How to Establish Family Holiday Traditions

When you're a newlywed, or a young family, just starting out on your life's journey together, the thought of establishing your own family holiday traditions can bring up feelings of both trepidation and excitement. Which holiday traditions will each of you bring from your own family background? Which will you create fresh that will become a hallmark of your family's memories for generations to come? How do you graciously excuse yourself from traditions where your presence is expected? Where do you begin? What is a family tradition?

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm defining a family traditions as...

an action or behavior which is entered into with goodwill and done
collectively as a family with enough repetition as to create stronger family unity.


Dreaming up ideas and beginning your own family holiday traditions is an exciting process that requires open and honest communication between you and your spouse. It may start as one conversation, but is really an ongoing discussion, revisited and reevaluated through the years. But you have to start somewhere, so begin by discussing what's important to each of you. You'll likely learn much about your spouse and his/her family in the process. If, for example, you were trying to decide what your family traditions centered around celebrating Thanksgiving or Christmas might be, following are some important aspects to consider:

- Timing. Will your main celebration be on the actual holiday, or another day? Will you celebrate on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? I once knew a couple whose grown children were all married with families of their own, and they wanted to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving with their WHOLE family. However, they didn't want to cause friction between themselves and all the in-law families, so their family Thanksgiving was always the Saturday before the national holiday.

- Aspects. What aspects of a holiday celebration are the most important to you and your spouse? Is food paramount, or are you content with ordering the meal? Do you want to allocate most of your budget to presents, or will your gifts be small and sentimental? How much time and energy do both of you have, and how do you want to spend it?

- People. Who do you want to spend your holidays with? Will it be both of your families together? Family and friends? Immediate family only? Just the two of you?

- Faith/Sharing/Outreach. How will you practice or demonstrate your faith in your family traditions? Will sharing with others, or some form of outreach be a tradition in your family?

- Tone. What tone do you want your holidays to have? Are you a go-for-the-gusto, Clark Griswold type? Do you crave peace and minimalism? Maybe you want a "the more the merrier" tone and have a full house on holidays?

- Family Expectations. Its a guarantee that both of your families will have some expectation of your presence around the holidays. How will you spend time with them? How will you show them love while having your own traditions?

In all this discussion, be willing to compromise. When we had our first child, I was shocked to discover my husband had the expectation that she would receive ONE present for Christmas, because that's what he remembered from his childhood. I, on the other hand, had about ten presents under the tree each year, tagged as gifts for me from: Dad, Mom, grandparents, the dog, the cat, the turtle, etc. We've settled on a compromise of about four presents per child for our own family. Expect some give and take to be part of your discussion.


Maybe you've come from a family that didn't really celebrate much, or did not create traditions in the way that just makes your heart glow with yearning. Maybe you need some inspiration for ideas. Some of my favorite inspiration sources are:

- Family and friends. Ask them about their most meaningful traditions. Which family traditions do they celebrate that you have always admired? How can you borrow some of their ideas and make them your own? Growing up, we had family friends whose children always received new pajamas on Christmas Eve. I can't remember a time I didn't adore that thought, so we adopted it for our family and added a new book with the pajama gift, because tucking in on Christmas Eve with a new book AND new pajamas is so cozy!

- Blogs. Go back to the December postings of your favorite blogs to see what family traditions other have created.

- Pinterest.

- Instagram.

- Movies. What holiday movie scenes do you wish you could step right into? Why? Analyze what you love about that scene and create a new family holiday tradition from it.

- History and culture. Maybe it's something from Christmases past that you'd like to pull into your world. Roast chestnuts. Play charades. Go caroling to your neighbor's homes. Or maybe something from your family's cultural heritage can be incorporated into your holiday.


Remember our definition of a family tradition includes "done with enough repetition...", so there is an expectation of continuity. Consider how rigid or flexible your family traditions will be. Once your start a tradition, if the family wants it to continue FOREVER, you might want to start simple, or on a smaller scale. If your holiday traditions will be grand and/or elaborate, you may need willing helping hands and an investment in materials, e.g.: cloth tablecloths and napkins, a turkey roasting pan, etc.).

Have Fun

Finally, enjoy the traditions you establish, or change them until you do. And don't forget that some of the best traditions are ones that spring up spontaneously! Time, energy, and love lavished on your family is never wasted. Enjoying one another at the holidays is the best gift!

Sunday Drives and an Autumn Tailgate Lunch

"Let's go for a Sunday drive," were words often said by my dad when I was growing up, but are seldom said in our own family. But a couple times a year, we opt out of our usual, restful Sunday afternoons in favor of a drive, and we never regret it. It's especially welcome when we've all been super busy, working long hours, and we've passed each other by all week without any meaningful togetherness. (This happens when you're all adults in the household.) It's an opportunity to reconnect as the road stretches before us and conversation, the scenery, some good food, and time together become the priorities for the afternoon. At the end of September, we packed provisions to tailgate and headed north to drive the scenic Kancamagus Highway in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

We drove for many miles along this famous highway (pronounced like: kank-uh-maw-gus), stopping at several scenic overlooks to take in the views. The surrounding mountains were just beginning to sport their autumn foliage -- this was late September and peak foliage was probably two weeks in the future. We breathed in the fresh air and squinted into the blinding sunlight to point out distant peaks. We studied maps, noted interesting berries, admired the way the light illumined the drying grasses, and chatted with a man who was launching a drone. We read historic markers, watched the autumn leaves fall, crossed a covered bridge, and teetered our way, rock by rock, through a stream.

