memorabilia from their lives to share stories over. Or commemorate their interests. If Grandma always baked pinwheel cookies, make her recipe together. If Dad was a golfer, play a round of indoor putt-putt.

Though there are common themes of the season, each celebration is unique. Be flexible and have fun. If one idea doesn't catch on, try something else to create connection. That might mean playing Monopoly in pajamas, stringing gilded nuts, or penning a new prayer—if it brings your family together, that makes it a memory to cherish.

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