All the fresh air and exercise gave us quite an appetite, and we were glad we'd planned to tailgate. We parked at the entrance to a fire road and set out our lunch -- just the three of us, surrounded by falling leaves, and tasty food.

Provisions for an Autumn Tailgate Party

assorted cheeses
assorted crackers
Italian breadsticks
ciabatta loaf and good butter
Effervé Pear Sparkling Lemonade
homemade apple crisp and Easy Apple Cider Caramel Sauce (recipe here)

Keeping with the same, no fuss, keep-it-simple plan I have for picnics, everything was store bought. I made a small amount of effort the day before in making the dessert. But really, I like to keep it simple on me, because if it becomes too much work to prepare, we won't tend to prioritize times like this, and they're just too valuable for family togetherness to skip. Plain and simple.

I'd love to hear what your favorite tailgating foods are? Do you tailgate just for sporting events, or just because? Do you have any great tailgaiting memories? Join the conversation by telling your story in the comments below! I'd love to hear!

A Halloween Reminisce

Since Halloween is this week, I thought I'd dig through some boxes of old photographs and reminisce a bit about the Halloweens our family has celebrated. We've never embraced the scary/creepy side of Halloween, but we are all about the fun! For most of our kids' growing up years, we lived in a fabulous neighborhood for trick-or-treating...a real family affair of parents, kids, and pets going door to door, lots of ooh-ing and ahh-ing over costumes, and always the whispered, "Don't forget to say thank you!" in the dark. 

Bethany, our oldest daughter, using the same candy pail that I used growing up.
With Julia on her first Halloween - 1993.
Some years I got creative with the costumes and made them (like the pumpkins above), some years we purchased them, and some years we hodge-podged a costume together from whatever we could find in the dress-up box. What was I thinking with that Humpty Dumpty costume? Yikes! That's a blackmail worthy sort of photo! He looks a bit dazed, but the girls look happy!

And then there were three...Raggedy Ann, Humpty Dumpty, and Snow White. - Halloween 1997.
Our traditional Halloween night dinner was hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, because it was quick and there was almost no clean-up and everyone was just eager to get out the door. Inevitably, a small trick-or-treater or two would ring the bell while we were eating, and this would start the angst about missing all the fun. Then it would be into costumes and their turn to trick-or-treat.

Rapunzel, a dog, and a cat. - Halloween 1999? or 2000?
We would take the kids house to house on our block and on just two other neighboring streets. One of those streets, a cul-de-sac, would have a circle of homeowners in the middle of the street with their portable fire pit and bags of candy and would pass out candy to the kids there, while having their own little party with glasses of wine.

Princess Leia, a "fierce" knight, and Laura Ingalls. - Halloween 2002.

I hope all of you have a fabulous Halloween with your families...full of cutely costumed kids, fun, and lots of candy!

Tips for Planning A Harvest Party

We recently hosted a harvest party that I'd been dreaming about for years! The autumn gathering, beneath our oaks and maples on a splendid fall day in New England, brought together our family and some young families that are dear to us. We began with activities for the kids, moved on to a candlelit dinner of chili cooked over a roaring fire, and ended with a dessert buffet while an almost full moon rose over the treetops. 

So many people have written to ask for my harvest party planning tips, that I thought I'd tell you how our fall party came together, so it will make things easier for anyone who wants to host a harvest party for their family and friends.

Start by dreaming up what your ideal harvest party will be. No rules. No limits. Just dream. Ours began as a dream of mine and it just sort of percolated in my head for several years. When you have so many ideas in your head that you feel you just can't keep track of them anymore, go to Pinterest and start a Harvest Party board (click here to see mine), and pin images that encapsulate all your harvest party plans. rules, no limits. Mine contains images for: food, what I might wear, music, games...but mostly the images revolve around the feel or the vibe I wanted it to have.

Now it's time to move those dreams into reality. My Pinterest Harvest Party board contains (at last count) 322 pins, but I could certainly not incorporate all of those ideas into a single party. To help edit all your pins/dreams into a reasonable/real party, it is incredibly helpful to create a party mood board. It's not just incredibly helpful, it's a game changer. It's a lovely, visual representation (and a goal reminder) of what you want to create. I created mine by copying and pasting images from my Pinterest board onto four, 8 1/2" x 11" Publisher documents which I labeled: Snacks, Menu, Kids' Activities, and Ambiance. The mood board contains all the ideas you are actually going to use for your harvest party.

Your mood board is an excellent place to pencil in notes to yourself as you make your plans more concrete. I used it to break down the pictures into lists of everything planned and lists of everything we would need. Here are how I elaborated on my mood boards to create our harvest party:


pretzels, popcorn, dried apricots, apples, mixed nuts, cider
sliced chicken sausage for roasting with assorted mustards
(Here I made notations that I would need cups for cider,
a crock for nuts, a nutcracker, etc.)


Chili (Jenny Steffens Hobick's is the best! Click here for recipe.
Note: 1 1/2 batches served 15 adults.)
Chili Fixings - tortilla chips, Frittos, sour cream, green onions, shredded cheese, cilantro
Mac-n-Cheese (for the kids)
Harvest Salad
Wine and Hard Cider
Plum Almond Crumble
Apple Pie Bars (click here for recipe)
Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bread


bobbing for apples
(need: a large, galvanized tub, apples with stems to make it easier for small children)
pumpkin carving
(need: pumpkins, tables, spoons, knives)
donut "catching"*
(need: donuts, string, slender piece of wood)
ring toss onto pumpkins
(need pie pumpkins with tall, straight stems, rings)

* Buy lots of donuts, because adults will want to play too!


Here I listed everything we'd need for practicality and atmosphere.
pumpkins, cornstalks, tables/chairs, wool blankets, skewers, trash cans, firewood, napkins, string of lights, hay bales, flower/leaves, mini pumpkins for little ones to take home, flatware, lanterns, etc.

Issue your invitations and you've got the ball rolling! We kept invites simple with just a Facebook message group invite.
Yes, it's a fair amount of work to host a harvest party. But it creates such happy memories for everyone, that it's completely worth all the effort. I would say that it took me about four days of concerted effort to pull everything together -- shop, make food, etc. And it took three of us about four hours to set up the day of the party. Enlisting help of willing family and friends would be a great idea! In addition to the smiles on everyone's faces, the laughter of the kids, and the general air of relaxed happiness that hung over the party, I will long remember it as one of the funnest parties we've had in ages!

Happy Harvest Party planning!

Abundant Autumn Living

Autumn in New England can be a whirlwind of places to go and things to do before the last, gloriously colored leaf falls to the earth. Taking the time to savor all the simple autumn joys and make those lasting fall memories is a passion near and dear to my heart. Even though hosting a large, autumn gathering...a harvest on our family's fall bucket list, we don't want to forget to embrace the simple things. We want to arrive at the end of fall feeling that we enjoyed an abundant autumn because in and amongst the big dates on the calendar were entwined all its simple joys. 

Here is a short list of simple fall joys. Which ones will you be embracing this autumn?

- gather acorns

- all the fall baking (Here are links to three of our favorites: Ina Garten's Pecan Shortbread Cookies, Half Baked Harvest's Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Pancakes with Whipped Maple Butter, and Iowa Girl Eats' Caramelized Sweet Potato and Kale Fried Wild Rice.

- eat cider donuts

- visit a pumpkin patch

- take the scenic routes

- gather leaves

- drink hot cider, hot tea, and hot chocolate

- go apple picking

-warm by a bonfire

-carve jack-o-lanterns with family and friends

Which other simple joys are on your list? Pull up a chair and join the conversation by leaving a comment! I love to be inspired by your thoughts!

Travel Destinations: the New or the Familiar?

Nantucket has been a vacation destination for our family for 21 years. Once, for our tenth anniversary, we lingered for a week in a bed-and-breakfast inn. We've gone to Nantucket for day trips, for overnights, and for longer stays. Julia and I just returned from three days there. From rounding the iconic Brant Point lighthouse to discovering new bakeries or new-to-us beaches, Nantucket never disappoints! There's something comforting...or rather wonderfully comfortable...about returning to one vacation destination over and over again. And I'm wondering how you feel about that? Do you prefer to always explore new travel destinations, or is your heart smitten with a traditional family vacation spot?

My immediate answer would be that I like exploring the new, seeing places I've always wanted to see, and making the unknown known and familiar to me. But Nantucket has me rethinking that. There is an endearing quality to renewing your acquaintance with a distant "friend", getting to know them better, and to part with a deepened love.

But even the familiar family vacation spot is enhanced and enlivened by new discoveries. So while I enjoyed my traditional dawn walks on the island, exploring its quiet streets and slumbering houses with my camera for a couple of hours before everything awakens, I also craved the thrill of new discoveries.

Bicycling to Steps Beach, a hidden gem accessed at the end of a quiet, residential street via a footpath and a staircase, was one such discovery on this trip to Nantucket. When we reached the beach, we almost felt like trespassers who had tread upon land too marvelous to be imagined...the roaring waves on one side, the windswept sand dune with waving beach grass within touch of our fingertips to the other, a generous sprinkling of seashells at our feet, and an ever changing cloudscape overhead. All those trips to the island and we never knew about this glorious site! I fell in love with Nantucket all over again!

How about you? I'd love to hear how you prefer to vacation! Please leave a comment to join the conversation. Do you seek the new or embrace the favorite?
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